It should come as no surprise that most couples who present for therapy blame their symptoms on irreconcilable differences regarding sex, money, or in-laws—I affectionately refer to these as the “Big Three.” Poor communication is also a common complaint but as I have previously written: “Most partners communicate quite clearly, they simply do not like what they are hearing.” It is somewhat disturbing to note that many of these couples use “poor communication” as a generic substitute for facing the more threatening prospect of differences in values, morals, and lifestyle. Nevertheless, because each of the issues presented are complex enough to merit a post of their own, this piece will focus exclusively on the problem of unruly in-laws.
Please note that I will only address this issue from the context of chronic intrusiveness by in-laws that greatly disturbs or threatens the relationships of their grown children. We all know that some parental intervention is appropriate and should be welcomed. It is the interventions that are either not required and clearly destructive that I wish to address. The six reasons offered to explain in-law interference are not meant to be exhaustive; the objective herein is to provoke the reader to consider the topic:
Some parents have a great deal of trouble separating from their children. As a result, they may refuse to let go and allow their children to achieve autonomy. The tighter the bond between parents and children the tougher it may be to let go.
But parents are not always solely to blame. Children will also need to evaluate their ability to separate and consider whether they are enabling the thwarting of their own development. Only children may have a tougher time separating because they have come to rely on their parents rather than share their developmental experience with siblings. Many have been triangulated in their parent’s marriages or served as mediators—positions they may be unconsciously reluctant to give up. The oldest children are more prone to having been parentified and the youngest may have been infantilized—either extreme may make separation difficult.
My experience is that a healthy separation will not take place until the damage is realized on both sides and a cost-benefit evaluation is conducted. I understand the concept of separation could ultimately be responsible for all if not most in-law interference, but I have found that this piece would resonate with a larger readership if each concept was delineated and given its own voice.
2. Entitlement — Some parents have trouble letting go because they feel that they were deprived in their respective families of origin. Perhaps their own parents did not provide enough nurturing or general acceptance resulting in a void. They may then look to their children and their children’s newfound partners to fill this void.
One way to accomplish this is to blur the boundaries between their lives and the lives of their married children. This may also work in reverse: Children may co-conspire to allow in-law interference in the service of the fantasy that one day they will recoup what they lost. Recognizing the “velvet handcuffs” of this dynamic is merited and the continued nurturing of a greater sense of self is the potential solution. Separating fantasy from reality will help to give up on the impossible.
3. Competition — A more psychoanalytically-minded explanation for destructive in-law interference may have to do with good old fashioned competition. As terrible as it may seem, some parents may have trouble with their children living a better life than they do. Usually, this struggle is unconscious—rarely will a parent admit this to themselves or others. But this may be a factor if a competition existed between parents and children during the children’s formative years.
This is a tough one to deal with because of the denial involved on both ends. But if it rings true, a discussion needs to be held between all parties and may in fact merit professional help. Competing needs have long led to fruitless and destructive control struggles. An overlapping concept is jealousy.
4. Illness — Physical or mental illness may cause in-laws to burden their children’s new family. Sometimes the burden is appropriate and sometimes it is not. I always recommend that children separate out what in-laws can do for themselves versus what they really need help with. I have seen far too many grown children overwork to needlessly rescue their parents. Balance and reality-testing are important in these situations. The most competent children are liable to be chosen to carry this responsibility—a simultaneous burden and honor.
5. In-Law Marital Dysfunction — If in-laws have a dysfunctional marriage, they may direct their focus to their children’s marriages. The dysfunction may manifest in a loneliness that in-laws attempt to remedy, or an ongoing battle that they seek refuge from in the presence of their children. It is as if the grown children become the glue that barely holds the parent’s marriage together. Like the other concepts this can work in reverse: I have seen many couples who use their parents or extensive friendships to make up for deficits in their own marriages. I have specifically experienced couples who insist on taking their parents or friends on all vacations. This illustrates that the couple can barely tolerate being alone together.
6. Helplessness — The more helpless and dysfunctional grown children act, the more likely the in-laws will feel the need to come to the rescue. While in some cases this is the appropriate thing to do, in-laws will have to be careful not to enable their children’s helplessness. They should not do more for their children than is needed.
I am sure there are many more reasons for potentially destructive in-law intervention. Given the scope of this issue, this would come as no surprise. Again, my objective was to get the conversation started. In-laws can be very helpful to a couple, even necessary if the timing and interventions are appropriate and appreciated. Beyond that, even if the in-laws are in the right, they would be better suited to focus on their own lives.