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Have In-Law Issues?

Become a united front.

Key points

  • Many couples experience conflict with their in-laws, including many complaints about parent-in-law interactions.
  • When a spouse has a problem with a parent-in-law, a united front is necessary.
  • It is important to agree on and establish healthy boundaries.
Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Source: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

Do you get along with your mother-in-law? If you answered “yes,” consider yourself part of a lucky minority. According to Cambridge University psychologist Terri Apter, three out of four couples “experience significant conflict with their in-laws,” with the mother-in-law (MIL)/daughter-in-law (DIL) relationship the trickiest.

In her book What Do You Want from Me?: Learning to Get Along with In-Laws, Apter shares that over 60 percent of women — versus just 15 percent of men — report having a negative relationship with their significant other’s mom. Descriptors used by DILs in capturing relations with their MIL include “strained,” “uncomfortable,” “infuriating,” “depressing,” “draining,” and “simply awful.”

The most typical complaint DILs have of their MILs is that they are overbearing, pushy, and disrespectful of boundaries. Other reasons for unpleasant relations between parents-in-law and a daughter-in-law (or son-in-law, for that matter) include:

  • Pressure to have children — the number-one source of tension between a woman and her in-laws.
  • Older relatives trying to maintain their authoritative role in a household.
  • A know-it-all and/or take-charge MIL.
  • A parent’s belief that no one is good enough for their son or daughter.
  • Conflicting ideas over how to raise children.
  • Personality clashes.
  • Money lending.
  • Pressure to conform to religious or cultural norms.
  • A parent trying to drive a wedge into a marital relationship.

Regardless of what’s causing the friction, DILs report long-term stress as a consequence. Couples, particularly the DIL, start to dread family gatherings for the distress and exchanges they can invite. A baneful MIL/DIL situation can escalate quickly, becoming toxic if the bull isn’t taken by the horns adequately and quickly. So what’s a couple to do?

While every situation is unique, with no article or book providing the exact recipe needed for repair, this post will look at how to manage a difficult parent-in-law relationship and seek to give couples, especially the DIL, guidance on how to become a united front in dealing with both the MIL and father-in-law. (While we don’t hear much about the father-in-law stirring up trouble, he often has his wife’s back, letting her get away with things, or exhibiting support in his reticence. In dealing with one, you’re also dealing with the other.)

Becoming a United Front

When a spouse has a problem with a parent-in-law, it is the couple’s problem, too. There is no dealing with the situation solo. Whether or not they agree on all aspects of the situation, couples need to become a united front. This begins by having effective conversations about difficult, sensitive issues.

Talk to your spouse.

If you’re the one feeling under attack, then you need to make your partner aware of what’s going on. He (or she) may be completely clueless about the situation or how it’s making you feel. Therefore, the first step to getting on top of the issue is to provide your spouse with an understanding of the problem(s). Focus on your feelings, owning them with “I” statements (“I feel hurt when your mother…”).

While tough, try to avoid being critical of your in-laws — criticism is likely to evoke a protective response instead of empathy. This is your spouse’s mother, somebody they love and think of fondly. You’re trying to get his or her support, so approach as you would want to be approached if they had a problem with your parents.

Consider the situation from each family’s perspective.

While every family functions with a certain degree of dysfunction, what a person grows up with tends to be regarded as “normal" — hence, assumingly universal for other families. Yet, according to Apter, when a spouse tries to explain this “normalcy” in saying things like, “That’s just the way she is,” or “She doesn’t mean anything by that,” then the person is really saying, “There is nothing wrong with my family. Don’t criticize.” This indicates that the spouse doesn’t see a problem, or is trying to say that the problem is you. Ultimately, it’s a denial of your views on the matter, including their legitimacy.

Try again to focus the conversation on how you’re feeling and not on what’s wrong with your partner's family. Give examples of what has been the norm in your circle of families, giving sound rationale for why you think that this is healthier or better than what you’re finding in engaging your in-laws. Allow your spouse the time he or she needs, within reason, to process everything and to unfold into their own autonomy. Hopefully, eventually, he or she will become less enmeshed in their family of origin as a standard for “normalcy” and become more differentiated, realizing a new worldview on healthy family functioning.

Identify the changes you want to see made.

Regardless of whether or not your spouse recognizes an issue, if you have a problem with your in-laws, then it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with and likely a situation that needs to be changed. Be specific and clear about your issues, and how you would like things resolved — what you would like your husband to do about them. Don’t assume that you’re on the same page when it comes to a strategy for handling the situation. Your spouse may not agree that there’s a problem, or he may want to manage things differently. You may need to negotiate how your in-laws will be a part of your lives, and how they will be put in their place.

This will require more than one conversation. It could lead to a number of arguments. This may be the point where the two of you spin your wheels, failing to make progress on the problem(s) as they only get worse. If necessary, consult with a licensed marriage and family therapist. In-law issues are too important not to get professional help.

Agree on the boundaries that you’ll establish.

Healthy boundaries need to be a part of your talks on strategy and what’s communicated to your in-laws. Discuss your need for boundaries and come to an agreement on what those boundaries are regarding your in-laws. Brainstorm solutions, explicitly explaining how you’d like the matter handled. Have clearly defined limits and rules of engagement as far as what you’ll expect and accept. Then have your spouse convey those to his or her parents. In staying empowered at any point of the process, remember that, consciously or not, you set boundaries in all of your relationships. These keep you sane and friendlier.

Make your spouse the lead contact.

No matter what the agreed-on strategy, your spouse needs to take responsibility for the situation, dealing directly with your in-laws about their behavior, and stepping in as the main point of contact. After all, these are his parents, and he needs to be the messenger in discussing issues and problems with them. (Likewise, you would be the main point of contact if your husband had a problem with your parents.)

Even if your spouse doesn’t agree with you on the conflict or how it should be handled, he needs to have your back. He’s in a marital relationship with you, not his parents, and he needs to stand by you. This includes firmly speaking up when his mother says something hurtful, and not giving into tactics either parent can use to manipulate situations, like guilt or pressure. No matter what, he needs to be clear that when something is done or said that hurts you (or your children), it hurts him as well. You are a team, and this is a major part of maintaining your team front.

Communicate your boundaries.

As stated, your spouse needs to verbalize your boundaries in putting any behaviors or offenses to an end. This can be done proactively (e.g., letting them know how you’ll be handling the holidays weeks or months in advance) or on a case-by-case basis as issues come up. The key, with the latter, is to make sure that the problem is dealt with head-on, swiftly, and in a no-nonsense manner. In being sensitive to any hurt feelings, a partner can reassure his parents that the two of you are not closing them out, but that you are simply focusing on yourselves and taking care of your union and family.

Change your behavior accordingly.

Both you and your spouse will need to modify your behavior in realizing the relations you want with your in-laws. After all, the only things that you can definitely change about the situation are your own feelings, moods, and behaviors — how you react. This includes you and your partner working towards changing systems of interaction and continuing to educate the parents on what will and won’t be tolerated. This further includes making your in-laws aware of the consequences, and providing them with incentives for behavior change. Only then will your in-laws possibly change as well.

Enforce your boundaries as needed.

You may need to start out with gentle reminders, as things are unlikely to change overnight. This can be done compassionately, but firmly. Overall, your approach needs to be strict in consistently enforcing the boundaries you’ve drawn. If the situation allows, be friendly, tactful, straightforward, and respectful. Think of how you’d handle a disagreeable situation with a co-worker.

If, however, your in-laws continue to disrespect your boundaries and wishes, you may need to approach them with a little less tact. Think of a boss putting an employee in his place.

No matter what, establish boundaries early.

A lot of couples will not draw their boundaries until they have to. You can avoid a great deal of heartache, disappointment, and distress by letting your limits be known early on.

More from Yvonne K. Fulbright Ph.D., MSEd
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