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10 Tips for Surmounting In-Law Difficulties

A guide for understanding and "managing" problematic in-laws.

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No matter how much you love them, in-laws tend to be a mixed blessing, a complex new relationship that you need to forge in adult life. “Neutral” is rarely a word associated with in-laws. Rather, in-laws tend to be puzzling or problematic in some way— attempting to oversee your life, meddling in your marriage, telling you how to raise your children or being too judgmental to name a few. Any, and sometimes lots, of that from someone who probably loves your spouse or partner as much as you do and, in his or her own complicated way, just wants the best for your family.

When a son or daughter marries, some parents are confronted with the sense that they are losing you. They may feel like your spouse is “taking you away,” even if that’s completely groundless or never explicitly stated. Now that you’re married, your time realistically must be divided among a host of new responsibilities: your spouse, your own children, your job, maintaining your household and relations with an extended family that doubled in size. It can be tough for a parent to let go when in the past so much more of your time was dedicated to them.

The issue of parents learning to share you with others has many permutations. As a newly married person, your relationship with your partner is already going to go through many changes as you adjust to married life, and that can be further complicated or strained by having a parent that doesn’t get along with your spouse. Diligence in drawing parameters with such a parent will protect and nurture your relationship with them.

Let Your Spouse “Handle” His/Her Parents

Always remember that when dealing with your own parents, your spouse is at the disadvantage of not having known them all his or her life. You know your own parents’ weaknesses and strengths; know what lines can be crossed without creating mayhem and you know when the emotional ice may be thin. For your partner, dealing with your parents can feel like going off-road with no GPS. And if your parents overstep their bounds, you’re likely to be able to speak to or forgive them more easily and faster than your partner can.

When you live in close proximity to your in-laws, for example, the temptation for them to “pop in” and try to help out around the house and check in on you may be particularly hard for them to resist, especially if they previously had a very close or overbearing relationship with your spouse. Privacy can be a real issue, but a generous in-law may be genuinely trying to help you and your partner out. It’s a tough balance to strike. You can find yourself caught between wanting or needing in-law support and feeling invaded.

On occasion, disagreements with the in-laws can get heated, and in the worst-case scenarios become big blowouts when family members threaten not to speak to one another and everyone feels forced to take a side. A good idea is to encourage your spouse to mediate during the early stages of tension and animosity; otherwise it may be impossible for him or her to be neutral when the situation comes to a head.

One Big Family

Differences you find yourself facing with in-laws come about for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s religious differences, other times it’s a matter of a conflict with the way your own parents raised you. However, over time, you may find yourself having more in common with the in-laws than you first thought. It’s never too late to make a new bond and form a loving relationship. Conceding, compromising, and laughing about dilemmas and individual quirks can add harmony and make the important connections with parents and in-laws less burdensome.

It would be much more pleasant if sons and daughters and parents and in-laws accepted each other without gnawing reservation instead of what amounts to parents’ collective laundry list of doubts. You’re all one big family now; you don’t want to feel as if your partner’s parents are some opposing force working against you. Your parents or in-laws may feel you’re too controlling or demanding, too subservient or not subservient enough, intolerant, uncaring, too warm or too cool, too educated or the reverse, too outspoken or too passive, the list can go on and on. But it’s important to see through each other’s real or perceived faults or differences.

Because parents’, be they yours or your partner’s, protective instincts are nearly impossible to extinguish, your best hope is that your worries and theirs will be proven wrong as everyone gets to know each other. Ideally, the fears and issues you, your parents, or in-laws grapple with will become less important and evaporate with time.

In-Law Relationship Guide

This guide, originally published in my book, Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father, offers tips for building a healthy relationship with in-laws:

  • Make concessions without sacrificing your values whenever you can.
  • When the situation calls for it, take a firm position.
  • If your partner can’t set boundaries, you set them.
  • Agree to disagree if you can’t reach a satisfactory medium.
  • Ask how you can help ease tensions.
  • Take the time to address your in-laws’ concerns.
  • Be considerate and tolerant of an in-law’s differing beliefs.
  • Allow ample time for the kinks to work themselves out.
  • Overlook the “small stuff” that upsets you.
  • Be patient—relationships grow over time.

Copyright @ 2014, 2018 by Susan Newman