6 Positive Ways to Deal With the In-Laws

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The last time I did a live call-in radio show on the topic of in-laws, the phones rang off the hook. Not everyone has the blessing of good in-laws. But like it or not, the in-laws are part of your life. So having a good relationship with them is vital. After all, these are the people responsible for raising the person you married and important to your spouse. And if you have children, in-laws play a role in instilling values in your children.

Handling in-laws can be tricky for most every couple. Let’s face it, as the in-law, you are an outsider to a family system that already has established rules and dynamics. But to be fair, your spouse has the same challenge with your family. So, working out how to navigate in-law relationships is important to the health of your marriage.

The most common complaints for couples are that in-laws are overbearing, pushy, and don’t respect boundaries. Disrespect is mentioned as well. Intrusiveness and meddling in-laws may have trouble letting go of their parenting role, and the adult child (your spouse) may have trouble establishing independence. In some cases, the other extreme is experienced. There is too much distance. This cut off creates a loss of support, relationship, a lack of caregiving, and limited family participation. Then, couples lose out on what could be an intimate and supportive relationship.

So here are a few tips to make getting long with the in-laws a more positive experience:

  1. Identify family differences. Our culture and upbringing play a major role in how we do marriage. Early on, identify differences in the two families who come together in marriage. Each spouse, as a representative of his or her family, has expectations as to how things are supposed to go. Everything from how to deal with finances, stress, pressure, conflict, etc. is learned from the original family.  Most often, the two family systems have different expectations, values and ways of doing things. The bigger the differences, the more potential for conflict. Thus, couples need to identify their differences early on in their relationship. Here is an example: A couple in therapy was struggling with conflict. His expectation was that problems needed to be discussed. Her expectation was that problems needed to be avoided. Both were based on their family of origin upbringing. Until they identified this difference, they could not go forward with a solution as to how to handle conflict.
  2. Establish ground rules. Don’t wait for a problem. Ahead of time talk about how you as a couple will handle extended family: For example, should your marital issues be private and not discussed with parents? How much time do you spend with in-laws? If there is a problem, will your spouse confront it?  Then, decide how you will handle times when those differences are front and center. One couple I worked with handled a difference this way. You may disagree with their strategy but in their opinion, this battle was not worth the fight: In her upbringing, the women did all the cooking and cleaning up at mealtimes. So, when they shared a meal with her parents, her husband stayed out of the way. However, when her parents weren’t around, her husband was part of the cooking and cleaning because his dad did this growing up. The couple wanted to be sensitive to the differences of values when in-laws visited. For them, it wasn’t a big deal. They were less concerned about their rights over a small difference that would potentially raise a lot of conflict knowing their families. Now, as a couple, you may not want to accommodate like this and feel strongly about establishing your own ground rules, but you need to decide together how you will handle differences. The point is, there are many ways to deal with differences. Just agree on how to handle each of them.
  3. Develop code words and strategies ahead of time. My husband and I had a good relationship with each other’s parents. Even so, there were times when both sets of parents challenged us. When those times occurred, we had code words or certain glances that cued us to a strategy-one we discussed ahead of time.  We remained respectful, but we also knew when we needed to change the conversation, stay quiet or assert ourselves. The point is to know ahead of time what the hot buttons are and how you will handle them.
  4. Don’t criticize your spouse’s relationship with his or her parents. If you do, your spouse will only become defensive even if he or she agrees! Instead of being critical, try to understand more about the family system and why people behave the way they do. Dig into their backgrounds and life experiences. More understanding usually tells you a lot about the issues you see and experience. Then, when the in-laws do something hurtful, tell your spouse what it was and how it impacted you. Once you have that conversation, decide if there needs to be action. If so, have your spouse approach his or her parents. You can do this together if you wish but make sure your spouse is in the room and takes the lead. Stay unified as a couple.
  5. Spend time with your in-laws. There is no better way to really get to know someone then spending time with them. A lot of hurt can happen because people don’t know or understand each other. So, do activities together and ask what they enjoy. Make an effort to join them in fun things. In the end, you could discover areas of common ground. And you can build some good memories with your children. If things are especially difficult, choose an activity of fun that requires more doing and less talking.
  6. Honor your parents and in-laws: This does not mean that you put up with disrespect or constant boundary violations. It also doesn’t mean you do things their way or bite your tongue all the time. Sometimes, honoring means a diplomatic NO or speaking the truth in love. Other times, it might means giving grace to a situation and letting go of offense. The key is how you speak to them and how you draw the line on difficult things. Stand your ground as a couple but do this in a way that keeps the relationship intact. If you need help with this, find a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) trained in this type of interpersonal work. Remember, God will judge you for your response to others–was it loving, forgiving, respectful and honoring? We can’t control what others do, only our reactions.

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