Relationships with in-laws are notoriously difficult to manage.
I have been lucky enough to not experience this myself. My in-laws have always been so loving and supportive. Even when we recently opened up to them about my husband’s pornography addiction and some of the issues it has caused in our marriage, I felt nothing but love from them. I realize what a blessing that truly is since so many of my friends have not received that same support. But, even with our wonderful relationship, we had to learn how to navigate familial differences, which wasn’t always easy.
Whether you love or loath your in-laws, your rapport with them can have lasting effects on your own marriage. They are an essential part of your spouse’s life, which makes them an essential part of your life. It is not usually easy to balance your needs with the needs of others, especially the needs of an entire new family, but creating family harmony is possible and worth the effort. The return you get on your investment will last the rest of your married life. Here are five rules to get you started.
1. Your loyalty is to your spouse.
Life is full of difficult decisions in which no solution leaves everyone happy. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a difficult in-law situation creates—a classic example of uncertainty that, in a worst-case scenario, may continue for years or even a lifetime. However, when in conflict between your spouse and your family, always support your spouse.
It is your duty to support your husband or wife and manage your family in a way that consistently conveys this fact. Further, you must both present a united front to your families, making it clear from the beginning that your spouse comes first.
In couples where this allegiance does not happen, marital problems quickly follow. In fact, some of the most caustic disputes are over a spouse’s failure to support his or her partner. When there is conflict between your family and your spouse, don’t feel caught in the middle—your place is on your spouse’s side. To do otherwise is to undermine the trust that is the foundation of your marriage.
2. Set and enforce boundaries.
“Families can have rather strange boundaries,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist who specializes in relationships. “When an in-law enters a new family situation, he or she inherits those boundaries and the problems associated with those boundaries, [which] can manifest in lots of ways.”
For example, a mother in-law who gives unsolicited parenting advice, a father in-law who overshares personal information told to him in confidence, or in-laws who seem to forget that they aren’t your only family members and demand too much time. These lack of boundaries are typically deeply rooted after a lifetime of living without consequences. This makes it feel almost futile to even try reinforcing boundaries. But, it’s not impossible.
Working as a team, decide on your family values with your spouse. Then communicate those values to your in-laws and stay firm. For example, if you don’t want drop-in company, tell your in-laws that you’d prefer that they call before showing up on your doorstep. If they ignore you, don’t answer the door the next time they just happen to drop-by. It will feel rude, but the only way to change behavior is to reinforce boundaries.
3. Communicate to resolve conflicts.
Whenever possible, avoid communicating through a third party. And yes, that includes your spouse. Don’t ask them to talk to their mother about something she did that hurt your feelings. Talk to your mother-in-law directly.
If something bothers you, address it as soon as possible. Sometimes it’s a genuine problem; other times, it might be a misunderstanding. The longer you allow things to sit unresolved, the more difficult it will be to address and the more likely it is problems will continue to build. If it seems too daunting, write down your feelings first. It can help you figure out exactly what it is you want to say before you have to say it.
4. Set realistic expectations.
Not every father-in-law lives to build his grandchildren a tree-house and not every mother-in-law dreams of baking cookies with her grandchildren. Put away the stereotypes and adjust your thinking to the reality of the situation. Don’t expect what people can’t deliver. Find ways to include your in-laws in your life in ways that suit their personalities and strengths. Similarly, you need to be clear with your in-laws when their expectations of you aren’t realistic.
5. Remind yourself why you are doing it.
When things get really tough, remind yourself why this relationship is important. Tell yourself that the effort to accommodate your partner’s family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer in your marriage. You are used to putting up with your own relatives and you accommodate their quirks and failings. And now you get to do it all over again with a new family and a new set of habits and shortcomings. Remember that you are doing it because you love your spouse.
Honoring Your Own Marriage
You may not be able to avoid conflict over your in-laws’ disapproval of your marriage, job, lifestyle, or parenting approach. It takes both parties trying for things to work, and sometimes, no matter how hard you try it isn’t enough. But, even in those cases, what is most important is that by staying on good terms with his or her relatives (or at least trying to) you are honoring your marriage in one of the best ways possible.