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.
The most common complaints for couples are that in-laws are overbearing, pushy, and don’t respect boundaries. 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 along with the in-laws a more positive experience:
- Identify family differences. Early on, identify differences in the two families who come together in marriage. Each spouse 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. The bigger the differences, the more potential for conflict. Thus, couples need to identify their differences early on in their relationship.
- 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.
- 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. The point is to know ahead of time what the hot buttons are and how you will handle them.
- 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. 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. It’s important to stay unified as a couple.
- 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. If things are especially difficult, choose an activity of fun that requires more doing and less talking.
- Honor your parents and in-laws: This does not mean that you put up with disrespect or constant boundary violations. 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.