You know what they say: When you marry a person, you marry his or her family too. But just because you love your S.O. doesn’t mean you’re going to naturally love your in-laws. Many people struggle with their spouse’s family on some level. You might feel like they don’t accept you — they’re super-opinionated and weigh in on everything with your relationship. If you’re having problems with your in-laws, eventually it could impact your relationship.
One of the key things to remember if you’re not getting along with your partner’s family is they’re still the ones who raised the man/woman you are in love with. Keeping that in mind, here are some other expert-approved tips for navigating the in-laws.
Be a team
You don’t want your in-laws to impact your relationship, so make sure you and your partner act as a team. This means not coming out of the gate with accusations, criticisms, pleadings, etc. “No matter what, do not ask your partner to choose between you and their family — a true recipe for disaster,” says couple’s therapist, Evie Shafner. “Be an empathic listener first. Recognize that even though he/she may have controlling, difficult, invasive parents, they are still his/her parents. Your own maturity in creating safe communication around this will make it much easier for your partner to hear you.”
“Speak with your partner about what matters to them,” adds Maggie Reyes, life coach and marriage mentor at ModernMarried.com. “In other words, one birthday party might be a huge event, whereas a BBQ that you miss might not be a big deal. Find out what matters to them and why so you can decided how you prioritize your participation in family events.”
This is as simple as “What is OK?” and “What is not OK?” in my presence. For example, it’s OK for them to ask if you plan to have a baby, but it’s not OK if they start suggesting you might have fertility issues or hinting that your partner doesn’t want to have kids with you. “Decide in advance what you will do if a boundary is crossed at a family [function]. Having a plan will make it easier to handle if something happens and relieve some of the stress of the situation,” says Reyes.
Strategize with your partner how you’re going to approach the situation as a team, adds Dr. Rebekah Montgomery, clinical psychologist. “Does your partner sometimes need you to run interference and distract? Do they need you to sit back and turn down reactions in the moment? Decide in advance the small ways you’re going to have each other’s backs. Approaching your in-laws in this way will strengthen your bond.”
Find any way to connect
Maybe it’s talking about Wheel of Fortune or dogs. Just don’t discuss topics that can provoke heated responses. “A lot of problems with in-laws stem from different opinions on much-discussed heated topics. Politics is one such topic, and this can cause plenty of rows at the dinner table. No matter what your opinions are, avoid discussing these with each other if you know tempers can fray. A blanket ban on such provocative topics will certainly make it a lot easier to get along with each other,” says Alex Reddle, online dating expert and relationship blogger.
If you feel there is no way to connect to one in-law, see if there is at least one thing you can do to minimize that intensity. “Do they have other qualities that you can focus on if/when you need to interact with them? Some people just don’t. Knowing why you’ll never connect with someone is not for them to know; it is for you — so you can be clear on what you will allow into your life and experiences,” says Reyes.
Have a good support system & vent to them
While you need lots of open communication with your partner, it’s also helpful to have a strong support system of friends and family that you can vent to. “We all know the idea that we can say anything we want about our family but no one else can — that can ring particularly true here. It’s valuable to share concerns either about the way your partner is being treated or you or your children are being treated in the context of meeting each other’s emotional needs and setting boundaries. However, that conversation will have even more weight if you save the venting and frustration for the other good listeners in your life.” says Montgomery.
“It’s easy to have expectations of what the ideal in-law is — you wish you had a mother-in-law who loved to baby-sit. She doesn’t like to baby-sit. It’s not who she is. Rather than suffering around it or resenting her, reset your expectations. Managing our expectations is a big part of creating a happy life and of being a grown-up,” says Shafner.
When it comes down to it, you may have to accept your in-laws for who they are because they likely aren’t changing. It might mean keeping your distance, but once you can accept your partner’s family for who they are, you will be able to begin to let go of resentment.
A version of this story was published August 2017.
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