Are Problems With In-Laws Getting in the Way of Your Relationship?

Do problems with your in-laws (e.g., parents, siblings, extended family, etc.) interfere with your relationship?

Navigating in-law dynamics is challenging for many couples. When conflict in this domain occurs, it can drive a wedge between partners. Problems may arise when the following cycles occur:

Cycle 1: IN-LAWS VS. US

Here one or both of your families gets in the way of your relationship, and while you BOTH agree it’s a problem, you may not know how to manage the situation. For example, in-laws may not be very accepting of the partner or may be intrusive by not respecting boundaries, undermining your decision making, and/or give their unwanted opinion about everything.

Cycle 2: YOUR FAMILY IS TOO CLOSE! VS. THEY AREN’T CLOSE ENOUGH!

In this cycle, partners interact very differently with their own families or have different expectations about how close one should be with their family. For example, partners can disagree on how much time to spend with the in-laws or how much information about the relationship should be shared.

 

Cycle 1: THE IN-LAWS VS US

Tips for the partner who thinks the In-laws cause problems                     

“My in-laws do not like me” Or “My partner’s family does not respect boundaries and they give unwanted advice about everything!”

When your in-laws do not accept you, you may feel like an outsider in the family. When your in-laws are intrusive or have no boundaries, you may feel disrespected or criticized. If your partner does not stand up for you or brushes off how bad the problem is, you may feel angry or hurt. The more problems with in-laws add stress to your relationship, the more you and your partner may fight or avoid addressing the problems – which causes more relationship conflict.

  1. Communication is Key. When feeling upset about your in-laws, communicate this with your partner by using “I feel” statements like, “When your parents do not invite me to things, I feel hurt.” When talking to your partner, do not use disrespectful or blaming language, as this may make your partner defensive. It may be hard, but try to recognize that your partner may find it difficult to navigate how to handle this issue. You may consider starting the conversation with a statement like “I know this places you in a difficult position, but when …”
  2. Work as a team. If your in-laws question everything you do or make you feel like they don’t approve of you and your actions, you and your partner may want to pull your in-laws aside to discuss the problem in a respectful way. As a team, emphasize that you appreciate their opinion and know that they mean well, but that the decisions you make work best for you. Your partner should take the lead during this conversation as your in-laws may be more receptive to comments coming from him/her.
  3. Try to understand. If the problem is not how often your in-laws give opinions, but rather how they give it when they do, try to take a step back and ask yourself why they are doing this. If it is their misguided attempts to do what is best, try to be objective and recognize that they do care. Let them know that you value their opinion and are open to hearing their advice, but that you do not feel appreciated when they express it using a judgment tone of voice, or blaming language.  As in the 2nd tip, this conversation would probably go best if you and your partner talked to your in-laws together and your partner took the lead.

Tips for the partner who feels that their family causes problems

“My family causes problems in our relationship and I don’t know how to handle it.”

The more your family causes problems, the more your partner feels hurt and the more trapped you may feel. You may feel angry at your family for adding stress to your relationship and upset with your partner for not understanding how difficult this is for you.  You may not know how to handle supporting your partner without disrespecting your family. This may lead to fights with your partner or family or withdrawing from discussions about the issue.

  1. Talk about it. As upset as you may be about your family, try to recognize how your partner must be feeling. Do not pull away from him/her or the relationship as this may make your partner feel more alone. Let your partner know that you understand how hard this must be and that you want to address the problem as a team.
  2. Establish boundaries. You know your family best, so when it is time to establish boundaries or their behavior, you should take the lead. Be respectful to your family when you are talking about what needs to change. Language such as, “We understand and appreciate your opinion and know you want the best for us; however, this decision is best for our family,” gets your point across without attacking your in-laws. Once you set boundaries, make sure to enforce them consistently- this may require you to make a gentle reminder every once in a while. (It’s going to go better if you – not your partner – is the one to talk to your parents when they slip up.)
  3. Be a united team. Your best defense against intrusive in-laws is handling the situation as a team. Talk with each other and decide how you want to handle the discussion with once the two of you are on the same page, do your part to make the changes you agreed upon. When talking with your family, use “we” statements so your family and your partner know that you are on the same team.

 

Cycle 2: YOUR FAMILY IS TOO CLOSE! VS. THEY AREN’T CLOSE ENOUGH!

Tips for the Family Man/Woman

“My partner does not understand my relationship with my family. So what – we are close!”

The more your partner urges you to spend less time or share less with your family, the more defensive you feel. You may feel hurt that your partner does not understand your bond with your family.

  1. Acceptance. Hopefully, your partner will learn to love your family and respect your relationship with them; however, you cannot expect him/her to want to spend the same amount of time with your family as you do. This may require some acceptance that just because your partner does not share the same level of enthusiasm, it doesn’t mean that he/she does not care about your family or your relationship with them.
  2. Find out more. If your partner is not wanting to spend as much time with your family, are there are things that you could do by yourself? If your partner’s attendance is necessary, then ask your partner why he/she doesn’t want to go. If it’s because he/she doesn’t enjoy time with your family, are there things you or your partner can do to make it better?  If it’s because time with your family interferes with time the two of you have together (alone or with your own kids), then try to schedule more time for that.
  3. Get on the same page. There are likely things that your partner tells you that he/she feels uncomfortable or unsure about – things that make your partner feel insecure. In fact, this type of sharing is the most important thing you can do to stay emotionally close.  If you share those things with your family, your partner is going to get upset – and be less likely to share similar things with you again.  So, it’s very important that the two of you are clear on what is and isn’t okay for you to share with your parents.  Come up with some rules.  For example, are certain topics to be considered private and shouldn’t be shared?  Or, should your partner tell you any time he/she says something to you that your partner doesn’t want shared with others?

Tips for the Partner Left Behind      

“My partner prioritizes my in-laws over us. Why won’t he/she cut the cord?”

The more your partner prioritizes his/her family over you or overshares, the more annoyed or hurt you feel. You may feel like you come second or that your partner does not respect your needs in the relationship.

  1. Be Accepting. While you may not agree with how close your partner is with his/her family, try to show appreciation for his/her love of family. If possible, try to see the good in the situation- your partner likely gets a lot of support from his/her family.
  2. Talk about it. Consider why your partner’s family is a problem for you. Is it because, when your partner spends time with his/her family, you don’t see him/her as much?  If so, try to see if there are additional times during the week that the two of you can spend together.  If it because you don’t enjoy spending time with your partner’s family?  If so, talk with your partner about any ideas you have to make that time with them go better.  Or, come to an agreement with your partner about the events you don’t have to go to.
  3. Get on the same page. It can be really hurtful when you tell your something in private only to find out later that he/she has shared it with others. So, you and your partner need to establish clear rules about what can and can’t be shared.  For example, should your partner not share anything you say about certain topics?  Or, should the rule be that, if there is something you don’t want your partner to share, you’ll say that explicitly (and, if you don’t, your partner is free to share it).

 

Extra Resources

Here are a few more resources to help you break the cycle you and your partner are struggling with:

Complete a Free, Online Self-Help Program.  Consider working on your relationship using our proven, self-help relationship program. Our program is developed by leaders in the fields of couple therapy and pre-marital education and has been shown through extensive research to improve relationships – more than in-person classes and almost as much as marriage counseling. You’ll work with your partner to complete online activities and receive free support from one of our program coaches. Our program is developed by leaders in the fields of couple therapy and pre-marital education. So, you can be confident that it’s the best thing you can do to strengthen your relationship without the hassle and cost of a therapist. Not sure your partner would go for it?  Take a look at these tips for how to introduce the idea. To find out more about our program, go to our home page.

 

The suggestions presented here may help you break the cycle of behaviors you and your partner are struggling with around issues with in-laws. Remember that problems may not stop overnight, so give yourselves and each other time to make promised changes. Try to be understanding with one another, and above all else, try to stay united. Remember that the reason things are so difficult is because you care about each other and want what is best for your relationship. Here are some books with additional information about coping with in-laws that are recommended by the OurRelationship.com experts:

Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies for Protecting Your Marriage

Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family