Whether you have contented in-law relationships or not, there are always ways you can make those interactions better. If you’ve been in a committed relationship for a long time, you now know that it isn’t just your spouse or partner you need to get along with — it’s also your in-laws! That can initially be surprising once you realize this on a deeper level.
After all, you’re committed to or married to your partner, not your in-laws. Many go into their significant-other relationship thinking if they love each other that will be enough for a happy relationship. But sometimes the family you find yourself in due to a significant-other relationship can lead to an unhappy marriage or relationship.
So, how do you maintain healthy in-law relationships? And what can you do if those relationships become strained?
Here are some thoughts to help.
Learn to Set Boundaries as a Couple
In his Psychology Today article entitled How to Avoid In-Law Conflicts, Robert Weiss Ph.D., MSW shares the following:
“Healthy boundaries are not about keeping other people out; instead, they’re about letting other people safely in.”
That advice is critical because a negative view of boundaries is often believed in in-law relationships. There can be this idea that boundaries break down relationships. The opposite is actually true: A lack of boundaries breaks down in-law relationships.
Boundaries allow you to practice interdependence while maintaining independence as a couple. It’s perfectly OK to be there as a couple for your in-laws and vice versa. However, it isn’t OK for you to lose your autonomy in the process.
In setting boundaries with in-laws, you will make mistakes. The important thing is that you learn and grow from these experiences. You’ll need to prioritize your relationship above potentially hurting the feelings of someone from your original family. This can be hard to do at first because it feels like you’re being disloyal to your original family. But remember that your first loyalty is now with your partner. Once that is established, all other relationships fall into place.
Setting Boundaries Ahead of Time
Boundaries with in-laws are sometimes something you can set at the outset of the relationship. If you can create preventative boundaries, this will help you to avoid in-law conflict before it ever starts.
For instance, one common point of contention in in-law relationships is how you’ll celebrate the holidays with each side of the family. This can become even more of a sticking point once you have children since both partners’ families understandably want to spend time with your kids.
Will you invite both sets of in-laws over to your home for certain holidays on the same day at different times? Will you alternate holidays each year between each set of in-laws? Or, will you celebrate the holidays with your in-laws on the actual day or a different one? These are all questions you’ll need to agree on as a couple.
Successfully doing this will make each set of in-laws feel valued, respected and loved. You want to strive for equality between both sides of in-laws. Not deciding on this ahead of time will likely lead to some sort of conflict since the holidays are one of those common in-law pressure points.
Setting Boundaries After a Line has Been Crossed
There are also boundaries you’ll need to decide on as a couple as you progress in your relationship. You won’t know these types are a problem until something undesirable happens.
For instance, are one of your parents badmouthing or putting down your spouse or significant other? You’ll need to address this with your parents or siblings since it involves your family. If this doesn’t happen, your partner could grow bitter, withdraw from your family, and it could lead to constant fighting in a relationship.
Generally speaking, setting boundaries after the fact involves stopping behaviours that upset you or throw you off balance as a couple. An agreement on boundaries needs to be reached as soon as possible when this happens. The longer you wait the more problems this could create.
Other possible boundaries you may need to discuss are how often your in-laws’ stop over to your home or if they can do so without letting you know first. Many couples never give these issues a second thought when there’s a healthy frequency or balance. Boundaries typically need to be set only when it becomes a problem for you as a couple.
You may also need to set boundaries if you find a father or mother-in-law criticizing or meddling in your relationship. Certain discussions about political issues, how you raise your kids, handle your money or what job you choose can be a hot button too. You can agree as a couple with your in-laws that you’d rather not discuss certain things and that if they are brought up, you’ll have to cut your visit short.
Unified Decisions (A United Front)
Along with boundaries, it needs to be clear to your original families that you and your partner are a couple, a team and a unified front. Suppose an in-law either intentionally or unintentionally “gets you more on their side” rather than that of your partner. In that case, that will obviously cause a lot of friction. This can also lead to constant arguing in a relationship if you can’t get on the same page as a couple.
If everyone knows you won’t be manipulated or pitted against your partner because you’re an inseparable team, there will likely be fewer attempts. However, if some in-laws with difficult personality traits realize they can successfully pit you against each other, they’ll keep doing it until you put a stop to it.
Moving on From Your Childhood Parental Relationship
One challenge of our Western culture is that there often isn’t a clear rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Are you an adult once you move out of your parents’ house? What if you move back in with your parents for a little while afterwards? Does that make you a kid again?
That may seem like a silly argument, but many adults get into a serious relationship yet continue interacting with their parents like they’re still kids. In-law parents can also have difficulty letting go of the parent-dependent child role. This is especially challenging when you have an enabling parent and adult child feeding this prolonged childhood dynamic.
This can cause significant problems in a romantic relationship in many ways. The adult child who hasn’t properly individuated from their parent or parents may overshare too much about their significant-other relationship with Mom or Dad. This can cause their partner to feel betrayed or at least like their privacy has been invaded.
This can also lead the incoming partner to have more conflict with their in-laws. After all, the other partner has invited the parents into the romantic relationship in a potentially hovering or controlling way.
Refraining from In-law Put-Downs
When discussing how to have a healthy relationship with your in-laws, we often focus on stopping their bad behaviour. While that’s vital, keep in mind that we all need to work towards being kind. We all need to take responsibility for how we treat each other.
This also means refraining from putting down each other’s original family members. Putting down your in-laws will cause your partner to feel personally attacked since they are from that family. They may even agree with what you’re saying but still feel like it’s not your place to bring up these faults in a cutting way.
Are Difficult In-Law Relationships Negatively Affecting You as a Couple?
If so, relationship counselling can go a long way in helping you work through an unhappy relationship trigger due to in-law conflict. Couples therapy allows you to discuss any frustrations or concerns with a skilled third party. You’ll have someone specifically trained to assist you with conflict resolution in relationships relating to in-law difficulties.