“[M]ost people struggle with in-law issues on some level,” said Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who works with couples in Newport, Calif. For instance, you might feel like your in-laws don’t accept you or they’re overly critical of your spouse. Or they have an opinion on everything from where you live to how you parent your kids.
Having difficulties with your in-laws doesn’t mean you’re in an unhealthy relationship, said F. Diane Barth, LCSW, a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.
It’s similar to conflict. Having conflict doesn’t derail a relationship. But handling it badly can. And the same is true for difficulties with your in-laws. What matters is how you handle these challenges.
Here’s how healthy couples deal with their in-laws.
Healthy couples realize their in-laws are different people.
“Healthy couples deal with their in-laws by recognizing that they are different people with different ways,” said Cathy Siebold, DSW, a psychoanalyst who also teaches and supervises in New York City.
“Families have their own culture,” Hansen said. Healthy couples remember that this culture isn’t “bad or wrong, but different.”
Healthy couples make an effort with their in-laws.
They understand the importance their in-laws play in their spouse’s life, Hansen said. They treat them with respect. They participate in family events. They “allow their in-laws access to their family.” In other words, they make an effort, even though “they may not always agree with, understand the family dynamics, rituals or traditions, or even look forward to time together.”
Healthy couples set clear boundaries with their in-laws.
They’re able to have open conversations with their spouse about their needs and create a plan that both of them agrees with, Hansen said. She gave the following example: Your partner is OK with his or her mother stopping by unannounced. You’re not. So you decide that family members need to call beforehand to make sure it’s a good time to come over.
Healthy couples separate their own relationship from their in-laws.
“They remember that no matter how complicated or difficult their in-laws may be, they are not married to them,” Barth said.
So when in-laws are being especially difficult to deal with, healthy couples make an extra effort to be kind to their partner. They might say “I love you” or perform a sweet gesture, she said.
Healthy couples separate their spouse from their in-laws.
For instance, “a guy’s mom may be intrusive and critical, but a healthy couple remembers that her behavior does not reflect how the guy feels about the things she is commenting on,” Barth said.
Healthy couples keep communicating.
“Processing the difficulties in words is one of the most important tools a couple has for dealing with in-laws,” Barth said. So they talk about their own positions. They listen to each other. They sympathize with each other’s feelings.
Healthy couples don’t take it personally.
“A healthy couple is able to recognize and deal with the fact that their parents are human beings, with normal and difficult human feelings,” Barth said. They try to understand where they’re coming from and empathize, she said.
Tips for Dealing with In-Laws
Here are five suggestions for dealing with your in-laws.
Figure out the boundaries that you’d like to set with your in-laws, Hansen said. For instance, if your mother-in-law takes over your kitchen every time she visits, talk about it with your spouse. “Then have a respectful, but clear conversation with her about the issue.”
According to Hansen, you might say the following: “Mom, we love that you want to help us out by cooking and know that you really enjoy it, but we’d appreciate if you let Mary take the lead in our kitchen. If you want to help, she’d really appreciate if you could make the salad for tonight’s dinner.”
Remember it’s only an opinion.
“It helps to remember that much of what we are told is an opinion, not truth,” Siebold said. So if your mother-in-law says you should feed your son a different diet, remember that “you don’t have to follow it, argue her out of it or perceive it as a critique of you.” While “we can’t stop an in-law from talking, we can control how we hear them.”
Remember your in-laws are people.
“They have needs, concerns, doubts and feelings, just like you do,” Barth said. “Treat them not like parents, but like you would any other people you are gradually getting to know.”
Respect your spouse’s attachments.
“It helps to see your spouse’s attachment to his family as something to respect,” Siebold said. For instance, if your husband’s daily calls to his dad are important to him, it’s also important for you to accept and understand this, she said.
Take deep breaths.
When you’re about to reach a breaking point, take a break to breathe, Hansen said. Find a quiet spot, like a bathroom, or go for a walk. While breathing, focus on the positive aspects of your in-laws — such as “they truly love our children” — and remind yourself that you can’t control or change them, she said.
Your in-laws are important to your spouse, and they’re part of your life, Hansen said. “It’s up to both of you to find a way to make time with extended family as enjoyable as possible.”