Seeing eye-to-eye with your partner about your in-laws matters more to your marriage than seeing eye-to-eye with your in-laws.

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Learning how to build relationships with in-laws can challenge many couples. It can also be a project couples share.

Carolyn Hax, an advice columnist for “The Washington Post,” sees in-law problems daily.

“In-laws with unfamiliar habits and customs are expected to function as family, often becoming an intimate influence on a partnership. This can feel invasive and create a threat response on both sides.”

LuAnn Oliver, a couples therapist in Washington D.C., notes that “in some family systems, an in-law is warmly welcomed as somewhat of an equal family member. In other systems, the in-law might be in more of a secondary role to the original family member.”

“Neither is right or wrong,” she assures, “but it helps to have some awareness.” Awareness can help you and your partner promote healthy in-law relationships — and mitigate the effects of toxic ones.

Experts and science provide tips:

A 2021 study found that older women in Matlab, Bangladesh, who lived with their daughters-in-law had significantly elevated death rates compared to women their age who did not. Researchers concluded that years of triggering stresses and in-law abuse may have led younger women to neglect the health of their aging mothers-in-law.

Your relationship with your in-laws need not lead to this “effect.” But understanding common underlying tensions may help you put your relationship with your in-laws in perspective.

  1. In-laws often are motivated to get along with their offspring’s partner for the sake of their child and potential grandchildren.
  2. They don’t automatically love their “child-in-law,” though.
  3. They may feel competitive with their child-in-laws parents or closer family members.

Hax says that when in-laws don’t naturally fit in, you and your partner might try “overriding your defensive impulses.“

Strategies include:

  • finding common ground with your in-laws
  • modeling behavior you hope they’ll emulate

Oliver suggests these questions can help you understand each other’s family systems.

  • How did your partner and their family navigate family relationships before you came along?
  • What role does your partner play in their immediate family?
  • What patterns of communication exist?
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According to Oliver, preparatory discussion questions with your partner might involve:

  • Whether they’d like to speak for your partnership or married family with their immediate family?
  • If they prefer that you, as the in-law, have a more direct role in dealing with differences?

Oliver also suggests identifying boundaries that will give you and your partner room to grow closer together and co-create your own family unit.

Lists of boundaries for mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law might include:

  • how much time you’ll spend with each family
  • what constitutes overstepping with a new baby

(No right answers here. As a couple, you can decide.)

A longitudinal study (2021) of 371 Black and white couples over their first 16 years of marriage found that those who disagreed about how close they were to their in-laws were more likely to divorce than those who agreed on closeness with in-laws.

In a 2021 study, nine participants were interviewed about their experiences with children-in-law of a different race. Participants identified as one of the four:

  • white
  • Black
  • South Asian
  • Latino

Participants acknowledged initially hesitating to embrace the partner of a different race, citing racial stereotypes and religious concerns.

In the study above, those same initially prejudiced participants eventually learned to appreciate their children-in-law after:

  • traveling to their son- or daughter-in-law’s country of origin
  • participating in their holidays
  • seeing open love between children and their partners

A 2015 study observed 36 daughters-in-law married to coethnic men, specifically:

  • 10 Taiwanese Americans
  • 9 Mexican Americans
  • 17 Taiwanese

It found that stereotypical ideologies informed their evaluations of mothers-in-law.

Most wanted their mothers-in-law to be affectionate, supportive, and “motherly”–but to refrain from all advice. They judged “intrusive” mothers-in-law as “typical Taiwanese.”

Your biases may differ, but most folks have them, and they can distort expectations, complicating an already complicated relationship.

A 2017 study of 132 middle-aged heterosexual couples showed that husbands felt better when caring for older parents — whereas wives felt worse. But when couples disagreed on “filial obligation,” husbands’ happiness in marriage plummeted.

Instead, when your in-laws get under your skin, “take a few breaths until you’re calm and then [respond], advises Hax.

Sometimes this means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes for a minute.

Hax says to remember, your new in-laws need not always be strangers.

But if your in-laws are constantly overstepping boundaries, this may signal enmeshment. You and your partner may want to seek marital counseling if it’s affecting your relationship.

Research suggests you don’t need a conflict-free relationship with your in-laws to be happy in your marriage.

“The goal,” says Oliver, “is to find what works to maintain a healthy connection with in-laws without compromising your new family unit.”