“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring close-knit family
in another city.” George Burns
Newly engaged, Deb and Jeff are beginning their life together. Deb suggests they invite Jeff’s parents over for dinner. She even borrows a recipe from her future mother-in-law to prepare Jeff’s favorite childhood meal. She imagines building a close relationship with both her in-laws that will support their marriage for many years to come.
When her mother-in-law arrives, she quickly joins Deb in the kitchen. She stands behind her and judges, criticizes and mocks everything from her cooking skills to the amount of salt she uses! By the time dinner is served Deb is so flustered, she can barely eat. After her in-laws leave, she laments to her husband who simply responds: “My mother only means well…don’t be so sensitive.”
Relationship guru Dr. Laura Berman reports that one of the most common disagreements among couples today is about in-laws. Problems arise when one partner feels their in-laws have too much control over their spouse, when in-laws are unkind and their partner does not stick up for them or when their partner values their parents more then them.
Fortunately, there are many ways to improve your relationship with your in-laws. In fact, it’s essential that you begin using these tools so that you and your partner can live your happiest life together.
The building blocks of healthy in-law relationships:
Step one: Start by soul-searching
The first step toward a better relationship with your in-laws is to acknowledge your own role in the problem. This is the most difficult step as it involves looking deep within yourself and admitting to your own negative behaviors.
If you take a look at various websites and message boards as well as online support groups, you will find a common theme: people like to complain about their in-laws. It has become the norm for people to have at least one difficult in-law relationship to vent about.
This is especially true when it comes to mother in-laws and daughter in-laws. There is a great deal of misunderstanding and hypersensitivity in these relationships and sometimes even mean-spirited gossip is spoken about one another. Consider whether it’s possible that you are taking things too personally or whether you take every suggestion or recommendation as proof that she doesn’t approve of you. This could be sign of low self-esteem. If you feel yourself becoming easily upset when your in-laws bite, you may need to toughen your own skin. And, if you find yourself getting caught up in constantly venting about them, recognize that this only fuels the flames rather than quieting them. Remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote: “No one can hurt you without your consent.”
Step two: Break the umbilical cord
Have you and your spouse broken the umbilical cord with your respective parents? Are you pulling your parents into all your crises, asking for advice, even asking for money? Do you inadvertently ask them to “save you” from distress and then get angry if they offer suggestions? Triangles develop when wives run to their mother’s for support “against” their difficult husband or when husbands allow their mother’s to continue mothering them as if they were a little boy. Keeping the umbilical cord attached sets up an unhealthy competition between your spouse and your parents and gives both sets of parents too much control over the day-to-day functioning of your relationship. So, sever the cord, grow up, take responsibility for your marriage and focus your love and attention on the person you chose to spend the rest of your life with!
Step three: In-laws are human, too
Some people seek out a therapist to help them with their in-law issues. They report that their in-laws are truly overbearing and controlling and that they can’t seem to keep their opinions to themselves. While this can be very frustrating, your in-laws may not intend to be this way; they may have issues of their own. In addition, it is difficult for some parents to let go of the parental role they have had for so long. They may feel, “If I am not a father/mother, than who am I?” Sometimes it’s necessary to look at these deeper issues to get a better sense of why they are behaving this way. It may not make their behavior less exasperating, but with understanding comes compassion.
Step four: Be assertive and respectful at the same time
It is never too late to begin setting healthy boundaries with people who are treating you poorly – even if it’s your in-laws. At the same time, honoring their place in your family is integral for a happy relationship with your spouse. Even if you don’t feel affection toward them it can be enormously hurtful to your partner if you show them disrespect. You can’t always control your emotions, but you can control your actions.
Dr. Laura Berman offered a personal example on her radio show about the difficult task of setting boundaries in her own family. Her parents are strong-willed people who like to express their opinions and so does her husband. Early on, her parents and husband clashed and they began treating him negatively in front of her and their grandchildren. She understood the importance of being assertive with her parents in order to protect her husband and her marriage. She let them know in no uncertain terms: “I don’t want to hear anything bad about him…no more negative words about him to me or anyone else in our lives. If you want a relationship with me, you will need to honor this at all times.”
If you set these limits, you are not only developing a healthier adult relationship with your parents, but a more loving relationship with your spouse.
Fast-forward 10 years: Deb’s in-laws have just arrived for dinner. As expected, her mother-in-law has nothing good to say about the lasagna coming out of the oven or the way Deb reprimanded her five-year-old son. After 10 years, however, Deb has learned some valuable life lessons. She understands the importance of her relationship with her in-laws, not only for her marriage, but also for her children. These are her children’s grandparents and they adore each other. As her mother-in-law continues her tirade, Deb simply states: “The next time you come for dinner, please bring YOUR famous lasagna and I will spend my time relaxing instead of cooking.” She gives her mother-in-law a kiss on the cheek and they both smile a knowing smile. Evidently, they have both learned some important life lessons.
When you fall in love with someone, his or her parents come as part of the package. And since you can’t choose your in-laws, it’s best to reach a common ground rather than endure a lifetime of conflict.
Diane Lykes is a Principal of Synergy Counseling Associates in Albany where she specializes in individual and couples counseling, educational training and clinical consultation. She can be reached at 466.3100 or firstname.lastname@example.org