Falling in love and committing to a person for life can be a joyful, exciting, and even daunting task. As many of us know, the most nerve-wracking part of joining families together can be meeting and interacting with your spouse’s parents.
You love your spouse, so it’s only natural to want to love the people who raised them to be the person you vowed to commit your life to. But oftentimes, it’s just not that simple.
They Can Be an Extension of Your Spouse
As a chronic overthinker and a romantic at heart, I’ve often struggled with the following question, so much so that I’ve asked pretty much every married couple I know what they think: When you get married to someone, do you also marry their family?
The general consensus from my polled population seems to be a mixture of yes and no. On the one hand, you’ve married one unique individual, and it’s this person you’ll make decisions with, create a family with, etc. etc. However, your spouse is forever tied to their parents and their siblings, which means that whatever family issue, conflict, or drama they’re involved in will likely affect you too.
Your spouse is tied to their family, so whatever drama they’re involved in will likely affect you too.
F. Diane Barth is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist specializing in families, and she has a lot to say about how your relationship with your in-laws affects the wellbeing and even the longevity of your relationship with your spouse. When we have great relationships with our in-laws, we might not give specific issues with our spouses a second thought. But when we don’t, we might start to let resentment towards our spouse take root and grow, especially if our perception is that they’re not defending us or taking our side. It’s only natural that in cases where we feel like we stand alone, we begin to view our spouse and in-laws as a united front against us.
Our problems with them could also be deeply rooted in our own issues. For example, much of the tension between a woman and her mother-in-law may be rooted in issues between herself and her own mother which are often difficult to grasp and diagnose.
Additionally, Barth points out that in any situation of conflict between an individual, their spouse, and their in-laws, there are probably two to three or even four different perspectives on the situation, which no one is willing to acknowledge or accept.
You’re Tied Together, for Better or Worse
A friend of mine aptly observed that when someone has a great relationship with their in-laws, you never know it. But when someone has a terrible relationship with their in-laws, we’re all very well aware of it.
Even if your marriage or relationship doesn’t last though, it’s not like you can erase these people from your life as if they never existed, especially if you have children. At the same time, just because your in-laws are adults doesn’t mean they always act like it.
Toxic traits of in-laws are being intentionally hurtful and inserting themselves in private decisions.
The most common complaints about in-laws are that they’re controlling, oversharers, overly sensitive, or ignorant of or unwilling to acknowledge boundaries. Another common criticism may be if the political or religious views of the in-laws differ greatly from that of their son or daughter-in-law. But there’s also a difference between an annoying or clingy in-law, and a straight-up toxic one. Toxic traits of in-laws can be (but aren’t limited to) showing up without notice or unannounced, an intentionally critical or hurtful personality, narcissistic traits, and inserting themselves in decisions that are strictly limited to you and your spouse.
The adult reaction to these kinds of in-laws is a difficult one, but a mature one. Killing them with kindness is always an effective route (and even a satisfying one, especially if they’re trying to get you down to their level). It’s also crucial to recognize if and when they’re trying to sow discord between you and your spouse, and to come together as one in those situations – work with your spouse, never against them. Always check your expectations of your in-laws, especially if your spouse has more experience with the same issues and can offer any advice, and find the right balance of shared activities, time, and information for both them and you.
Your Kids Are Paying Attention
Even if you think your kids aren’t paying attention to your relationship with their grandparents, they definitely are. As a social worker in my 9 to 5, I’m always amazed at what even toddlers and smaller kids internalize about their parents’ interactions with other adults.
With kids around, the attention on your relationship with them is even more magnified. Deciding on boundaries is one thing, but it’s even more of a task to get grandparents to actually respect them. With that in mind, whether it’s a long, extravagant vacation or ice cream before bed, decide what’s a sticking point and what isn’t. But when it comes down to getting those boundaries tested, don’t lose your cool. Becoming emotional is understandable, but if your in-laws are pushing your buttons intentionally that’s probably the exact reaction they’re aiming for.
Deciding on boundaries is one thing, but it’s even more of a task to get grandparents to respect them.
I’ve seen firsthand in my own family how a parent’s views of their in-laws heavily influenced and informed how their own children interacted with them. It’s one thing to openly voice your brutally honest, probably inappropriate opinion regarding your in-laws in front of your kids, thereby motivating your children to absorb the same perceptions. But it’s another, probably better path for your kids if you let them form their own thoughts without your personal input (they might even arrive at the same conclusions). The former is more satisfying in the moment, and even though the latter option requires considerable strength and discretion, it’s probably the better alternative for your kids. Sowing resentment in your children’s minds only gives your in-laws more ammunition against you, no matter how justified your feelings and misgivings are.
You might be wondering if I ever ended up answering my own question now that I’m married – and while I still haven’t necessarily decided, I have gathered my own observations.
Fortunately, my in-laws are just as thoughtful, generous, and loving as their son is. But so many of my friends and family weren’t as blessed, and navigating those rocky relationships can complicate an otherwise wonderful marriage. I’ve since observed that even if your in-laws aren’t your favorite people, you can still build a stable, mature relationship with them, for the good of your kids and the good of your marriage.
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