When you asked your spouse to marry you, or when you said yes to the question, did you fully comprehend what you were saying at the time?
You were planning out the rest of your life at the moment and inviting another person to join you in the journey. But did you realize who they’d be bringing along with them on this journey to wedded bliss and harmony?
Handling in-laws can be tricky for most every couple. Let’s face it, you are an outsider to a family system that has very established rules and dynamics. But to be fair, your spouse has the same battle with your family.
Not everyone has the blessing of good in-laws. Many spouses still may feel like they must compete against their in-laws for the time and attention of their spouse. This is especially true during the first few years of marriage.
In my case, I’ve been blessed with great in-laws. But this didn’t just happen by chance. They had to learn this skill, as did I.
I am grateful to my brother in-law and sister in-laws for the breaking in of my in-laws. You see, my wife is the youngest of 5 in her family. So her parents were already pretty experienced in the in-law world by the time I entered the picture.
But I did marry their baby, so even with all their experience, it took some adjusting for all of us to grow to where we are today.
Like it or not, the in-laws are part of your life. So having a good relationship with them is vital. First, you’re married to their child, who most likely is still important to them. And secondly, they will help instill values in your children.
So how do you navigate the in-law waters? With a mix of tact, straighforwardness, and healthy selfishness.
The biggest issues that arise when it comes to in-laws seem to be one of two extremes. On one extreme there is intrusiveness and meddling. Even though the parents may think they are demonstrating love and care, sometimes it doesn’t come across this way. They may have trouble letting go of their parenting role, and to add to this, the child may have trouble launching out on their own with their new spouse.
The other extreme is too much distance. Some parents may emotionally and even physically cut off their child when they marry. Too much distance can create some problems in the marriage.
Whether the relationship with your in-laws is great or could use some improving, here are some tips that may help:
- Spouse comes first. The Bible even talks about this one. A person will leave their mother and father and cleave to their spouse. When you get married, it’s time to grow up and leave your parents. This doesn’t mean you emotionally kick them to the curb or cut all ties, but you do need to establish your own family. By putting your spouse first, you are choosing the adult role of being a husband or wife over the role of being a child in your parent’s family.
- Set boundaries. There are many things that happen in marriage that are none of your parent’s business. If you run to mom or dad any time you have a fight with your spouse, how are you going to learn to handle life with your spouse on your own? Avoid sharing the household secrets with your parents. Discuss with your spouse what topics and areas of your life are off limits to others.
- Establish ground rules. Much like the previous point, setting clear ground rules for handling extended family will improve your marriage.
- When do you and your spouse have exclusive time for each other?
- When do you spend time with your extended family?
- When do you involve your parents/in-laws in decision-making?
- Where should you discuss your marital conflicts: in private or in front of your in-laws?
- Recognize the culture. Our culture and upbringing plays a major role in how we do marriage. Recognize the cultural aspects of your spouse’s upbringing. One client I’ve worked with handled it this way: In her upbringing, the women did all the cooking and cleaning up at mealtimes. So when they shared a meal with her parents, he stayed out of the way. However, when her parents weren’t around, he stepped up and helped out or took care of it himself.
- Don’t criticize your spouse’s relationship with their parents. Nothing can raise a spouse’s defenses faster than criticism. Seek to understand more about their relationship rather than criticize, as this can lead to bitterness and resentment.
- Be polite. This doesn’t mean you have to change your personality to please your in-laws, simply respect rules and traditions that are important to the older generation. Being polite and respectful with in-laws will go a long way in improving the relationship. Not only with your in-laws, but your spouse as well.
- Develop code words. My wife and I have pretty good relationships with each other’s parents. Even so, there are still times when they drive us a bit crazy. We’ve developed some code words that we use to lighten the mood between us whenever in-laws are getting too annoying. Have fun with this one but remember to remain respectful. Derogatory code words could only cause more problems.
- Spend time with your in-laws. Develop a better relationship with your in-laws by doing things together. Find out what they enjoy and try joining them. This could be shopping, playing golf, cards, whatever. You may find you have more in common than you thought.