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Laws for in-laws: why trouble in these relationships hurts, and what to do about it

“We were having lunch with my in-laws the other day and out of the blue my mother-in-law said, ‘I’ve decided I want to be cremated.’ I said, ‘Alright, get your coat.’” -D. Spivey


Our culture has a lot of deeply hostile (and very funny) jokes about mother-in-laws—a sure sign that something important is going on underneath. Freud’s early and significant work on jokes pointed out that they were a way for people to reveal things that we wanted to talk about, but in a more socially-acceptable form. Because of misogyny, there is more of a focus on mother-in-laws, but in practice I’ve noticed that many different forms of emotional problems can emerge with all combinations of the in-law kin, including fathers- and siblings-in-law.

It might surprise you to know that many people enter therapy explicitly to figure out how to deal with their difficult relationships with their in-laws. And while they come in troubled by hostility, hurt and bewilderment, there is also often a deep wish for understanding, fondness, and mutual appreciation. These relationships really matter.

If you have a difficult relationship with your in-laws right now, or if your partner does, you are not alone. That said, many people are lucky enough (like me) to have kind, thoughtful and accepting in-laws—and it’s important to say that sometimes the stereotypes are totally wrong and unfair. The beautiful family in the image accompanying this post reminds us that joy shared with family can be deeply meaningful. But that makes hard times, misunderstandings and alienation even harder to accept. My post today will try to say something useful about the ways that things can go wrong with in-laws, and how to understand and maybe do something about it when they do.

Your in-laws matter and the problem is worth your attention

Our culture places such a premium on independence that it can be blind to interdependence—the ways we all must rely on each other to survive. One reason these relationships are so important is that they can actually hurt and even destroy the marriage. Another is that our ideas, fantasies and projections about the laden term “family” keep us from thinking clearly sometimes, and make an extra sting when there is a hard interaction. The relationship with your in-laws is potent and deep.

In my practice, I have heard about in-laws who control a family business cutting one child out when they marry someone who is disapproved of, of another family where the mother-in-law gave the daughters-in-law lingerie for holiday presents and insisted they open their packages in front of the entire family, another where the in-laws set up a vacation rental with the family in a place that was physically dangerous for a just-walking toddler. Difficult, hurtful things that cut people to the quick and are hard to forget.

There’s a tremendous amount riding on the bond of parents to children. After all, these are the people who gave birth to and raised you and your beloved. In addition, they sometimes hold power over you in the form of money, judgements or acceptance from the rest of the family. I also think that many of us feel ashamed and blame ourselves if we can’t seem to get along with a family member, it causes us to fret in unhealthy ways. We might decide that the difficult or judgmental person is pure evil, or we may attempt to repress all our hard feelings and end up being passive aggressive. So, spiritually, emotionally, and practically, it’s a good idea to see if you can get into a more satisfying place. And putting energy into figuring out how to make things go well with your in-laws is another way of working to improve your marriage, and your own emotional health.

One of the most important exercises is just looking at the reality of the situation. We all—rightly—long for close family, and the acceptance and warmth we associate with the word. So, having a hard time with your in-laws can be acutely disappointing and disheartening. Sometimes people feel that cutting remarks, judgements or what seem like mean-spirited decisions should not hurt; but they do. Recognize the hurt and try to take a look at it before the feelings build up and comes out in ways that you may regret.

I once had a client tell me that the most helpful thing therapy gave him about this was the assurance that he was not crazy to feel that he was dealing with galling and perplexing people, “knowing that they sound so troubled and mean to you too helps me be able to deal with them. When I step back and look at it with you, a part of me can even feel a little bad for them that they are missing out on getting to know the man their daughter loves.”

Acceptance and planning for responses to bad behavior

So if your in-laws are hard to connect with, accept it. Acknowledging “they are really difficult people and though I want to be loved and accepted by them, I may never get that.” As sad as it is, it actually can really help things go better. You can stop fighting against your expectations, and lower them way down. This is very hard for some of us to do—there is a feeling of injustice and a very persistent idea that the difficult people should change first. Of course we feel this way. But if we are motivated to improve things, we must be the one to act.

Once you’ve accepted that this is a challenge in your life; then you can begin to plan to deal with it thoughtfully. Facing the issues instead of just hoping they will change or being outraged and repeating the same pattern is a part of growing up. An important part of growing up is learning to deal with the generation before us, to be a model for our elders—an uncomfortable switch. But from this more realistic place, your goals can be things like “survive the visit with some dignity and grace” rather than “break through and be cherished like a beloved family member” or “get them to apologize.”

In order to understand what you are coping with, try to identify what specifically causes the difficulty. Are they clinging, passive-aggressive, manipulative, controlling, competitive? Are they judgmental about your parenting or the way you spend money? How can you isolate the problem so that you can enlarge the areas of connection and ease? If they are controlling, meet them out at a restaurant rather than in their home. If they are competitive, praising their accomplishments and staying calm and friendly may make them see you as an ally or as less of a threat.

Other more realistic goals for dealing with in-laws might be things like “I’d like to spend time with my in-laws without taking the bait when they talk about politics” or “I will leave the room for a few minutes if something hurtful is said”. It may also be, “I will stand up for myself without attacking anyone,” or “I will directly ask, ‘are you trying to make me feel guilty?’” Other things you can say, “You’re not criticizing my childrearing practices again, are you?” or “Let’s agree to disagree and just enjoy our time together.”

Expect surprise, feigned ignorance, shock or even attacks when you change your behavior—people tend to react poorly when you won’t do the old dance with them. Plan ahead with your partner (if you can) to support each other calmly and to have plan B, C and D (remember there’s a whole alphabet!) for how to keep your cool and your dignity. It’s ideal to be a team with your partner on this, though that is not always possible. You can have a little meaningful sign with one another like a smile or a wink to stay connected, and you can celebrate later when you make it through to the other side. You are going to have to step away, speak up calmly to protect yourself, and other difficult but honorable behaviors a lot of times before they see you mean to change.

And finally, think about what goes well and try to enlarge on that—a hike, a shorter visit, staying in a hotel? A little realistic foresight can head off the worst of it.

Your spouse and you: the next generation

Earlier I said you should team up and plan with your spouse “if you can” to make things go better. But there really should not be an if. It is key that you and your partner eventually work out how you will take on this family problem together. You may need to consult with a couples therapist for help, but it is not an option for a healthy marriage to allow one member of the couple to flounder alone on this issue. It matters because the couple is the primary relationship and the new generation, and it matters because everyone must individuate from their parents in such a way that they can make decisions for themselves that are healthy and clear-minded. This may look different in different cultures, but everyone with a separate body must contend with their emotional separation from their parents in some form. The moment when your spouse has trouble with your parents is an excellent developmental opportunity for you to look inward and realize that you need to be your partner’s true partner. This is always in balance with seeing your own and your spouse’s attachment to family as something to respect.

Be philosophical, and try to use humor

Someday we may be the in-law, the difficult person to our child and their spouse, life is funny that way. It may help to think about the ways you might be upset if your kid marries a Republican or someone who believes in spanking their kids (your grandchildren) or has a lot of debt or is just personally combative. That will be its own stage of life and this is practice for it, in a way! It may help you to gentle your responses a bit.

There are ages of human psychology in this personal dilemma you face—mother-in-law jokes are very ancient. Difficult family dynamics, hurts, feuds and painful separations are the stuff of Shakespeare and earlier legends and stories. You are not alone!

In my practice, I have found that the in-law relationship can improve dramatically, and people can get clearer about their lives and how they want to relate to their in-laws. It’s worth working on!

For other posts that might help you cope with this kind of challenge, please try reading:

Lea Seigen Shinraku’s “Self Compassion Just Might Save Your Life”

Molly Howard “Trust Your Struggle: Mindfulness for Uncertain Times”

Elizabeth Sullivan

Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and couples repair and grow. We move you from feeling stuck or trapped to finding what's meaningful and poetic in everyday life. Elizabeth works in-person and online, and also offers parenting coaching packages for brief, solution-focussed therapy. She practices in San Francisco and is Co-Founder of Psyched in San Francisco and Editor of Psyched Magazine.

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