As we approach the holidays, many of us will spend increased amounts of time with family. Some really look forward to what is to them an important part of life. Others view it as more of an obligation, something that is expected. Do you look forward to time with family, or do you approach it with apprehension and dread?
Relationships with some family members can be life giving, while relationships with other family members can be life draining. Some of the more challenging relationships in families are those with “in-laws.” When you hear the word “in-laws,” the “mother-in-law/daughter-in-law” relationship, often the topic of jokes and movies, may first come to mind.
Most of us have a relationship that falls into the “in-law” category. If married, you have parents-in-law. If you are a parent with adult married children, you have a son-in-law or daughter-in-law. Even if you are single, you have other family members — aunts and uncles and cousins — who are technically in-laws. An in-law would be defined as a family member related to you by marriage.
So, why are relationships with in-laws often difficult? The answer lies in understanding some specific characteristics of families. Families have their unique beliefs, values, preferences, ways of doing things, and traditions, just to name a few. Family relationships have developed over time, resulting in strong emotional and attachment bonds. Integrating someone new into a family can be stressful.
On a theoretical level, consider that families are “systems.” Systems prefer stability, or equilibrium, and resist change. Change disrupts the equilibrium and can require significant energy. Depending on the health and stability of family members, some families negotiate change more easily than others.
Families encounter change throughout their life span. Some changes are small, simpler, and easier to adapt. A move to a bigger house in the same school district is an example. Certain aspects change for the family, such as a new house and new neighbors. These are small and easy to negotiate. Consider a move across country for a job change. This is a more complex change that involves more aspects of the family’s life. Such a change would be more difficult and require more effort.
Adding new individuals to a family requires change. While a new baby joining a household can be stressful, the baby grows up to fit within the existing family. But what happens when someone is added to a family through marriage? Two people from separate family systems choose to blend their lives, creating a new family system. The two different family systems can vary widely in terms of values, beliefs, traditions, and general ways of doing things. In this process, they bring along extended family members, such as parents, siblings, grandparents, and others. These “extra” family members can differ widely in their ability, flexibility, and willingness to add new family members. They too have to be “blended in.” The difficulty with this change or integration process is the source of the stress that shows up in in-law relationships.
In our Judeo-Christian, Western culture, this view of two people leaving their family of origin and forming their own family unit (“becoming one”) is predominant. At the same time, such a world view also recognizes the value of children honoring their parents. This tension can be difficult. A new couple has to form their own life together while at the same time honoring and respecting extended family members. For it to work, several actions need to happen. Parents should not resist the adult child’s “leaving” and bonding to another. Keep in mind that you are gaining a new son or daughter rather than losing your son or daughter. Parents need to accept that this couple will develop some of their own values, goals, and lifestyle that may at times differ from theirs.
Adult children need to respect the relationship that their spouse has with his/her own parents. You should show the same honor and respect to your spouse’s parents as you would to your own. You need to consider your in-laws as an asset to your life, not a threat. This will allow you to build a relationship with them over time.
All parties involved need to practice healthy relationship skills, including love, kindness, humility, patience, mutual respect, and forgiveness. When families struggle with any of these issues, stress and conflict are often the result. In ways large or small, some amount of stress and conflict is inevitable. How you approach the conflict makes all of the difference. You can take steps to prevent your in-laws from becoming out-laws. Thinking about and working on some crucial areas will lead to healthier relationships.
Acceptance is an important part of the process. You should begin with realistic expectations. Don’t assume that relationships with your in-laws will be the same as those with your family. Healthy and comfortable relationships with in-laws will take time and effort. You will need to work at it. Having an attitude of humility is important. Be flexible, willing to learn, and willing to make changes. Remember, the way that you have always done something is not necessarily the “right way,” it is just one way. Along these lines be willing to put as much effort into understanding your in-laws as you want them to put into understanding you. Resist being easily offended. If you do not understand, then ask questions. Make the effort to truly get to know your in-laws. Ask how they have traditionally done things, along with why. Be willing to do this even if it is not returned at first. In time, someone who is slower to warm up to a new relationship may feel safer and engage more.
Open communication is crucial for the health of any relationship, even more so for those with in-laws. You and your spouse should talk about your families in order to understand them better. Remember, the goal is to integrate new people into your family. Learn customs and preferences, and avoid hot button topics, while being polite and friendly. Don’t assume that others know what you think and feel; be willing to tell them.
Whenever possible, communicate directly with your in-laws rather than through your spouse or your child. Along these lines, be willing to address conflict and differences of opinion. Approach these times with a collaborative (finding the best solution for all involved) versus a win-at-all-costs approach.
Having boundaries is important to the success of in-law relationships. Relationship problems with in-laws most often come from a lack of boundaries. Boundaries begin by knowing and defining yourself, including what you believe, want, need, and value. Additionally, you should determine what is non-negotiable as opposed to what is a preference on which you can be flexible. Insisting on all things being your way is an indication that you have unhealthy boundaries. Couples, whether parents or married children, need to communicate with each other and then together decide on boundaries. If the couple is not together, they will communicate conflicting ideas. One person may be made out to be the bad guy. Resist temptation to throw the “outsider” (spouse or parents) under the proverbial bus as opposed to stating your own ideas. Never blame the other (parents or spouse) for a decision to which you are agreeing.
Once boundaries, both preferences and non-negotiable limits, have been defined, they will need to be communicated. When communicating, do so kindly and with an awareness that your position may be disappointing to those hearing it. Explain your rationale, be willing to state what is negotiable and what is not. Once you have expressed a non-negotiable boundary, be willing to enforce it if it’s tested, but enforce it with kindness and resolve.
Consider this common “in-law” problem as an example of using these principles. You marry into a family that traditionally has “Sunday lunch” every week. This was not your tradition, and you are not comfortable with adopting it as your own. You speak to your spouse and the two of you decide that you do not want to participate “as it has always been done.” You have your rationale; you would like to pursue other activities on your Sundays. You are willing to be flexible and decide that you could participate twice a month. Knowing your in-laws, you realize that this will be disappointing to some. Nevertheless, this is a limit you want to set. You communicate this with empathy.
As parents hearing this, you are disappointed. You reflect back to when you were first married and remember the desire to create your own life and to engage in activities and traditions differently than your parents did. You manage your own disappointment without blame or criticism. You try to have gratitude for what the children are willing to do. And, you continue the tradition that is meaningful to you even without their participation.
Having healthy relationships with in-laws is really a lifelong journey. These relationships are living things that need constant attention. Follow these basic principles that will help along the journey:
• Be the best self you can be. You can’t control others, but you can be mature, kind, loving, managing your emotions, and living according to healthy relationship principles. Be willing to read books on relationships in order to grow.
• As far as you are able, live at peace with others. Address conflict when necessary, but also be willing to let small things go. Overlook mistakes; be quick to forgive. Avoid holding resentments.
• Engage your in-laws. Be willing to spend time with them while you practice healthy boundaries. Do not expect your in-laws to do all of the accommodating. It should be an equitable and mutual process. Be willing to voice that expectation.
• Be a united front with your spouse.
• Lastly, practice gratitude. So much in life is good, even amidst some difficult problems.
Much of it is up to you, at least 50 percent anyway. With patience, understanding, and application of healthy relationship principles, you can make these relationships truly be “in-laws” as opposed to “out-laws.”
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.