One of the biggest walls in a marriage can be the in-laws. Before we get married, we often see our in-laws to be, whether we like them or not, as an insignificant force in our lives. They may annoy us with their expectations, be overbearing or we may think they are the greatest set of parents on earth. Then suddenly, the I do’s are said and the in-laws suddenly become something more. This something more is called family. From that point on, they can be a thorn in our side constantly handing out snide and spiteful remarks that seem to speak volumes on what kind of marital partner we are becoming. While these underhanded behaviors can hurt a lot, it is very difficult to talk to them because we respect them as elders and don’t want to cause a huge division in our family system. Then, if and when kids come along, the in-law situation can become horrendous and for so many, lays the foundation for divorce down the road. The reality of it is that we should pay more attention to the in-laws and their relationship with our spouse long before we get married. But since we don’t thinking love will take care of everything, setting the in laws straight during your marriage is often the only option you will have to make things right.
It is easy to see why the in law situation can escalate. First of all the in-laws represent your spouse’s previous life up until you. Everything that your husband or wife has ever done, accomplished or been – has been more than likely been shared with the in-laws. Parents and children live life together for so many years, sharing future dreams and building success from infancy to adult hood. This connection entitles the in-laws to feel as though they have a say, opinion, and wedge of stock in their child’s life, despite them now being married. This stock is natural and while annoying during marital times, it is constructed of love and shouldn’t be felt as a slight to the new husband or wife. At the same time, most adults get married and feel this immediate surge to break the ties to family and live autonomously. The harder a couple pulls away demanding privacy and the ability to be seen as an adult couple that needs to be left alone, the more the in-laws may feel they are losing hold of their child. So the struggle is really about letting go of an old family and building a new one. The sad part is that during this restructuring there are bound to be hurt feelings, smashed toes, and injustice.
One of the chief complaints of married people is that their spouse lets the mother or father in law have too much influence over their partner. What most couples do however is pick fights and demand action from their spouse rather than from their in-laws. If your mother in law is constantly putting you down with belittling statements, than it is only normal that you want your spouse to stick up for you. Then when they don’t, the fighting can start. And what is sad but true is that this argument is often rooted in the age-old “love me better” mentality. We desperately want our partners in life to stand beside us first and foremost and above and beyond the way they do all others. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, most marital counselors including the ever-popular Dr. Phil, admit that in order for marriage to work, partners have to become an abominable team of their own and stand together on all issues, including the in-laws. The trick is knowing how to set the in-laws straight without burning bridges or alienating the marriage. Regardless of how you feel now, in a few years or maybe a decade or so – you will come to terms with your in-laws and probably out of respect, understanding and maybe even a little bit of live – begin understanding their asset to your own life.
The first thing you should do if you feel slighted by the in-laws is to talk to your spouse about it. Make sure you use powerful words like I feel, I need, I want, – which allow you to own your feelings. This way, they don’t have to be a matter of right or wrong, but more a matter of how you feel about something. When you talk to your spouse about the situation, make sure that you also offer some solutions to the problems. For instance, rather than saying “I cant stand it when your mom comes over every weekend because this should be OUR time,” say “If your mother would call first before she comes over and allow us to have Sundays to ourselves I would not feel so resentful!” This way your spouse will not see you as jealous or spiteful, but will see that you are trying to meet in the middle of the road. The next step is often the hardest. While in a perfect world, your husband or wife would march over to their parent’s house and demand independence and adherence to the rules with the stipulation that it is the ONLY way things are going to work out, very few people will do this to their own parents. Instead, you have to do it together and set the in-laws straight about expectations without hurting their feelings or becoming too mean hearted.
Setting the in laws straight, does not give an ultimatum nor does it only offer one solution to a problem. It cannot be your way or the highway. Remember that your in laws, while not perfect have been a part of your spouse’s life much longer than you have. For this reason, there has to be give and take. And while it is normal to feel mad, sad or angered by the in-laws for their seemingly complete lack of respect – you should realize that it only comes from a place of love. You should also respect the fact that your spouse may not feel exactly as you do and working out the degree of involvement that in laws have in your life is part of working out YOUR marriage. Take the in-laws out to dinner and sit down with them as husband and wife. Before you go, decide what you are going to talk about and make sure that you and your spouse will stand together as a united front. Then, simply and with as much compassion as possible, try to hash out the problems that exist. Try to realize that even though your in-laws might be meddlesome and seemingly mean hearted, they are really only trying to find their new place in their child’s life. In other words, the annoying actions and behaviors are really only driven by love.
Don’t expect your spouse to hurt his or her own parents feelings either. Realize that they are stuck in the middle of a situation that they never hoped for. If the two of you can approach them together, calmly and with openness – you will be able to get much further. However, if you show up at their doorstep like a raving lunatic and start yelling or arguing with them, you will only make the situation worse. Realize also, that fighting with you spouse about the in-laws is also a waste of effort and anger. Make sure you keep the disgruntlement in its place and that the two of you can find a united front to face the problem. This way you and your spouse won’t be left with regressive and resentful feelings toward one another which will eventually only drive you apart. Setting the in-laws straight doesn’t have to be a negative encounter, and if the two of you can do it together, while remaining a team and staying compassionate – you will get much further together.