Beliefnet
Doing Life Together

family-515530_1920The in-laws! What came to mind when you hear those two words? Handling in-laws can be tricky for most every couple. Let’s face it, as the in-law, you are an outsider to a family system that already has established rules and dynamics. But to be fair, your spouse has the same challenge 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.

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 most likely be a part of the important people who instill values in your children.

On one extreme, there is the intrusiveness and meddling in-laws. Complicating this dynamic is often the feeling of the in-laws that their intrusiveness is a demonstration of love and care, sometimes it doesn’t come across this way. They may have trouble letting go of their parenting role, and the adult child (your spouse) may have trouble establishing independence.

The other extreme is too much distance. Some parents may emotionally and even physically cut off their adult child when they marry. Too much distance can create problems as well. There is a loss of support, a lack of caregiving, and limited family participation.

So here are a few tips to  make dealing with the in-laws a positive experience:

  1. Recognize the culture. Our culture and upbringing play 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. Being culturally sensitive helps the family system.
  2. Develop code words. My husband and I  have a good relationship with each other’s parents. Even so, there are still times when both sets of parents challenge us.  When those times occur, we have code words or certain glances that cue us to a strategy. We remain respectful but we also know when we need to change the conversation, stay quiet or assert ourselves. The point is to have those conversations as a couple in order to know ahead of time what the hot buttons are and how you will handle them.
  3. Don’t criticize your spouse’s relationship with his or her parents. If you do you will raise your spouse’s defenses. Try to understand more about the family system and why people behave the way they do. Dig into their backgrounds and life experiences. Those usually tell you a lot about the issues you see.
  4. Establish ground rules. Don’t wait for a problem. Ahead of time talk about how you as a couple will handle extended family: For example, should your marital issues be private and not discussed with parents? How much time do you spend with in-laws? If there is a problem, will your spouse confront it?
  5. Spend time with your in-laws. There is no better to really get to know someone than spending time with them. Do activities together and ask what they enjoy. Make an effort to join them in fun things. In the end, you could discover areas of common ground.
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