In the beginning we all tend to go the extra mile to impress our in-laws. We invite them to dinner, let them spend the night, watch the kids. But, as the years go by, suddenly we realize that they’ve entrenched themselves. On the couch, at the kids’ games, in our lives. It’s amazing to have them around. But boundaries are necessary for families to function properly. This is easier said than done, though. So what’s the best way to handle this without creating a rift in the dynamic?
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to In-Laws
Dr. Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent, regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors, and co-star on Sex Box, regularly handles in-law conflict in her practice. And she often encounters patients talking about in-laws overstepping boundaries and butting into issues that are none of their business. Some in-laws, she says, tend to engage in what’s called “conditional love,” the concept of giving gifts with the unspoken understanding that said gifts translate to voting or (worse yet) veto power in family decisions. Regardless, having in-laws as a constant presence in your life can create a slew of problems. “The in-laws mix in to parent their grandchildren,” she says, “thereby discounting and diminishing the parent’s authority.”
Walfish notes that, of course, “quantity and intensity of issues vary depending on the culture of the family.” But the solution applies to everyone: establish ‘reasonable separation’ — the adult child doesn’t allow their parents to influence their thinking. In order to keep sanity in the household, Walfish recommends that daughters and sons-in-law take the following steps.
Communicate With Your Spouse
Make sure you and your partner know what the other is feeling at all times when it comes to relationships with mom and dad. You don’t want to create a situation where there’s a notable rift between the two of you, lest one or both of the in-laws attempt to swoop in and exploit it. “If your in-laws sense a split between you and your partner they will triangulate,” says Walfish. “Meaning they’ll put themselves in the middle and place a wedge between you and your spouse.”
Keep Your Cool
If your father-in-law is planted in front of the TV because he has to watch Jeopardy! every night or your mother in law insists on telling you everything you’re doing wrong with your kids, it’s easy to want to blow up. But no matter what happens, losing your temper will only create bigger problems. “Always be respectful, courteous, and kind to your in-laws,” Walfish says. “If you are displeased and opt to express it directly, be sure to remain respectful at all times.”
Sounds obvious, but it’s shocking how often one spouse or another can become lax when it comes to things in which they’ll allow their parents to participate. It’s key to make the expectations clean up front, including frequencies and the length of visits. Walfish says that it can be beneficial to role play with your partner, creating situations that might arise and coming up with ways to resolve them. “How will you handle it if there is an explosive moment?” she says. “Have a plan in place for handling difficult situations and include a getaway exit plan.”
Don’t Forget Who Your In-Laws Are
When all is said and done, no matter how nuts they might make you, your in-laws are not only your spouse’s parents, they’re also your children’s grandparents. It’s important to keep that in mind and find a way to have them be a part of your lives while still managing to hold on to yours. “They love your kids and need to have a reciprocal warm relationship,” says Walfish. “Be sure to encourage, nurture, and nourish these vital relationships.”
Create Family Rituals
The fact is, your in-laws are spending so much time with you because they want to be with you. So, rather than have them set up shop in your den, it’s a good idea to create some kind of a regular appointment where your family can get together with your in-laws and catch up. Whether it’s a weekly Sunday dinner, a monthly Friday dinner, or something else that fits your schedules, a regular gathering can be a special event and save you future headaches. “Keeping it regular gives each family member something to look forward to and anticipate,” Walfish says. “Make it frequent enough to feel good and not so often that you feel smothered.”