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What to Do When Your Spouse Is Fighting With Family

One second you're all at the family barbecue, the next, everyone is yelling and throwing their potato salad at each other.

Fights between your husband or wife and their family happen. Sometimes they’ll happen in front of you. One moment you’re at a dinner with your husband or wife and their family and, before you know it, lines are drawn and they’re all yelling across the table. All families are different and communication takes many forms. But in such circumstances, it’s easy ask: What happened? What do I do? Do I just sit here and be quiet or should I tell them to all stop fighting? It turns out there is a right and a wrong way to handle that type of fight. Fatherly talked to Dr. Dana Dorfman, a psychologist who has been working with families for more than three decades. She provided a game plan for what to do — and, importantly, what not to do — while and after your spouse and their parents have a blowout.

What to Do — and Not Do — When Your Partner Is Fighting With Their Parents

1. Be Patient

So, you’re out to dinner with the in-laws, presiding over your chicken piccata in relative peace when, because of an ill-said phrase, comment, or opinion, a fight begins to brew. This happens. Families have a lot of history and a level of comfort that allows mild disagreements or old thorns to appear. As the third party in those cases, it’s important, per Dorfman, that you stay quiet and make sure you don’t put your foot in your mouth or embarrass yourself or your partner by jumping in right away. Even if your instinct is to immediately defend your partner, it’s crucial to be patient and wait to see how the conversation unfolds.

2. Focus on the Tone — Not the Content — of the Argument

If the argument does escalate, you should be very careful about what you say when you do step in. Rather than focus on the content of the argument, Dorfman advises focusing on the tone of the discussion. When the moment comes, try saying something along the lines of “It sounds like emotions are so high we’re not going to be productive.” Or “It sounds like it’s hard for you two to hear each other.” Suggesting a break, a breather, or a reminder that you’re in a public place, per Dorfman, might stop the fight for the time being. In other words: Don’t get involved in the content of the argument: Just make sure it doesn’t get out of control.

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3. Do Not Undermine Your Partner

This is difficult. But even if your spouse is way, way off base in an argument, it’s important to hold your tongue in the moment and bring up your issues with their behavior at another time, says Dorfman.

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“If you do disagree with an argument, do that in private, not in front of their parents,” she says. “If you don’t approve of your partner cursing at their parents, or yelling, wait until the next day to talk about it,” she says. The point being: You and your spouse are a team and you need to act like it. Besides, criticizing them in the moment will only stoke the flames. Only bring up your thoughts when you’re home, they’ve cooled off, and they ask for advice. Only at that point can you say if you think your partner was out of line — otherwise, you can damage your relationship and your partner will wonder who you are in the relationship for.

4. Only Step in If the Fight Turns Abusive

There are very few times when you should intervene in a fight between your partner and their parents. However, if the fight gets really, really ugly, you have to step in, says Dorfman. “If the fight between your partner and their parents is such that you believe that their parents are being abusive in any way, say, ‘I think it’s time for us to go,’ ” she says. “If anything physical or name-calling begins, that’s grounds to leave.” Protecting your partner and supporting them sometimes means that you know when it’s time to leave.

How to Help Your Partner After a Big Fight With Their Parents

1. Prepare to Be Their Sounding Board

Once the fight is over and you’re heading home, be ready to be your partner’s sounding board. Support here is key. “It’s imperative that, as a partner, you at least listen and try to understand and validate the emotions of your partner. Even if you disagree or want to suggest an alternative way for the person to express it, the first thing to do is have your partner be heard. So, listen. Validate. Validate their feelings,” says Dorfman. Do not offer advice at this stage. Listen, be empathetic. Your partner is upset and needs you.

2. Offer Advice — But Only If They’re Ready for It

Once your partner has cooled down a bit from the fight, you can feel free to give advice — but only if they want it, says Dorfman. Questions, not statements, are key. “Ask if your partner would want your input. ‘May I make a suggestion? Would you be interested in my perspective?’ ” posits Dorfman. If your partner says no, don’t make a suggestion. Go back to being supportive. If they say yes, then offer your advice.

3. Ask: “How Can I Help?”

If you’re at a loss for advice or your partner isn’t ready to hear it, ask what they want from you, says Dorfman. Giving advice or speaking off the cuff can be tough because it can be hard for people to identify what they want post-argument or at all. So they might just want a glass of wine when they get home, the ability to vent for 30 minutes, a foot rub, and a funny TV show. Do that with them.

What You Can Both Do Before the Next Encounter

Come Up With a Plan

If your spouse has one of those relationships with their parents — where tensions frequently run high and fights are common, it’s important for spouses to have a bit of a game plan before they walk into the next family reunion or birthday party.

“Even preparing for what feelings might arise in that contentious relationship is a good idea,” says Dr. Dorfman. From there, couples can start to plan, she says. In that moment, you should say: “What do you think you’re going to be feeling? When you start to feel that way, what can I do, and what do you plan on doing?”

For example, if a family often has the same discussion over that one moment where your partner had a total public freakout in the eighth grade, and your partner hates that conversation, make a plan to get up to do the dishes. Or have a plan to coolly steer the subject in another direction. The key is you want to walk into what might be an uncomfortable situation as a team that’s on the same page and can stop any future fights before they arise.