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How to Confront Your In-Laws (Without Pissing Off Your Spouse)

What to do when your mother- and father-in-law overstep their bounds.

Flickr / US National Archives

When you marry your wife, you marry her family, too. And just as you and your beloved will hit some rough patches along the way so too will you and your in-laws. It’s the nature of the dynamic: When a marriage first starts out, you were eager to please your in-laws and probably neglected to set firm boundaries. Chances are, you pushed issues to the back burner because you wanted to please your spouse. It happens. Now, saddled with kids and busy schedules, the relationship with your mother and father-in-law can become, shall we say, more stressful and problems can arise.

In order to keep in-law issues from overtaking your marriage, it’s important to learn assertiveness and establish boundaries. “Once you learn these skills, you can start noticing if — and when — your in-laws cross your boundaries,” says Monica White, a licensed mental health counselor. “Noticing the pattern is the first step. Figuring out what works for you is the second step.”

Now, it’s easy to worry about boundary establishment for fear of appearing cold-hearted or “mean” to your in-laws. However, White says that doesn’t have to be the case. “It’s important to know that you can be a nice person with a kind heart, and say no,” she says. “In fact, becoming aware of your boundaries and being assertive actually lets you stand up for yourself and your family too. Assertive means you are clear about what works for you. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

So, how does this play out in practical situations, like those visits when grandma and papa show up unexpectedly and stay too long, accidentally spoil your kids with unnecessary gifts, or ignore your rules because “they did it differently”? We ran some stressful in-law  scenarios past White and she provided us with a game plan for dealing with them in the correct way. Take a deep breath and read on.

The Situation: Your In-Laws Drop By Unannounced and Stay For Hours

The Solution: Your home is the ultimate safe space, the place where you go to destress and reclaim your balance. So when in in-laws burst into your sanctum sanctorum, it can be disruptive enough, but when they won’t leave it can be worse. The key is to form a unified front with your partner and decide on an in-law time that is acceptable for you both. “If you can be assertive ahead of time, you’ll prevent arguments during stressful situations,” says White. “It’s not too much to expect that your house be a neutral space to rest, recharge, and relax.” 

The Situation: Your In-Laws Ignore Your Parenting Rules Because They “Did it Differently”

The Solution: This is another situation where it’s important to lay out the rules up front. If you’re assertive and firm about your position regarding how your kids are to be disciplined out of the gate, then it becomes harder for the in-laws to question them.

“Communicating assertively helps ‘train’ others to respect your emotional and intellectual boundaries,” says White. “If you are consistent with your boundaries, eventually family members will start to understand that in order to have a relationship with you and your children, that they will have to start meeting you in the middle.”

The Situation: Your In-Laws Are Always Spoiling Your Kids

The Solution:  This is a trickier situation. Communication is still key, but the approach should be a gentler one, as your spouse’s parents are most likely coming from a good place. Explain to them that their overindulgence, while well-intentioned, can sometimes come across as undermining. You could also offer a suggestion that, instead of buying big gifts, shower them with smaller, less expensive presents. However, White says, there is something to be said for being grateful that your in-laws want to show your kids some love. “Take advantage of the time you in-laws are spending with your kids, to focus on yourself,” she suggests. “Engage in self-care, connect with positive social supports, take time to exercise, and do nice things for yourself.”

The Situation: Your In-Laws Try to Buy Your Kid’s Affection

The Solution:  This is the dark side of grandparents who shower their grandkids with gifts and is a good opportunity for your kids, if they’re old enough, to advocate for themselves. Talking to your kids openly about the importance of speaking up when they feel they’re grandparents are crossing the line materialistically can help strengthen your relationship. It can also teach them valuable life skills.

If they’re not, it’s a matter of sitting your in-laws down calmly and asking why they feel like they need to show their love with gifts. Something telling will come out of the conversation — maybe they feel like you don’t give them enough time with their grandchildren, or they feel like they don’t know how to connect — and work with them to find a solution.