How to Protect Your Marriage From Your In-Laws

When in-law issues arise, consider these steps.

by Alison Zeidman
Originally Published: 
sepia photo of a mother-in-law pointing her finger and looking judgmental

In-laws come with marriage, but it will surprise no one that a lot couples struggle to navigate these relationships over time. Even under the best circumstances, where there’s easy affection and mutual respect, frustrations and conflicts arise — and tend to intensify once grandchildren enter the picture.

It’s easy to see why: In-laws have expectations, hopes, and dreams that may, uh, conflict with the reality you represent. They might also like your brother-in-law more than you and enjoy critiquing your parenting choices with a passive-aggressive flair that sets your nerves routinely on edge. But it all comes with the territory. So when tensions with in-laws come up in your marriage, how do you keep the peace with each other’s parents while making sure you’re aligned with your spouse?

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to In-Laws

It’s all about recognizing where the control issues arise (in both you and your spouse, and with your in-laws) and forming a united front with your partner, says Dr. Dion Metzger a relationships expert and board certified psychiatrist who’s helped with many couples deal with intrusive in-laws. Here, per Metzger is how to keep in-laws under control.

Be Wise When Choosing Sides

Understand that whichever side you take in an in-laws fight, you’re going to end up making someone unhappy. Metzger says “feelings of resentment can build” in situations where a partner chooses their parent over their spouse, “and when those feelings start building, you get into a danger zone where it puts a strain on the marriage. Not only in how you communicate — children may notice too.” In the long run, your kids will thank you for freezing out Grandma.

And, if you do end up taking your parents’ side, try to do it in a way that doesn’t discount your wife’s feelings. “I’ve seen with husbands — if their wife has an issue often the reflex is to minimize it,” says Metzger. “But eventually if you’re going to keep brushing it under the rug, it’s going to come out in other ways in terms of anger and resentment.” If she’s raised an issue (spoiler alert) it’s because she’s upset about it. And you know that being compassionate was part of the gig when you signed up.

Form a United Front With Your Spouse

Metzger says one of the most common conflicts she sees is grandparents criticizing how their grandchild is being raised. But the good news is, since that’s actually an attack on both of you, it should be easier for you to stand up to it. “I almost always see the spouses unite [on this],” says Metzger. “To say, ‘You know what mom and dad? This is how we’re doing it.’” Then, just to rub it in, let your kids swim in a kiddie pool full of mac ’n cheese.

Examine All the Relationships

If neither partner can seem to wriggle out of their parents’ control, that’s reflective of their childhood, says Metzger. “[They may have] had a very authoritative relationship with the parent, where whatever Mom/Dad says goes,” says Metzger. “Sometimes it’s culturally related, sometimes it’s just parenting styles.” In extreme cases, she says, a partner might even discuss big decisions with their parents before talking to their spouse, which, intentionally or not, sends the message that they don’t value their partner’s opinion. So both partners need to make a concerted effort to examine the relationship and understand how to better approach the dynamic.

Complain Constructively

If your wife’s family is driving you nuts, and she either doesn’t notice their bad behavior or just isn’t bothered by it, you have the right to bring it up and ask for change. Metzger’s overall advice is to talk about any issues right away so they don’t fester. Keep the conversation solution-oriented. Bad idea: Shouting about how hard her family sucks. Good idea: “Talk from an angle of trying to improve things and seeing what you can do better in your relationship in terms of communication.”

You can still hit all of your bullet points. You just want to do it in a way that explains how you’re feeling, and what you’d like to see both of you do to work on making it better. Like, say, “I would like to see you ask your mom to stop inviting your ex-boyfriend to family events” or “I would like us to agree that Grandpa is cut off from the baby after three glasses of eggnog.” Once you have that conversation, be patient while they’re trying to change. Remember: They’ve had this relationship with their parents a lot longer than they’ve had one with you.

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