7 Tips for Setting Boundaries With Your In-Laws, According to a Therapist

In-laws can quickly feel like intruders. Here's how to make sure that doesn't happen.

The first time you meet your in-laws, you have a singular goal: impress them. They are the gatekeepers, after all, the ones through whom you must pass to have a happily ever after with their child. So you go out of your way to be accommodating. But, after a number of years and a couple of kids, you start to become the gatekeeper. It is your responsibility to maintain balance in your family and, because you may have been a tad too accommodating before, your in-laws can be a bit overbearing. This comes from them wanting to help, most likely, but they can go from endearing to invasive quickly. That’s why it’s important to establish boundaries that keep in-laws from becoming intruders. That, of course, requires some tact. Here, then, are seven tips for dealing with overbearing in-laws that will not only keep them at bay but also help strengthen the family bond all around.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to In-Laws

Shift your thinking.

Movies and TV have suffocated us with the trope of the gargoyle mother-in-law, or the easy chair-hogging father-in-law. Of course, this isn’t the case. “Many couples go into marriage looking at their in-laws as a threat,” says Susan Silver, Psychotherapist at the Wellington Counseling Group in Chicago. “This isn’t necessarily true, and it’s detrimental to start things off on such a negative plane.” Instead, Silver recommends, go in cautiously – assuming the best – and then re-evaluate if you need to change course. Doing so could be the difference between wanting to hit the links with your new dad, or hitting your new dad with a three wood.

Take competition out of the equation.

Why not? Because there is none. “Don’t compete,” Silver says. “Romantic love and parental love are totally different. In some cases, you may have to spell this out for overbearing in-laws. If you sense any sort of competitive atmosphere emerging, endeavor to diffuse it as quickly as possible. First, acknowledge the situation. Then, encourage your spouse to spend some quality alone time with his or her parents every now and then.”

Remember that you’ll be an in-law one day.

Assuming future generations is certainly prudent. And when you do meet your future partner parents, you’re going to want to do it right, right? “Often what you give is what you receive,” says Silver. “So think about what your in-laws may be feeling during certain situations, and try to adjust your attitude and perception accordingly. You cannot – and should not – be the one to compromise, but definitely be open to some give and take. Be a negotiator. Try to create a win-win. And, most importantly, remember that you are modeling behavior for your children.”

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Sync up with your Spouse.

You can’t expect to deal with overbearing in-laws alone, so you and your spouse had better be on the same page. “Let your partner know that he or she comes first,” advises Silver. “Then, convey this boundary to your in-laws in a gentle way. Be explicit if it becomes necessary, just know that it’s your job to make your in-laws – and, more importantly, your spouse – feel like he or she is number one. This will build trust and commitment, which are two important pillars of any marriage.” Hopefully your situation won’t turn into a tag-team melee. But, if it does, make sure you’re in the right corner.

Establish regular visiting times.

Patterns are always helpful in family dynamics. So, when possible, carve out a regular pattern of meeting so that your in-laws can look forward to quality time as much as you do. “It could be something as simple as a Sunday night dinner,” suggests Silver. “Or, it could be something like a yearly vacation. Any regular time when your in-laws can be with you or your children will be healthy for everyone, and will provide relief when it doesn’t have to be constantly renegotiated.” Hey, maybe you could convince the in-laws to pick your kids up from school one day a week so you can flex your schedule a bit.

Give them time with the children.

This goes without saying but your in-laws, if they’re up for the task, deserve time with their grandchildren. Springer says it’s essential to help them bond and feel needed. “If you can trust your in-laws with your children, let them know that whenever possible by allowing them their own bonding time together,” says Silver. “Doing so will help them build special relationships with each other, and will give you extra time for yourself – a big plus if spending time with them is a true chore.”

Embrace their interests.

Okay, so, even if Murder She Wrote reruns and canvassing flea markets aren’t your particular hobbies, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them in the company of your in-laws. “Doing something they enjoy with your in-laws will have particular meaning to them,” says Silver. “It’s a gesture of thoughtfulness and generosity that won’t go unnoticed. Have your spouse coyly point out that the excursion, whatever it may be, was your idea and BOOM! – instant in-law points.” Now, who’s up for some WNBA action?