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6 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 — and remembering a few truths. 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

1. Shift Your Thinking.

Movies and TV have suffocated us with the trope of the gargoyle mother-in-law, or the EZ-chair-hogging father-in-law. That makes us more likely to believe that they are out to get us and can shade our decision. It’s important to do away with this thinking.

“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, assume the best, and then re-evaluate if you need to change course. Doing so could make a big difference in your relationship.

2. Take Competition out of the Equation

Why? 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.”

3. Think About What They’re Feeling

Imagine your spouse snaps at their parents because they fed them too many snacks before dinner. They didn’t mean to, but they just got caught up in it. What are your in-laws feeling? Might they feel ashamed that their child yelled at them? Embarrassed about their lapse in judgement? Frustrated to be treated like a child? Thinking about these situations is important — and how you’d want to be treated if you were walking around in their orthopedic insoles.

“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.”

4. Sync Up with Your Spouse

This is absolutely crucial. Partners need to be on the same page about what boundaries they want to enforce with their parents and how to enforce them. Otherwise, there’s no change in successfully offering limits.

“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.”

5. Establish Regular Visiting Times.

Patterns are always helpful in family dynamics. So, when possible, carve out a regular meeting schedule 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.”

6. 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.”