Something doesn’t quite compute when your mother-in-law comes over to help with the cooking and serves a delicious pasta dinner, knowing full well that you’re gluten-free. That’s not a passive aggressive move anymore. That’s straight up aggressive. That’s the scenario that played out for a client of Traci Ruble, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco.
Food is more than welcome when you have a young family, an overactive career, and zero time to cook, let alone eat. But something as simple as a bowl of steaming rotini can demonstrate the pitfalls of the touch-and-go in-law relationship, something often crucial to raising a family but filled with just as many rough spots than the Pacific Coast Highway. And it makes it far worse when your spouse doesn’t stick up for you.
“What can happen is the in-laws are getting some need met through being a grandparent that has them wanting to be at the house all the time and the centerpiece of this young family,” Ruble says. “It’s passive aggressive.”
Ruble doesn’t often advocate for conflict avoidance. But in this case, she recommended that if it happened again her client should quietly walk to the fridge and fix himself something gluten-free.
“At this moment, when you and your spouse need your energy for yourselves, you smile, get up and let it go. The minute you’re giving up your own energy, it’s not worth it,” says Ruble.
Of course, the night’s dinner isn’t the only friction point. Therapists often hear about problems where one spouse sides with their own parents too much. Or if one person asks their parents first about every important decision before including their wife or husband. For instance, one spouse might always pick their own parents’ house as the holiday destination.
But, with a full stomach anyway, and a lot of tact, couples can set boundaries with in-laws — their own and their spouse’s — that keep the kids fed and bathed and the adults happy.
“Parents can have trouble letting their child mature into adulthood,” says Samantha Rodman, a family therapist in Maryland. There are as many reasons for this as there are people. But it often happens when parents are insecure about how to live without a child being dependent on them. “They’re anxious about being on their own,” she adds.
When it comes to seeking advice or confiding in one’s parents before their spouse, it could be the other side of the same coin: “Usually that’s when people don’t individuate from their parents, and it means they are stuck in that childlike role,” Rodman says.
To be certain, this dynamic can occur on either side of the family tree. Men sometimes have trouble stepping into a father role because they’ve been coddled by their own family. “I’ve seen men who are very close with their mothers. They are coming over to clean the house and do their son’s laundry.” Then, when it’s time for the man to take care of household chores with his wife, “ironically, the in-law’s role has been to advocate in favor of the man not leaning in,” she says.
Often, the nightmare in-law stereotype paints the wife’s mother as the problem. It’s unfortunate, especially since her parents are probably there out of a genuine desire to help out after she’s given birth or has young children.
“In-laws are often a great source of support,” Rodman says. “The wife’s parents take care of everything, she listens to them, and calls them for everything. That’s why she’s scared to say no to them about anything.”
And therein lies one of the best ways of finding a fix: Limiting what you ask for from in-laws.
“It’s a lot harder to deal with this if you’re taking a lot of money and babysitting,” agrees Ruble. “They’re going to feel entitled to tell you how to live your lives.”
When it comes to talking to the in-laws, couples should agree on what they want, and present a consistent message to the in-laws as a united front. “You can set boundaries around how often you want to see them, or you can say I’m not going to tolerate X, Y, and Z,” Rodman says.
Consider having the wife be the spokesperson if it’s her family with whom you’re communicating, Rodman adds. “Be clear on what will be helpful and what won’t, from the outset,” says Ruble. “You can put the mother-in-law on a schedule. In certain circumstances, it better be left to the mother and daughter to sit down and work it out. I encourage fathers not to get triangulated if it’s a mother-daughter issue.”
As therapists, you can guess Ruble and Rodman suggest couples or individual therapy — and a healthy dose of empathy for the in-laws. They’re trying. They’re also getting older. And hey, it’s been a while since they raised actual children.