Dealing with your in-laws: 7 ways to cope

dealing with difficult in laws

Dealing with your in-laws is not always easy, especially when they are acting like outlaws. You marry your partner, but get the in-laws for free. Things you get for free are not always the things you want, are they?

“Here lies one of the biggest challenges of marriage – your free gift of outlaws,” says Melbourne-based Strategic Therapist and relationship expert Phil Owens.  

“Whilst you can do all of the due diligence that you like about the person that you want to spend all of your life with, you can often end up getting more than you bargained for – as your marriage creates new relationships between you and the in-laws, as well as changing the relationships that your partner has with their family.

Sometimes the family of the person we fall in love with has completely different behaviours, values and standards to our own. What they have learned to tolerate over time, may be completely against what we should accept, or simply find unpleasant and not aligned to who we are.

We can be thrust into circumstances that can vary from downright dangerous to simply unpleasant, and everything in between. We can be exposed to violence, aggression, racism, sexism, dangerous or threatening actions simply by being with our partner in their home environment.

Whilst it is the plot line for so many RomComs – like ‘Meet the Fockers’ – this clash of cultures can put real pressure on the relationship that matters, between you and your partner.

Putting it simply, there are no guarantees that the person you love has family that you will love. Or that they will love you. When you find yourself with outlaws instead of in-laws, what can you do?

Whilst a common response is for people to ‘tolerate’ behaviours and attitudes because they want to impress their partner or fit in. As you are establishing a relationship with your partner’s family, it is critical to get things sorted so that you can manage – and even co-exist with the ‘Fockers’ in your life.”

Phil gives his advice on some ways to help in dealing with your in-laws.

Decide how important they are

“If the relationship with your partner’s family is likely to be a ‘dealbreaker’ for you, then it is important before the question is popped that you do your due diligence,” advises Phil.

“That means really getting to understand them, their values and their intentions. Too often, we simply interact with our partner’s family in a very superficial way. This is often through limited contact opportunities, but also because everyone is being on their best behaviour – which doesn’t apply once you become part of the ‘family’ and their guards are dropped.

If the relationship is critical, then invest time and effort in really getting to know your partners family. Work to get beyond the niceties and learn about them as people. Find the rough edges and their values, and be prepared to find things that don’t always fit with your own view of the world.”

Happy family in the park

The local footy club rule

“Sometimes, as we get to know our partner’s families, we find members of our new extended family tree who we just cannot stand, act in really unacceptable ways, or that we get into massive disagreements with,” Phil warns.

“A great rule of thumb when choosing to how you want to spend your time is to follow the local footy rule: if this was someone you met at the local footy ground, would they be someone that you would want to spend time with? If the answer is no, then don’t make your life difficult by forcing yourself into relationships that are unpleasant for you.

In the same vein, your partner may have a different relationship with that person. It is not your job to destroy that relationship, but rather respect that you and your partner can have different positions and relationships with members of each other’s family, and you can have open conversations about what you get out of the interactions, and what you are prepared to do.

Sometimes there are family events where you choose to attend for your partner’s benefit where you will come into contact with relatives that you don’t like, it is up to you to make the choice if the investment in your married relationship is worth the pain of spending time with that relative that you don’t see eye to eye with. It is, in the end, your choice.”

Defining roles and boundaries

“If there are issues in your relationships across the in-law divide, then be clear.” Says Phil.

“Set roles and boundaries first with your partner, and where possible have the conversation with the in-laws. Get in early and clearly set what is acceptable and what is not.

There is NO relationship that is worth exposing yourself to violent, sexual or dangerous activity that you are not comfortable with. If you don’t call it, they cannot know. Being clear about your limits, whilst respecting the decisions of your partner, is critical to not letting troubled relationships with in-laws trouble your marriage.”

You need more than tolerance

If we tolerate behaviour that upsets us or annoys us, it’s likely that we’ll be subjected to the same circumstances over and over.

“Take action – speak up, set your boundaries, define what interactions are acceptable (or behaviours that are OK) and be true to who you are,” Phil advises.

“Staying silent and ‘tolerating’ the bad behaviour of others is akin to allowing yourself to be bullied. Tolerance doesn’t work in the long term.

What is more valuable is the idea of compassion and empathy – start by trying to understand the person and what they are trying to achieve, then have a conversation about what is acceptable and valuable to you, and then take actions in terms of how you want to participate from there.”

dealing with in-laws

Don’t expect them to change!

“We don’t marry our partners to change them (well, most people don’t!), Phil explains.

“It is also not your job to change or interfere with the relationships that they have with their family. Although you may not get along with your partner’s family or friends, it is OK for them to. Except where there is significant threat or danger, then be OK with them keeping the relationships, and giving them space to enjoy them.

It can be a really cool thing when your partner can go off and enjoy their family, and you are not forced to! Have a conversation about expectations, and where you will and won’t interact with their family and friends.

Expecting them to throw over their family just because you don’t like them is not reasonable. Encouraging them to have these relationships on their own without you is just good for everyone.”

Family eating dinner at a table

Use authentic communication

What’s the key to navigating annoying outlaws?

“Authentic communication,” advises Phil.

“Firstly with your partner, so that they can support your position, act as mediator, or simply be aware of why and how you will interact with their family. Because they have long established relationships, they often tolerate or even overlook the behaviours that so impact upon you. Being authentic and clear with your communication can bring these issues into a conversation that can help you and your partner work together on solving the outlaws dilemma.”

Prepare for interactions

We can’t avoid our in-laws forever. So what do we do when we HAVE to interact with in in-law that we particularly don’t get along with?

“By preparing yourself to stay calm, focus on your intent (normally to support your partner), and minimising contact with that person, we can still enjoy the day and get through it regardless of their behaviour,” Phil advises.

“Stick to your principles, don’t accept the unacceptable, and avoid alcohol as it never improves circumstances, only makes them worse.

As you prepare for your big day, prepare to get more than just your partner in the deal. As you prepare to meet your ‘Fockers’, your web of new relationships can be a wonderful addition to your life. However, if you end up with outlaws instead of in-laws, then it should not cause you or your partner distress if you get on the front foot and deal with them thoughtfully.”

Dealing with your in-laws can be difficult during the wedding planning process, so hiring a wedding planner is a great way of alleviating the stress.

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