The biggest issues for in-laws tend to be around boundary setting, respect, and communication. Relative to these issues, it is important for in-laws (as well as the couple) to recognize the new relationship as separate from the old family. Some husbands and wives struggle to separate from their families. This can cause multiple problems. Here are some examples of insufficient family separation:
1) sharing marital problems and difficulties with in-laws (who often end up taking sides and/or alienating the spouse)
2) spending too much time with in-laws, leaning on the opinions and feelings of in-laws, or defending their in-laws behaviors rather than seeing, understanding, and supporting their spouse’s feelings and needs. For instance, when a wife’s mother comes over unannounced, does the couples laundry, and/or cleans for them and the husband doesn’t like it, the wife may defend her mother rather than understanding the husband’s feelings. He then feels second to her mother and alienated from his wife’s support. This can happen in the reverse as well, except that men are often more supportive of an over involved mother-in-law, whereas women are often immediately defensive and demanding that their mother-in-law back off.
3) invasive grand-parenting, over-indulgence, or undermining parental discipline from the in-laws.
Many of these problems can be eliminated
if the in-laws:
• will accept and respect their child’s decision to marry the son or daughter-in-law. Whether the in-laws feel their son or daughter’s choice was a good one or not, nothing is gained from alienating their adult child through disrespect, lecturing, or anger toward the new spouse. In-laws would be wise to put away criticism and look for options in how to support and respect the new marriage and family member.
• will respect some basic boundaries of the new marriage, including the new couple’s home, privacy, space, needs, and parenting. This should included: calling before coming over, knocking rather than entering, respecting the marital bedroom and not entering without permission (even with the good intentions of cleaning their room), offering to baby sit while respecting the parents wishes (including diet, clothing, parenting, purchasing of toys, etc.)
• will offer advice and help but only when it is solicited or wanted. This includes parenting, financial, work, and marital advice). Marriage is a right of passage into adulthood. Thus, the in-laws need to accept and treat the couple with the same respect they would a neighbor or friend (even if they are offering occasional financial assistance to the young couple).
• will communicate with the couple about their needs and desires relative to family traditions, holidays, etc. Many couples will want to start their own traditions or may feel torn between visiting both extended family’s home each holiday. Allowances will need to be made and relationships will be improved if the new couple feels that the in-laws recognize and care about their feelings and needs around the holidays.
• 5) and, will encouraging their daughter or son to not share marital problems with them but instead, talk with their spouse, read a book, or seek professional counseling as needed. Although parents may have good intentions in trying to help a son or daughter through a marital conflict, it can often alienate them from the daughter or son in law who usually feels betrayed or embarrassed by their spouse’s decision to involve the parents. It is important for family members to remember that these relationships need to last years and decades. They will not want to alienate a new son or daughter in-law, especially since grandchildren will eventually enter the picture.
if the new couple:
• will commit to the marriage as their first priority with their individual families as being a lesser (but important) priority. This can be difficult for some couples. One spouse may be more attached to their family members than another. They may not understand their spouse’s resistance to spending so much time with their family. Compromises will need to be made, but in a way that keeps the family as a priority in their lives, just not the first priority.
• will choose carefully who they do and do not discuss marital problems with. Women often need to talk through problems to feel confident about their feelings and needs. Men are often more private about such things. Thus, it is important that a man understand a woman’s need to talk with someone about their issues but he will also need her to choose someone who respects him, keeps confidences secret, and won’t take sides. In most cases, this will mean family members should be kept out of the marital issues, since family gossip and take sides are so common.
• invest in the family relationships and show respect while setting boundaries. As long as the new couple shows love and concern for their family members, they will be able to make many changes in their relationships without causing excessive pain. If a couple is struggling with an over-involved mother-in-law, they can show warmth and love but still not answer the phone every time she calls or be available to talk every time she comes to the door. When a boundary needs to be set, it is best if the biological family member is the one to set it. For instance, if a sister-in-law wants to be at the delivery of a child and the wife doesn’t want her there, it would be best if her husband was the one to lovingly tell his sister that they will call her after the baby has been delivered and let her know when they are ready to take visitors.
• will recognize and appreciate what the extended family is doing right. Nothing works better at improving relationships than appreciation. Extended family relationships are important for the health and stability of family life. Grandparents can be a great asset in the lives of grandchildren. They can also provide valuable help, and support, When frustrated with an in-law, couples will never regret keeping the bigger picture in mind. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that an adult son or daughter’s love and devotion to family will not be easily put aside, even if the family member is in the wrong. They may choose to support their spouse and marriage, but they will still want to maintain some amount of family contact and relationships. Thus, couples should work hard to maintain contact with each family.
Of course in some cases, when there is spousal abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol addiction, infidelity, or child abuse, couples and family members will need to seek professional counseling about the best way to address and resolve these problems.
Alisa Goodwin Snell is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Salt Lake City. She is a regular contributor to Nightside on KSL Radio, and author of “Dating Game Secrets for Marrying a Good Man.” Find her on the web at askalisa.org/aboutalisa.html.