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Common Marriage Problems–Tips for Mending an In-Law Rift

Do's and Don'ts with Inlaws

Dealing with in-laws is one of the most common marriage problems. And the holidays, with all their family gatherings, can expose or enhance many of these struggles. It is estimated that almost 3/4 of all marriages have problems with at least one set of parents. Even Harry Truman and Winston Churchill had in-law problems. So what do you do if your in-laws don't like you? You married into this family but somehow they haven't accepted you as a member of the family--you are always the outsider or sidekick. You aren't consulted on major family decisions but are given typical family responsibilities, with none of the benefits.

When you get married you are thrown into another family where you hardly know anything about the members in the family. Yet, you are expected to get along. You are strangers that are expected to love each other. How can you love people if you don't even know them? Many parents only know their child's spouse from the outside. That is, the things they hear about him or her or the things they see him or her do. They don't know the person but the things they observe.

The degree to which you are accepted largely depends on the type of boundaries that your spouse's family has. If they have a closed system, it may be difficult for them to accept any outsiders into the family, no matter who they are. This means that they aren't used to outsiders "invading" on their family time.

Closely related to boundaries is another concept. Parents may not be used to their child having someone else in his or her life who takes top priority. They are used to being "family" and suddenly their child has another "family." It is a form of jealousy--they aren't used to having someone else be the focus of their child's life--and this can cause resentment toward you even if you haven't done anything wrong.

Another reason parents have problems with their child's spouse has to do with a mismatch of expectations. They may think that in-laws should act one way while you view it differently. For example, perhaps you think that time with in-laws should be limited to once a month and they think that you should be involved in every birthday, anniversary, and celebration every weekend. Your in-laws may think you are not being a "good" spouse while you are simply trying to balance your precious time.

Other examples of mismatched expectations include things such as how much power you will have in the relationships and how much affection you both desire. Any of these things can cause rifts in in-law relationships.

Lastly, your relations with your in-laws have a lot to do with how separated your spouse is from them. Those separated from their parents have an easier time with in-laws. If they are emotionally independent, your chances of having positive interaction are greater. If his parents are used to dealing advice and having him take it, it's going to be harder than if they are used to him seeking advice and taking his own paths. They will view you less as an intrusion in life if they don't see you as changing the relationship they have with their child.

What Not To Do

Don't give up hope.

Time softens many hurts, hearts, and strained relationships. You can’t expect to fix it overnight. On the contrary, it may take years to work things out. And perhaps it is unrealistic and ultimately asking too much to expect them to love you. But with consistent and sincere effort the lines of communication may gradually open.

Don't try to change the behavior of others to fit your values and ideals.

There is rarely only one right way to do things. Be flexible. Try to understand the other side’s perspective. Expect a wide range of beliefs and behaviors. Apply the following mantra: the only person I can change is me. With that in mind, endeavor to make yourself the best person you can be.

Don't expect an inheritance.

Relationships aren’t just about what you will get out of them. Begin to mentally disconnect yourself from any potential inheritance. This is particularly helpful if your in-laws use gifts as a method of control. Separated from the hope or expectation of inheritance, now you are free to act without thinking about what your in-laws will or won’t do.

Don't cut off all contact.

You likely find it more beneficial to your emotional health to keep your distance from a conflict-ridden relationship. However, find opportunities to keep the communication lines open. Believe it or not, you can be yourself and keep your in-laws from running over you while still letting them know that you desire positive interaction. It will take careful balance, but you can do it.

What To Do

Stand by your mate.

When your in-laws see you and your spouse as a united front, they see that you truly love each other and are committed. Make sure they know that you are an invested part of your spouse's life. If you demonstrate your commitment, your in-laws will begin to see two choices: they either accept you and your involvement or they spend less time with their son or daughter. In most cases, they will choose you.

Be a friend.

Treat your in-laws how you would treat any good friend. Express interest in their lives. Remember important events and celebrations. Offer help when appropriate. Also, decide at the beginning how you are going to address your in-laws, whether Mr. and Mrs. or Dad and Mom.

State your case.

Tactfully bring up your troubles you have with your in-laws. You want to open the lines of honest communication, so make sure you use good communication skills. Avoid appearing confrontational. Express your needs using “I” statements rather than accusing and criticizing.

Stay loyal and committed to the family.

Even if your in-laws never accept you, you have already made a commitment to them by marrying into their family. If you uphold your end of the bargain, you will never have any guilt; you will know that you have done all that you can do. Also, you don't want to turn your children away from their grandparents. 

Have kids.

Actually, having children could change things for the better or worse. On the positive side, your in-laws may be more inclined to mend broken relationships when they desire time with grandchildren. Giving them grandchildren may make them look upon you favorably. On the flip side, it potentially opens the door for them to give unwanted advice or meddle in grandchildren's upbringing. There is always a risk they will disapprove of the way you are bringing up their grandkids.

Focus on commonalities.

Instead of looking at the differences between you and your in-laws, look at all the things you have in common. The most notable commonality is your love for the person you married. Align yourself as an ally even if they don't see you that way. You want to make sure you are on their side and not the antagonist.

Understanding the common causes for in-law conflict can help you begin to bridge the distance as you then apply the suggestions explained here.  As long as your commitment to your marriage endures, mending any damage between you and your in-laws is always a worthwhile goal even if it takes a long time and suffers setbacks.  In spite of the negative stereotypes that exist about in-laws, these relationships can provide happy, rewarding, and lifelong bonds. 

Click here for more tips on marriage issues.

Jonavic, D. J. (1996). Can Their Problem Be Solved? Successful farming, December.
Parvin, J. (1994). Do Your In-Laws Drive You Crazy? Reader's Digest, June: 71-74.
Yarrow, L. (1990). Take My In-Laws . . . Please! Parents Magazine, March: 89-92.


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