"What’s the difference between in-laws and outlaws?” runs an old joke that you might have heard. The answer, of course, is “Outlaws are wanted.”
Ouch—but as most of us will attest, there’s a kernel of truth there. The in-law relationship can be difficult, or at least challenging. Often, no one is really sure what the “rules” of this relationship are. As a result, people may feel intruded on, get their feelings hurt, or not know how to act around each other.
One basic idea that most married couples might agree on, though, is that good boundaries are key to a good in-law relationship. In fact, this may be even more important for women than for men, and in ways you might not expect. One interesting study found that men who said they were close to their in-laws were 20% less likely to divorce, while women who said they were close to their in-laws were actually 20% more likely to get divorced.
While this might seem like it makes no sense, the authors think that when women become close to in-laws, boundaries may get confused. They might feel more vulnerable to criticism or misguided advice from in-laws, who also may be unintentionally encroaching on the relationship. Men, on the other hand, may be less susceptible to all this. In fact, in general, women may be more likely to be affected by in-law stress than men.
The way we respond to issues with in-laws often has a lot to do with “past history.” For instance, a woman might be protective of her mother due to their close relationship after an early divorce, or a husband might be nervous around his father-in-law because his own dad was often critical. Cultures and backgrounds may also play a role in how in-law interactions occur. Couples need to be open with each other about all of this so that they understand why things happen the way they do. This will help avoid emotional overreactions or getting stuck in a negative rut.
One important part of establishing boundaries relates to creating and respecting your own couple and family “space.” Young married couples and those with local family, especially, may tend to defer to in-law habits and preferences when it comes to holidays and get-togethers. But it’s important for all couples to start their own rituals and traditions, too.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of a child who teases her “annoying little brother” nonstop, but who would not hesitate to defend him loyally from a bully at the bus stop. The same principle typically holds when it comes to making negative comments about one’s own parents vs. hearing them from your spouse. It may be very tempting to vent about your father-in-law’s driving or your mother-in-law’s negative attitude, especially if your partner makes similar remarks from time to time. However, it’s likely to be a much better choice to share your frustration with a friend, if at all.
If a true problem exists that needs to be dealt with, remember to share and receive concerns with your spouse in a positive, nondefensive way, without criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling. The 9 Important Communication Skills for Every Relationship can help here.
At some point, most of us are likely to hear advice or opinions from an in-law that just don’t work for us. Rather than reacting emotionally, it’s a good idea to practice a neutral response that can be “pulled out” on these occasions. For instance, you could try “That’s an interesting idea” or “I’ll think about it.” If the in-law persists, try a polite “conversation ender” such as “That’s a good idea, but we’re going to do it this way,” “Thanks, but this seems to be working right now,” or something similar.
Most of the time, we want to support family ties by spending a reasonable amount of time with in-laws. However, some couples may find that in-laws are destructive to the marital bond, or even try to bring down the marriage. If this happens, it can be very difficult for everyone. Think carefully about priorities. Families of origin are very important, but divorce is not likely to be an outcome you are looking for. Remind your in-laws openly and with your actions of your love for each other and of how much you value the marriage. In some cases, it may be necessary to reduce time spent with unsupportive in-laws.
While the in-law relationship can often be challenging, it also has the potential to offer great rewards. It can be helpful to remember that all of you are bound together by love, and also to laugh at and sometimes be amazed by the mysterious forces that bring families together.
If you’re in a relationship but need help with communicating about tricky topics like this one, why not consider taking a relationship education class? The SMART Couples project is offering ELEVATE, a FREE, research-backed relationship enhancement class for couples, in 5 Florida counties. Sign up today!
Farouky, J. (2008). Mother-in-Law problems: They're worse for women. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1863282,00.html
Fulwiler, M. (2014). 6 arguments all married couples have. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/6-arguments-all-married-couples-have/
Harris, V. W. (2010). Marriage tips and traps: 10 secrets for nurturing your marital friendship. Plymouth, MI: Hayden McNeil.
Leigh, S. J., & Clark, J. A. (n.d.) Creating a strong and satisfying marriage. Retrieved from https://extension2.missouri.edu/GH6610
Neyfakh, L. (2013). The weird science of in-laws. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/11/17/the-weird-science-laws/oxS966evzs9ymeZrWKDlEP/story.html
Orbuch, T.L., Bauermeister, J. A., Brown, E., & McKinley, B-D. (2013). Early family ties and marital stability over 16 years: The context of race and gender. Family Relations, 62, 255-268. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12005
Thrive Family Services. (n.d.) How healthy couples deal with in-laws. Retrieved from https://thrivefamilyservices.com/2015/11/healthy-couples-in-law.html
Return to Topic: Marriage Basics