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How to tackle complicated in-law relationships

If you think your own family drives you nuts, it can be nothing compared to how your partner’s family pushes your buttons. Even if you love your in-laws, every family has their own culture and habits, and your partner’s parents and siblings may operate in some unfamiliar ways. Complicated in-law relationships can intensify into more serious tension when there’s a grandchild on the scene.

It’s only natural for both sets of in-laws to want to be more involved and to offer help and advice. But at times, this can feel downright overbearing. And sometimes, a lack of excitement can also cause hurt feelings and create feelings of isolation. In general, hurt is often from under or over-involvement. 

Here are some tips for setting boundaries with your in-laws as you and your partner solidify your own family unit, one that may have brand new customs alongside components of your unique upbringings.

Get on the same page with your partner 

Conflicts with your respective families are bound to come up, so it’s a good idea to talk about how to handle them in advance. For example, should each person deal with their own parents whenever there’s a sensitive topic? This can often be easier, as parents tend to be more forgiving of their own child. Try not to use your partner as a scapegoat in chats with your own parents about boundaries, present a united front even when it’s tough.

Also, it’s important to establish that your relationship comes first. While you may not always agree with your in-laws, the health of your relationship depends on being unified with your partner on in-law matters. Take a team approach and discuss issues in private, rather than in front of your in-laws. 

Create boundaries and find solutions to complicated in-law relationships

Talk about what’s bothering each of you, from unannounced in-law visits to grandparents who allow your child to eat too much junk food. Then take on the list that applies to your own parents and gently offer solutions, such as an approved snack list or a regular invite to Friday dinners at your house.

By presenting a solution along with the boundary, you’ll help offset the blow and make it easier for your parents to stick to the plan. If they know they’ll see you on Fridays, for example, they won’t feel shut out by the “no dropping by” rule or concerned that they won’t be able to see their grandchild. 

It is very common to have disagreements with another generation of parents. Your boundaries around physical touch, consent, and social media may be very different because of your perspective and experience. Remind yourself in tricky moments that certain boundaries are actually you sticking up for your kiddo, as this can make it easier to hold the line. 

Have a game plan for the holidays

The holidays are one of the most common times for in-law skirmishes, as they come full of expectations, longstanding rituals, and high emotions. Without a game plan, you and your partner can both end up feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or resentful.

With two sets of in-laws, you simply may not be able to please everyone. Many couples find that accepting this is the first step to figuring out your shared vision of holiday sanity — whether it’s alternating between families each year, taking odd years off from attending family gatherings, or even creating a totally new tradition of your own.

Other holiday tips:

  • Avoid accepting a family invite or making holiday plans without speaking to your partner.
  • At holiday gatherings, avoid any topics that are known to get heated, such as politics. 
  • If things get uncomfortable, have an exit strategy, such as a code word for when to leave.
  • Make the most of nap time and feeding time to get a break from the action.
  • Brainstorm new traditions or activities, like a pie-making contest, that can diffuse tension.
  • Watch children for signs of overstimulation or discomfort, and again — have an exit strategy to use before things unravel.

Nurture a more joyful connection

In an ideal world, we’d all like to have a warm rapport with our in-laws. If that isn’t happening naturally, it can feel like a positive relationship with their grandchild is impossible. But the two relationships are distinct, and there are things you can do to try to foster a connection and keep the focus where you’d like it — such as on how awesome their grandchild is, and not on unsolicited input about your parenting or lifestyle. 

For example, you might decide to regularly share photos and videos of their grandchild or facilitate bonding opportunities, like encouraging your in-laws to take your child on fun outings. As a bonus, this could provide a breather for you and your partner, if not increased gratitude for your in-laws. 

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team

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