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Learning to Navigate In-law Relationships as Newlyweds

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

The first year of marriage can be a wonderful time of getting to know each other intimately, building a home together and creating your own traditions. But it can also be stressful. The process of blending two people with very different backgrounds, experiences, family histories, and expectations into one marriage that lasts is nothing short of a miracle.

New family relationships can be complicated

Relationships with in-laws are one of the most common problem areas for newlyweds; right up there with money and sex. But it shouldn’t surprise you that adjusting to your in-laws, and them to you, might be a major issue. Consider how much time and energy they have spent raising your spouse. It may be very difficult for them to let go and trust that you will be able to provide for his or her needs as well as they have all these years.

Your in-laws may also have expectations of you and/or your spouse that are not realistic as you start out life together. They may expect to see you or talk to you several times a week. They may assume you will spend all of your holidays with them. Or, they might expect you to follow their advice without question. Many times, these expectations are never understood or discussed until a conflict arises. And even then it can be hard to sort out. The goal is to recognize and head off potential problems before they become commonplace between you and your in-laws.

Rescripting your history

When couples marry they must go about the task of redefining themselves in line with their how they want their new lives to look. Each person comes into the marriage with a different history and set of habits and expectations. The major struggle, in the early phase of marriage, is about what themes of this history will be jointly scripted and become part of the new relationship and what parts of the their history will be left out or changed.

After marrying, most couples are under the assumption that not living under their parents’ roofs means that they are carving their own path. In other words, when you leave the confines of your parent’s home you often assume that you are also a completely autonomous person. It implies a stronger action than simply living in a different location. It means to turn your allegiance away from your parents toward your spouse.

But what many young couples don’t see trailing behind them as they walk out of the wedding ceremony at church are the emotional “apron strings” still tied to each of their relationships with their parents. These emotional connections, while not necessarily unhealthy, can hinder a couple from clearly defining how their new union will be separate from the previous dependence they had on their parents.

Getting clear on boundaries

One of the more challenging tasks for newly married couples is establishing boundaries with parents and in-laws. A boundary is a line, of sorts, that helps us understand who we are and what we are responsible for in relationships. In marriage, that extends to the new identity you have as a married couple. This means that you have a right to privacy, to turn down spur-of-the-moment dinner invitations, to choose how you would like to spend vacations or holidays, etc. Setting boundaries is a way to protect what is most important to you. But failure to establish clear boundaries with in-laws in these and other areas can lead to marital conflict.

For example, when Amy and Mike bought their home only one mile from Amy’s parents, Mike thought the close proximity to his in-laws was appealing and convenient for visiting. But during the first two months of marriage, Amy’s Mom routinely dropped by several times a week with no advance notice. Not only does this frequently disrupt their scheduled plans but is starting to create a lingering tension between Mike and Amy.

Expressing where you want those boundary lines to be in your relationship with in-laws is not only good for your marriage but helps your in-laws to understand how to be supportive to both of you.

Start off on solid ground

Getting off to a good relational start with in-laws is very important for newlyweds because it is difficult to undo early patterns that are set in place. Though it may be difficult to initiate, open, direct communication is usually the best approach toward working out your differences. Where possible, you should try to take the lead in solving known tensions or problems.

But, solving the problems may not always be possible. Some parents don’t understand or have any intentions of respecting these types of boundaries. They are accustomed to intrusive ways of relating and expect that to be the case even after marriage of their child. This is when you may have to establish clear ground rules early on to avoid potentially explosive conflict later on.

Learning to get along with each other’s family is a gift you each give the other. And that gift is likely to increase in value as children become part of your life together. The way you show allegiance to one another and set boundaries with your in-laws in the early years of your marriage will undoubtedly affect how you navigate the grandparent relationships as well.

Action points

Maintaining a good relationship with your in-laws may not be easy but being mindful of a few simple principles may greatly help:

  • Resist the urge to compare your in-laws to your own parents.
  • Get to know your in-laws for who they are and not who you want them to be.
  • Address potential problem areas when they first are noticed, but do it with love and empathy.
  • Take a proactive approach to problem solving to help build respect and good communication.
  • Show appreciation to your in-laws as often as you can.
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