Relationship Partners and In-laws

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Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients ...Read More

One of the top 4 issues that couples fight most about is in-laws. (The other 3 are money, sex and children). Relationships with parents, especially mothers, can remain intense into adulthood and be fertile ground for struggles in a relationship.

Women and their mothers-in-law historically have the biggest challenges. Women often have strong opinions about nurturing and caring for home and family and may happen to believe that they are right in how they manage them. The older generation may have a hard time not passing that information on and the younger generation may not want to be the recipient of advice, no matter how well-intentioned.


Do you have problems with your in-laws or were you lucky enough to have a partnership in a family where there are compatible values and rituals?

Did you find understanding in-laws who are good at relationships and intuitively know how to be supportive and kind?

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Are you able to like and appreciate your in-laws as the parents of your partner, give them some slack and the benefit of the doubt? Can you do your part in developing a healthy relationship with them?

Some of the common concerns about in-laws that couples share with me are:

  • receiving unsolicited advice, especially about child-rearing
  • being criticized about everything from housekeeping to how family finances are handled
  • hearing complaints about not spending enough time with them, especially over holidays
  • feeling as if they have the belief that the in-law is not being good enough or even good to “their child“.

There are several different ways to tackle these issues and keep problems from intruding into your relationship. Above all, I always advise couples to do what they can to keep an open mind and approach the situation with an attitude of positivity and possibility.

Agree with your partner that you want to work together to make sure that your relationship is protected from problems with your in-laws

First and foremost, talk with your partner and reach agreement that you want to work together to make sure that your relationship is protected from problems with your in-laws.

Discuss your relationship with each set of in-laws and decide on some common, albeit maybe not equal, guidelines for contact. Have a belief in your partner that you both want the same thing for your relationship and that, together, you can figure out a way to make this work.

Be careful and don’t criticize your in-laws to your partner. Your partner cannot help their behavior. He or she may not be standing up to them in the way you would like. That is something you should lovingly discuss. It is also entirely possible that your approach may not the best one either.

There well may be times when you need to talk about a problem with your in-law alone or together. Think about your approach and find a way to begin it in a soft way.

Are Your Parents “The Problem”?

If you are the one who has a partner with a complaint about your parents, try to listen with an open mind. He or she may not have a full or empathetic understanding; however, your first job is to understand your partner and let him or her know that you are in this relationship together and it is a priority.

Be sure to stick up for your partner if your parents criticize him or her. Let your parents know that you two are a team and it is not okay for them to complain to you or be rude or disrespectful to your partner.

Consider the possibility that you may just have to find ways to develop more empathy for your in-laws.

Could the problem be more with you then with your in-laws? Think about this. Could you be too sensitive?

It is very important to find ways to get along with your partner’s parents. They reared and are connected to the person that you love. If there are children involved, you want your children to learn about and have connection with their heritage.

Try to understand why your in-law’s behavior may be upsetting to you. Do you feel threatened? Is their behavior truly destructive or simply different?

Talk it over with your partner and, if you can do it gently, with your in-laws to get a better understanding of what this is about. Empathy is important for any relationship.

No one is perfect and it may be that you have to find ways to be tolerant of their differences and respect and accept them in spite of the differences. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Believe that they love your partner very much as you do.

Find a way to develop a friendship. Be kind. Invite them for a meal. Respect your partner, their child, and the need to have some individual time together without you around.

Lisa and Rose

Lisa was very frustrated by Rose, her mother-in-law’s, criticism. The jabs were small but the meaning seemed pretty clear to Lisa. Rose just did not feel that she was good enough for her son, John.

Sometimes these comments would come while John was around but more frequently they happened when the women were alone. Lisa always pitched in to help with dinner and dishes and, no matter what she did, she never could quite get them right.

Lisa is a lovely woman and would be very patient with Rose. She would ignore whatever she could and chose to comment only on those things that were important in a positive way whenever possible, saying things like “When we are at your home, we certainly want to do things your way” or even asking Rose about how she wanted things handled.

Lisa did not roll over; however, there were times she had to gently say “Rose, I understand that we have different views on things and yet, I need you to respect me and my ideas as I am yours.”

Lisa was also wise enough to periodically ask Rose for help. She would occasionally ask stories about John as a child and make sure that Rose was included in any important activities in their children’s lives.

Occasionally she would have a conversation with John about his mom and ask him to just try to hang around more so that he could notice how things went and stand up for her when needed. Those occasions did not happen too often but there were times when John had to remind his mother that she was getting out of line and needed to be respectful.

Acceptance wasn’t over night. In fact, it was more like 2 years before Lisa and John could say to each other…”We are finally in a good space”. Both would agree, however, that the consistent effort and positive approach paid off for everyone.

Keep Reading By Author Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT
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