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relationship with your in-laws

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Resolving relationship issues with our own blood relatives can be challenging, but trying to fix problems with your in-laws is even harder. These are also people who will be in your life forever but may not exactly be who you would have picked to have that type of access had you been given the option. But you love their son or daughter, so here you are. Doing the work and dealing with the conflict and trying to get along with a new set of parents.

Conflict with the in-laws is incredibly common. There are a lot of strong feelings there. You love your partner deeply. Your in-laws love their child deeply. You both have intense emotions about the wellbeing of your spouse, and maybe the children you have with that spouse. And there is – even if nobody wants to admit it – some feelings of entitlement surrounding your spouse. They feel entitled to having things their way, being the ones who birthed and raised them. You feel entitled to having things your way, being the most intimate relationship in their life today. It’s a lot to contend with. We spoke with licensed marriage and family therapist Melissa Dumaz (pictured below), author of The Love Challenge, about the most common in-law issues that occur and how to address them.

Melissa Dumaz

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I don’t like them; they don’t like me

“One of the biggest issues is a partner or a spouse not liking their in-laws or feeling unliked or unaccepted by the in-laws. That is usually more deeply rooted and must be worked on. It’s not a miscommunication. That can definitely impact family gatherings, advice or words of wisdom we take from family, and much more,” Dumaz states. “When it’s a matter of ‘I don’t like them,’ possibly do some exploration around what that is. Some of that may start internally. Ask yourself, ‘What is it about them that I don’t like? Whatever those things are, can they be mitigated through communication, or through me sharing this with my spouse so he can be in communication with his parents about it?”

relationship with your in-laws

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Is it something from the past?

“Sometimes we have to ask ourselves, our dislike for the in-laws, is it about something that my spouse told me about his parents? You can judge them because of your partner’s experiences growing up with those parents as a child,” Dumaz says. “You can feel ‘I can’t believe they did that’ and it can change how we view our in-laws. Ask yourself, ‘If these are things my partner told me about his upbringing, are his parents still like that today? Is there space in there for mercy and grace? If my in-laws are no longer showing up that way as a parent to my significant other, or even as grandparents…can I forgive them? Has my significant other forgiven them?’”

relationship with your in-laws

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What about when they don’t like you?

“If they don’t like you, if you’re open to it, get back to communication,” Dumaz says. But she adds, “We don’t want to come off as confrontational. We don’t have to start that way. The conversation doesn’t have to start with ‘I feel like you don’t like me.’ Rather, give them ways to get to know you, outside of your relationship with you and your spouse.” She also suggests sharing these thoughts with your significant other if you’re comfortable with it. Get confirmation around your feelings by asking, “I get the vibe your parents don’t like me. Is it just me?”

relationship with your in-laws

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Understand each other in a new setting

Your in-laws may typically only see you at family gatherings, which can make it hard for them to get to know you as an individual. But seeing you outside of those settings can help the relationship according to Dumaz. “We can get to know our in-laws and have them get to know us as individuals, not just in the larger family setting. They should know me through my voice, not just what my significant other told them about me. And I want to know them through their voice, and not just what my spouse has shared with me.” If it’s hard to get alone time, you can find some at family events. “Go to the person who is always in the kitchen or at the grill and ask if you can be of help,” she says. “If you feel you have nothing to talk about, have some conversational starters. I would encourage it to be something neutral — not politics or something happening in the news.”

relationship with your in-laws

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Boundaries are another major conflict

The moment you, the new party, is introduced into your partner’s family microcosm, boundaries may need to shift, but the in-laws may not accept that. “One person or spouse may feel that their in-law is overstepping their boundaries. Sometimes that looks like in-laws coming to the home uninvited. Or doing things that weren’t asked to be done like taking care of some sort of financial need. The couple didn’t ask for that and feels disrespected,” Dumaz says. “I see it a lot when it comes to parenting. The in-laws have a different view on how the child’s significant other is rearing the grandchildren. Then the in-laws impose their beliefs on how their grandchildren should be raised.”

relationship with your in-laws

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Present a united front

If boundaries are the issue, you’ll need your partner to have your back. “Get on the same page with your spouse, whatever that looks like,” Dumaz says. “Maybe it’s about visitation, hosting events, child-rearing, how much time the kids spend with the grandparents. So when the boundary has to be set, you two come as a united front, and not as your partner saying, ‘My partner said this.’ Then you become the outsider. And you already feel that way as an in-law. The direct child talking to his parents has to use words like ‘we’ to let them know ‘We are a team and we are on the same page.’ When he says ‘My wife said,’ he alienates you.”

relationship with your in-laws

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Stick to the boundary

Your in-laws may not readily accept your boundaries, and it will be even harder if you aren’t consistent with them. Consistency is crucial. “Whatever that boundary is, be consistent,” Dumaz says. “If you have a boundary, for example, on Thanksgiving, you need to have it on Christmas. If it has changed for you, communicate that. You can say, for example, ‘I know for Thanksgiving I said this, but we have talked about it and we have renegotiated.’” Even then, make it clear it was a discussion and decision made by you and your spouse. But overall, be consistent. “Just because you said it once doesn’t mean it will be respected. You have to be consistent and be firm.”

relationship with your in-laws

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Differences you cannot change

In some cases, the differences you have with your in-laws are within your control. You can change them, adapt, and compromise. But sometimes, whatever the issue is that your in-laws have with you (or you with them), it isn’t something you have control over. “This isn’t as common with my clients but it happens,” Dumaz says. “Someone in the family will marry or be with someone who is different from the rest of the family. It could be a different religion, different background, different upbringing, socioeconomic status, race. If the in-laws are not open or accepting of their child’s choice in life partner, that can create conflict as well.”

relationship with your in-laws

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Address it early

“Handling this starts in the dating process,” Dumaz says of a partner’s parents who don’t accept your differences. “Have that conversation. If you’ve already had it during dating, and now you’re married and seeing little to no change, we have to accept a ‘You are here’ point. That’s ‘This is where you are on it. This is where I am on it. We accept each other’s differences as long as there has been no disrespect towards the other person.’ Let your significant other know upfront, if your in-laws are not accepting, you are on your partner’s team. And your spouse comes first.”

relationship with your in-laws

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Thank them for their child

If there is one thing you and the in-laws can agree on, it’s that your partner is wonderful. Whatever you think about your in-laws, they have something to do with making your partner so great. So show that appreciation. This is one tip Dumaz gives clients: “Send the in-laws a thank you card, thanking them for your partner. Say, ‘He’s a great husband and father.’ As a parent, they planted seeds and hoped they’d grow. But they don’t always get to see it. It’s nice to be told it worked out. Find ways to show appreciation to your in-laws related to your spouse. It’s a way to build or repair your relationship.”

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