Maintaining the Peace and Your Sanity: Boundaries with Your In-Laws

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Although I’ve written about it before, over the past several weeks people have been directed to my blog by searching terms such as “in-laws don’t respect boundaries,” “maintaining boundaries with in-laws,” or “mother-in-law disrespects my boundaries.” So, I figured it was probably a good idea to revisit this topic.

Creating boundaries with in-laws can be tough, but it is absolutely necessary! If you don’t establish boundaries with your in-laws they’ll continue to intrude in your life, offer up unsolicited advice, and meddle in your business to the point that you welcome a slow and painful death over time together. Well, hopefully it doesn’t get that extreme, but you get the point!

Additionally, my research shows that dissatisfaction with your in-laws is linked to decreased marital satisfaction. In other words, if you’ve got a problem with your in-laws, your marriage is going to pay the price.

Boundary violations can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from unsolicited advice, uninvited visits (complete with no knocking or doorbell ringing), constant meddling, or sharing your private information with others, just to name a few!

Regardless of the violation, it’s important that you set firm boundaries with your in-laws if their behavior makes you uncomfortable. However, going this alone is not the best route. Although it can work (and we’ll talk about that later), your most valuable and important tool in this task is the person whose parents are causing the mayhem: Your honey bunny.

You need to enlist your sweetie pie because (a) regardless of how much your in-laws love you, they love their child more and will be more inclined to please him/her, (b) you don’t know the intricacies of your spouse’s family communication patterns (even if you’ve been together for ages!), and (c) most in-laws react better to mediated communication than direct confrontation with the other in-law.

Now, before you ask your spouse to make his/her parents all but disappear, really consider the boundary infraction. You don’t want to set so many and such rigid boundaries that it makes having a relationship with your in-laws next to impossible.

Additionally, there are some things you just have to grin and bear. Hearing that your partner prefers his/her meat cooked medium rare rather than rare (the way you prepare it) may be the only way your in-law has to feel relevant in his/her adult child’s life. So, maybe you just take one for the team and let mama-bear or papa-bear feel like they know best (even if you know they don’t).

However, if your in-law consistently barges into your house uninvited, tells you how to parent or manage finances, and uses your personal information as fodder for gossip, well then it’s time to take a stand.

How to Take a Stand without Setting off a Family Feud

1| Start by kindly and calmly telling your spouse what your grievance is.

You know how it’s okay to talk smack about your own parents, but you get really defensive when other’s do, even if you know they’re right? You’re spouse feels the same way. So, it’s best to use what researcher John Gottman calls a soft “start up.”

Don’t begin the conversation harshly or aggressively (e.g., “Your Mom is such an opinionated bitch!” or “Your Dad is an inconsiderate asshole!”).  Instead, focus on the specific behavior and why it upsets you. For example, “Honey, it really bothers me when your mom comes over unannounced and doesn’t even knock. It makes me feel like she doesn’t respect us or our personal space.”

Now, it’s highly likely that your spouse may not see his/her parent’s behavior as problematic. In fact, he/she will probably say “That’s just how she/he is,” or “She/he doesn’t mean anything by it.” Remember, your partner has dealt with his/her parents behavior for a lifetime.

2| If/when this happens it’s important to acknowledge what your partner said, but reiterate that it makes you uncomfortable and you would appreciate it if your partner addressed the issue.

“Honey, I know she probably doesn’t mean anything by it, but it makes me uncomfortable in my own house because I never know when she’s going to show up. It would really mean a lot to me if you talked to her about this.”

Now, hopefully your love muffin respects your feelings enough to address the issue.

However, he may dig in his heels and not want to say anything to Mom or Dad because (a) his family doesn’t talk about these types of things, (b) he doesn’t want to start a conflict, or (c) he’s just plain scared (This is a bigger issue and I’ll address this in the next blog post).

For now, let’s pretend your sweetie says, “Sure thing, anything for you dumpling.” Before he/she goes off to defend your honor there are several tips to guide that conversation.

First, your partner needs to frame the request as an issue he is having with his parents, not you. If he says you’re having a problem they may wonder why you’re not talking to them directly (although this is generally not preferred, nor does it yield a positive outcome) or be less likely to change.

So, your honey should say, “Mom, it really bothers me when you come over unannounced and just walk through the door. I’m an adult and married now and would really appreciate if you respected my privacy by calling before you come over.”

Or, “Dad, it really hurts my feelings when you don’t include Bob in your annual guys fishing trip. He’s my husband and I want him to feel part of the family.”

Second, if your sweetie’s parent retorts “Oh, are you sure you feel this way, and this isn’t Jean talking?” your spouse needs to present a united front while still taking responsibility for the complaint/request.

Yes mom, it is how I feel and I don’t appreciate what you’re implying. I know this isn’t how things were in the past, but it’s different now and I’d like you to respect my boundaries.”

Third, set the precedent in daily conversation. Your honey dumpling doesn’t always have to have a “come to Jesus” talk with his or her parent to set boundaries. Instead, lay the groundwork in everyday conversation.

For example, if his mom says, “Oh, I’m going to stop by today on my way home for the gym.” He can reply, “Well, let me check with Jean to see if tonight works for us.”

Or, my personal favorite, “let me check with the boss.” This is what my husband says when a family member makes a suggestion or request. It’s light and funny, yet sends a subtle message.

Incorporating these types of requests into daily conversation will let your parent-in-law know that boundaries must be re-negotiated and that you are your spouse’s priority, which is key when setting limits with your in-laws.

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Although setting boundaries can be intimidating, it’s essential to a happy marriage and happy in-law relationships! And remember, your honey plays a crucial if not the crucial role in this process. So make sure he or she is on board and has your back, like any good teammate!

But Sylvia, what if my honey is reluctant to stand up to his/her mom and dad? Don’t fret, next time I’ll share some tips for making sure your sweetie is a team player!

Until then,

Sylvia

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In-Law Relationships: A Holiday Survival Guide

When Irving Berlin wrote Happy Holiday(s) he must not have had a job, financial stress, or in-laws! As we’re all aware, the holidays provide us with a time to reflect on and celebrate our relationships, but they also can be extremely stressful. We stress over finances, hectic work and social schedules, holiday weight gain, and our family relationships.

One of the most contentious relationships come holiday time tends to be ties with our in-laws (and our own parents). We struggle over adapting rituals, being included in traditions, and splitting time between our family-in-law, our family-of-origin, and our nuclear family.

Holidays with in-laws (and parents) are stressful for several reasons. First, loyalties are often implicitly tested during the holiday season. Spending a holiday with the “in-laws” may be seen as a betrayal to the family-of-origin. Second, holidays with extended family members require change. Rituals and traditions, which reflect a family’s identity, often have to be modified to accommodate new family members. Third, deviations to holiday norms may elicit uncertainty, which can be detrimental to in-law and marital relationships.

It’s important to manage in-law issues effectively because research consistently shows a direct link between the climate of in-law relationships and marital satisfaction. In fact, a recent project my colleagues and I worked on demonstrated that children-in-law’s uncertainty and dissatisfaction within the in-law relationship is linked to dissatisfaction within their marital relationship.

Additionally, a recent study which followed married couples for 26 years found that couples were less likely to divorce if husbands had close bonds with their in-laws. Conversely, wives that were close to their in-laws had a 20% greater chance of divorce. This doesn’t mean that wives can get away with keeping their distance, but does suggest that we need to be mindful of how we negotiate our in-law ties.

Collectively, these results demonstrate the importance of managing our in-law relationships. The holidays are a great place to start establishing boundaries, creating new rituals, and fostering the development and maintenance of strong in-law bonds. The tips below may help you ensure that your holiday season is merry and bright!

Stop: When we feel uncertain or that someone, such as our in-laws, is interfering with our goals, rituals, and routines we tend to be more reactive. As a result, we may say and/or do things that we later regret.

If you feel overwhelmed or upset over a holiday issue with your in-laws (or your own parents), stop and take a personal time out. Take a moment to collect your thoughts and gain control of your emotions. Pressing pause will also allow you to reflect on what is really bothering you, rather than lashing out at your spouse, in-laws, or parents.

Once you’ve had a moment to cool down you have some perspective on the issue and will be able to more calmly communicate what upset you and why.

Collaborate: Traditions are one of the best things about the holiday season. However, the moment we say “I do” we are merging our families and our traditions. It’s important to be open-minded and have a collaborative rather than self-centered attitude when it comes to holiday traditions.

Be open-minded to trying new rituals that mean something to your sweetie pie and his/her family. Additionally, you may want to introduce your in-laws to traditions that are important to you and your family. They’ll get to know you better and feel included, which in turn may make them more eager to have you join the family fold.

It’s also important to make sure that your parents are open to including your honey bunch in family traditions (and in-laws, if you so desire). If they’re hesitant, stay firm and let them know that you’re a package deal now. You can’t include one without the other. This may end certain family traditions or force them to modify existing ones, but your loyalty lies with your spouse now and you have to present a united front.

Listen: You may have heard the phrase “read between the lines,” but it’s equally important to “listen between the lines.” If your sweetheart or in-law brings up an issue he/she is having, try to listen to what he/she is really getting at.

What is the real reason your mother-in-law is upset that you’re not coming for Christmas? Is it that she may feel like she’s losing her child or that she just doesn’t want to change? Is your wife’s dismissal of your family’s traditions really just a reflection of her hurt feelings at not being included in them?

When you engage in perspective checking and paraphrasing (e.g., “What I hear you saying is…” or “You seem upset that my family…”) you not only make sure that you’re on the same page as your relational partner, but also show that you genuinely care.

Build: Although it’s nice to be inclusive and try to accommodate all family members, sometimes you have to establish boundaries. If driving to four holiday dinners or spending two-weeks with your in-laws is not your idea of a good time, don’t let your family guilt you in to doing that.

Instead, acknowledge their feelings, explain your perspective, and then offer alternative options. Perhaps you celebrate the holiday a few days early or a few days late, or make a one-week rather than two-week trip. But provide multiple options and try to reach a compromise.

If you don’t establish boundaries, you’ll never be rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

Celebrate: With all the holiday hub-bub it’s important to not lose sight of your own nuclear family. Whether you’re a two-some or a family with children, it’s important to create your own traditions and rituals and take time to celebrate with one another.

Wine: Not whine, but wine, vino, the good stuff! If all else fails pour yourself a glass, or two, or heck just take the whole bottle. Everything is better when you’re sitting by a fire, sipping some wine, and thinking of your happy place!

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The holidays can be stressful, but they don’t necessarily have to be. Following the tips above will help you want to deck the halls and not each other!

I’d love to hear how you handle your in-laws at the holidays! Tell me your thoughts in the comments!!

Until next time,

Sylvia

Call Before You Visit: Creating Boundaries with In-Laws

As discussed last week, parents-in-law can be a source of support or a source of stress. One reason relationships with parents-in-law may be problematic is due to a lack of boundaries. Sometimes, due to uncertainty, parents- and children-in-law don’t know how to establish boundaries with one another. They, for instance, don’t know what they can and cannot do or say with one another. As a result, an in-law may unknowingly overstep their boundaries when they only had the best intentions.

A father-in-law may offer to help his son-in-law paint the house as sign of support and caring, but the son-in-law may feel that is father-in-law doesn’t respect his boundaries and is trying to insert himself in his new family’s life. This example also demonstrates how in-laws can have different expectations for their relationship, which may affect how they interpret one another’s behavior.

Although it’s important to establish boundaries with parents-in-law, it’s also important to know it’s a two-way street. Research suggests that children-in-law often want to be included in their in-laws’ boundaries, but want to exclude their parents-in-law from their own boundaries. For example, you probably want to be included in your in-laws holiday traditions, but expect them to let you and you sweetie create your own rituals that they are not part of. Not exactly a fair deal, huh? Therefore, it’s important to find a way to that can balance both inclusion and exclusion.

Sometimes, however, parents-in-law can be a bit much and you have to establish boundaries. Continued disregard for your parenting style, abuse of your emergency house key, or telling everyone they know about your struggles with infertility are just a few examples when it’s probably time to have a chat with your parents-in-law about boundaries.

However, as much as you may want to let loose on your meddling mother- or father-in-law it is extremely important that you let your spouse do the talking! Your partner knows his/her parent(s) best, so s/he will know the best way to approach them about a specific situation. You taking the reins and confronting your in-laws is more than likely going to hurt rather than help the situation.

So, what can you do to help manage boundaries with your in-laws?

Decide what’s important: Whether you like it or not, your parents-in-law are part of your family and you can’t shut them out entirely. So, decide what is important to protect and what you can handle letting them be part of. Maybe you want to keep your financial information private from your in-laws, but are willing to be open about other topics, such as work or your own family. Or perhaps you really want Christmas morning to be just you, your honey bunny, and your children, but you’re happy to welcome your parents-in-law into the celebration later in the day.

The key is to find a balance. Although your parents-in-law would love to be included in most aspects of your life, when you let them in to some of your boundaries, they’ll likely be more understanding when you want to protect other areas of your life.

Make it a team decision: Whatever the boundaries are you’d like to construct make sure your partner is on board. This can be tricky because sometimes you’re asking your spouse to change longstanding patterns of behavior. I, for example, was used to sharing pretty much everything with my mom. But when my husband and I started dating I soon realized he wasn’t so keen on me sharing every argument or sweet moment we had with her. So, I had to renegotiate boundaries with my mom a bit to respect my sweetie’s privacy and our relationship.

If your partner doesn’t want you sharing certain information with your parents respect that and your partner needs to respect the boundaries you wish to create with your in-laws too.

Remember, it’s a two-way street: If you want your parents-in-law to respect your boundaries, you need to respect their boundaries too.  Don’t be offended if they don’t want to talk about their retirement savings in front of you or would prefer if you weren’t in the room when the doctor came in. You can’t expect to construct rigid boundaries with your parents-in-law and expect them to be an open book.

However, it is important to let them in to your boundaries too.  After all, you are married to their child and, potentially, raising their grandchildren. These people are important to them too and research shows that in-laws are very appreciative when their children-in-law make an effort to include them in their lives.

Make boundaries clear: No one instinctively knows what the boundaries are, so it’s important to talk about them, especially if you feel your boundaries are being violated. But remember, each spouse/partner needs to be the one to talk to his/her respective parents.

In addition, when talking to your parents it’s important to let them know that this is important to YOU, not just your spouse. Say, for example, your spouse is fed up with your parents criticizing her parenting style. Instead of saying, “Mom, it really upsets Jackie when you tell her how to parent and I’m sick of her complaining to me about it” try “Mom, it really hurts my feelings that you don’t respect the way Jackie and I have decided to parent. I know you have a lot of experience, but we would really appreciate if your respected our parenting style and didn’t interject your opinion so much.” It’s important to present a united front when confronting parents about boundary violations.

Change your perception: Despite what you may think, your parent-in-law is probably not trying to ruin your life or marriage. Perhaps due to media portrayals, your parents’ relationship with their in-laws, or your own uncertainty about the in-law relationship you may be sensitive to things your parents-in-law say or do. Try to put yourself in their shoes to understand what their true intentions may be.

If you’re a new mom and your mother-in-law offers to come over and clean your house, don’t automatically assume she’s implying that your house is messy. There’s a very good chance that she is just offering to be nice and give you a little time to relax. So, enjoy it and don’t forget to lift your feet when she comes around with the vacuum!

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Despite what the media leads us to believe, in-law relationships don’t have to be difficult. It won’t happen overnight, in most cases, but with a little work, patience, and understanding you can develop an enjoyable relationship with your parents-in-law!

Until next time,

Sylvia

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