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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