Family can support your marriage, and they can sometimes undermine it. The trick is to know how to act, and when, when the latter happens, or to prevent incidents from occurring before they start.
I’ve put together 6 positive steps to help you better work with your wife’s parents, and to build the relationship with them.
These tips will also work to strengthen your “marital team,” by getting on the same page with your wife when it comes to big issues like parenting, money and family get-togethers.
1. Figure out what child-rearing expectations are between you and your wife, and decide how much input your parents, or hers, will have. Often, one spouse (or both) is upset that someone’s parents are too overreaching about parenting styles, and often have a lot to say about raising your child(ren) that might not be welcomed. Get on the same page as your wife or partner, so that when outside voices try to have their say, you both know what to expect from your partner, and then you can confront your parent as a team – together. Know what advice you and your wife will, and won’t accept, and decide how you will confront on overreaching parent together and set healthy boundaries with the overreaching parent.
2. Don’t criticize or attack your wife’s parents. Especially, when you’re in a fight, it’s easy and tempting to want to tell your wife she’s just like her parents, or outright criticize them directly to her. Don’t. If you’re having problems with your wife, communicate them to her without bringing her family in the mix. If you’re having a problem with her one of her parents, or both, or another member of her family, talk with your wife and try to work it out.
Ask if she’d feel comfortable if you were to have a conversation with the family member you’re having a problem with, and go about it in a direct way with the person you need to communicate with. Don’t go through your wife and start a bad communication chain. She’s won’t be happy with you putting her in the middle of your issues with her parent(s), and this will cause unnecessary problems in your marriage.
If you’re the one in the middle, don’t feel like you have to take sides for your wife, or for your parents. You’re bound to lose. Know what’s best for yourself first, and for your family, and then make a decision to act.
3. Get clear on expectations and guidelines for parental/family visits: Again, this is for getting you both on the same page together. If her parents (or yours) are visiting, have a conversation about expectations for seeing them. How long will you visit for? Where will they stay – at your home or somewhere else? How long will you see them for? What activities or structure do you have in place to negate any potential problems?
There should be little room for error, as to not bring up conflict when you do all get together. Know where your wife or husband stands before their big visit. If you’re traveling and staying with them, be clear on how long you’ll stay, topics of conversation to avoid, and how to be good guests in their house. The investment upfront – by getting clear, being on the same page, and executing your plan together – will pay off in the end, and will minimize marital strife between you and your wife.
4. Taking money from parents as an adult child/couple: Will you, or won’t you? Do you and your wife feel the same way about taking money from one or the other’s parents? Do any hidden strings or expectations come from accepting money from them? Sometimes, there are unseen, emotional responsibilities or expectations that come as a result of taking money from one’s parents when you’re an adult.
Money and dysfunctional family dynamics often don’t mix too well, so if you’re going to be needing money, for buying a new home or car, school tuition, emergency funds or the like, make sure you and your wife are on the same page about accepting it, knowing what you’re expected to give back before you accept it (financial, emotional, etc.), and communicate about paying the debt back in a timely fashion, unless it’s a gift.
5. Get therapy to change your relationship with your wife’s parents if they are too difficult to deal with: If you’re having problems with your wife’s family, and they won’t change, you may need to work on yourself. If they continue to create problems for you, and you’ve tried confronting them about the problematic behaviors, looking inside of yourself to see how you’re triggered may ease the mental or emotional disruptions that they’re causing you.
They may be bringing up old wounds you’re not aware of, and the relationship might change even a little bit if you can work on changing your attitude and experience even if they won’t. I’m not saying the relationship will become close if it’s already strained or problematic, but it may make the difference between not wanting to be around them and creating more acceptance or tolerance for family get-togethers when you’re with them.
6. Work to develop some relationship with them on your own: Be a diplomat, or a mensch. Take the high ground. Send cards on their birthdays or anniversaries. Call them once in a while on your own, just to say hi, rather than waiting for your wife to pass you the phone. Ask them questions about them, and how they’re doing. Take the initiative to befriend your wife’s parents from time to time. It’ll be good for your marriage, good for your relationship with her parents, and good for you.
Dealing with in-laws can be a positive experience, or a negative one. If you come in with the mindset that you want things to work, the steps offered above will hopefully go a long way in creating a more harmonious relationship with them and with your wife.