Any relationship between two people can be tricky to navigate at times – clashing communication styles, life goals or personality traits.
So it should come as no surprise that relationship pressures increase when additional people plunge into the mix – people that neither you nor your partner get to choose. We’re talking, of course, about in-laws.
It may be an old cliché, but the numbers bear it out – nearly 3 out of 4 couples experience major relationship stress because of their in-laws, with the biggest source of conflict being between wives and their mothers-in-law. And while no two families are identical, we can look at some common reasons why friction occurs and how to deal with them.
Problem: Setting Boundaries.
It’s a fact that in previous generations, the wife was usually mistress of the home – from cooking to shopping to raising the children.
It may therefore be difficult for a mother to view her daughter-in-law’s approach to housekeeping or child-rearing with anything but a critical eye, even if she doesn’t realize this. She may even try to take over these tasks herself, sincerely thinking she is being helpful, and may consequently be surprised and offended if her help is rejected.
Solution: Balance Assertiveness With Appreciation.
The important thing in these cases is to set boundaries right at the start, and to stick to them.
Remember, however, that her actions are probably born of a genuine desire to help. Refusing to listen on principle is counter-productive, and will not help your relationship. She may simply wish to feel useful and wanted. From her perspective, it’s less about actually changing how you do things, and more about feeling that she can still be valuable.
At the first sign that something may become a constant issue, initiate a conversation and explain that this is your home, and that you and your spouse are independent adults who have their own way of doing things. Be as polite and amicable as possible, but be assertive.
Reassure her that you appreciate her advice and that you respect her opinion. She’ll appreciate this – and there may be times when she has a point!
Problem: Inter-cultural Differences.
Inter-cultural marriages are quickly becoming the norm in many parts of the country, especially major metropolitan areas. But there are many differences that may not be immediately obvious.
First or second-generation immigrants who have seamlessly integrated into their new country may have very traditional parents, and even non-immigrant families may still have unconsciously absorbed particular domestic traditions and customs from a great-grandmother. These are the kinds of things that may not become apparent until you are deep into the relationship.
Solution: Talk To Your Spouse.
Make a point of addressing this with your spouse (or soon-to-be spouse) and learn as much as you can about each other’s cultural backgrounds. Brainstorm as many scenarios where they may be potential problems as you can. Come up with solutions together.
Not only will it help both of you deal with each other’s parents – it might bring the two of you closer together.
Problem: Avoiding The Issue.
The worst thing about battles involving in-laws is their potential to drive a wedge between you and your partner. No matter how close you are to your partner, parent-child relationships are a powerful and complex thing. And no matter how well you think you know your spouse, their parents have known them longer and will know how to appeal to them in the case of a conflict.
Often times, you or your partner may refuse to admit there is really a problem. This reluctance to face the issue can have potentially catastrophic consequences for your relationship if allowed to continue.
Solution: Work As A Team.
Sit down together and talk about any problems as soon as they crop up – and before anyone approaches the in-laws.
Listen to what your spouse has to say, but remember that their opinion may also be shaped by their own relationship with their parents – one that you do not have. Insist on taking the matter seriously.
Figure out what’s preferred and what’s non-negotiable for both of you, work out compromises and tradeoffs wherever possible, and do whatever it takes to come to a consensus so that the next time there is an argument with the in-laws the two of you can present a united front.
While these are all general suggestions, a mental health professional can help you understand your individual situation and suggest the best course. You and your spouse may benefit from couple counseling to work out disagreements regarding in-laws, or individualized therapy for one or both partners to explore your relationship with your own parents.