“You must have a lot of patience” responded my friend when I shared that myself, my husband and our baby daughter had moved in with my in-laws. I don’t know if it’s the perception that society has created, or a whole lot of negative experiences encountered by married couples, but in-laws don’t have the best reputation! Just like the “monster under the bed” that many kids fear, only to grow up and find that this “monster” was based on their imagination, the stories we tell ourselves long before our partner’s parents become our in-laws can greatly influence our own fear factor towards our relationship with them.
Let me be clear, I know that there are some instances where a spouse has been severely mistreated by their in-laws, or even that the in-laws themselves have had such treatment from a spouse. Sometimes it really is a battlefield! I am not minimising this reality in any way, but I am simply saying that sometimes it is also the case where we can be the ones getting in our own way of developing a healthy relationship with our in-laws.
In my own marriage, me and Liam are blessed to not just have our own relationships with our in-laws, but also to have in-laws who have relationships with one another. We’ve been away on holidays and celebrated Christmas together as one big, extended family, and it is the best feeling to be able to come together in such a way. Some of you might be raising your eyebrows at the thought of doing the same with your own in-laws, or with both sides of your families, but often your relationships are what you make them.
Just as much as we have our good times with our in-laws, we are also conscious of more testing times that come with the ups and downs of any relationship.
There are so many relational skills that you will pick up along the way in your marriage that are exclusive to your relationship with your spouse, but there are also many skills that you will gain that are completely transferrable. You may not notice until the time comes to use them, but these skills can be particularly helpful when navigating and building relationships with your in-laws. Here are some examples:
1. Respect your differences
In the same way that you shouldn’t expect your spouse to be like you, you should also appreciate that your in-laws will come with their own quirks as a family. The more you are able to appreciate those differences and find common ground, the more comfortable you will feel when spending time with them. Maybe your mother-in-law is a woman of few words, whereas you may be the complete opposite. Notice the things that she is interested in, and make an effort to spend some more time understanding her world.
2. Establish your boundaries
Your marriage needs boundaries to function in a way that leaves you both feeling equally validated and respected. As challenging as this area can be, your relationship with your in-laws will also need boundaries in place. Are you both comfortable with your in-laws popping round at any moment of their choosing? How much is too much when having personal conversations with your in-laws? What happens when you feel as though your in-law is still trying to parent your spouse and dictate their do’s and don’ts? These are just a few examples and the list could go on, but it is crucial that you discuss any pressure points with your spouse first, and settle on a united stance that you can then raise with your in-laws if needed.
3. Know your place
There are moments in your marriage where you will need to leave your spouse to handle his/her situation like an adult. You can’t follow around behind them picking up their pieces for the rest of their life, and you definitely can’t live their life for them! There will also be moments where you will be tempted to have your say in a discussion or disagreement that is clearly between your spouse and their sibling or their parent. Unless you are specifically asked to be a part of the conversation, know that it is not your place to get involved. I have seen situations where someone has been too quick to jump to the defence of their partner, and even to attack the family and openly disrespect them. These situations never end well. What you need to remember is that even though you are in a relationship with this person, their family doesn’t stop being their family at any point. You are creating a solid rod for your back when you destroy your relationship with your partner’s family – and yes this also happens before couples even get married and can be a huge red flag to any couple choosing to marry in spite of this.
I should also say that there is a difference when the family of the person you are interested in are not willing to give you the time of day regarding your race, religion, social class, upbringing etc. In these cases, there is an irrational barrier in place that is creating a wall between you and a relationship that could actually lead to a solid lifelong marriage. These cases are never black and white as it seems like someone will lose out either way – either you let the relationship go, or one/ both sides chooses not to let their family’s lack of blessing stop them getting married (often at the detriment of those family relationships). Of course there are instances where the family comes around and turns out to be extremely accepting, but you can’t hold out hope that this will be your story. There are never any guarantees, and you need to ask yourself if you can live happily married to this person if it meant potentially never having relationships with your in-laws or your own family even once married. It’s a position that no person wants to end up in, but it is then that you are faced with the very real decision of your love vs. your family/in-laws. By no means is this a decision to be taken lightly or selfishly.
4. Make an effort
Date night is an essential in your marriage toolkit, especially when busy work schedules, children, personal activities/hobbies and maybe even a social life come into the mix! This may sound strange, but work with me… date nights with your in-laws can be just as beneficial to your relationship. I’m not just throwing this one out there, but I can say this based on experience. What started off as down-time between my husband and his brother, inspired me and my sister-in-law to set aside time for each other that we called “sister date night”. This then expanded to me planning “date nights” for just me and my mother-in-law. Setting aside specified quality time was great for our relationships, and it was definitely something that we began to look forward to. Fast-forward to one baby later and even less time, I’ll be honest and say that this intention has definitely slipped, but writing this is a sound reminder of the benefits of setting aside time to invest in the relationships I care about. We need to make the most of the time we have with those we love while the time is here!
5. Appreciate the journey
Marriage comes with its fair share of bumps in the road. No marriage is guaranteed to be argument-free and bursting with love and affection for every minute of every day, contrary to what social media may show you.
Your spouse is human, just like your in-laws are human. In fact, your spouse was raised by your in-laws (in case you didn’t know), so that man or woman that you fell in love with has been largely shaped by their family before entering into your life.
That includes both the positive and negative traits. You may have the benefit of being able to say that your relationship with your in-laws is pretty smooth, but even then you will encounter experiences where you need to take a breather or have a difficult conversation. This doesn’t mean that your relationship with them is any less healthy – in fact, it usually helps strengthen your relationship in new ways when you are able to work through the challenges and regain a sense of balance.
Personally, I know that mutual understanding is never a guarantee in every circumstance, especially when considering your marriage relationship with your spouse. I am grateful for my in-laws and for the way that they have welcomed me into the family as one of their own. I haven’t been made to doubt my place for a moment, and over the years they have helped me to understand my husband better just by being themselves, as well as helping me to understand me better. If we can get to the point where we can see our in-laws as our own family, then we will have our own experience that helps to squash the “monster” narrative and instead build an extension of love into our lives – born from our marriage union.
What a gift to be able to say, I didn’t just gain a loving husband/wife when I got married, but I gained an entire loving family too.
Do you feel like there is something keeping you from fully committing to a relationship with your in-laws? Ask yourself the following questions to better determine where the issue stems from. Hopefully then you can decide on the best steps to take in building your relationship/s with them:
- How do you feel when you think about your in-laws? When did this start?
- How do you feel when you are around your in-laws? Has this always been the case?
- How does your spouse make you feel when you are with your in-laws? Have you ever spoken to him/her about this? Why/why not…
- What would help make you feel more comfortable around your in-laws?
- What conversation/s might you be avoiding with your in-laws that need to happen for you to move forward?