Getting Along With In-Laws: When Her Parents Become Your Problem
In-laws...love 'em or hate 'em. Unlike choosing a spouse, you didn't have a hand in selecting them. Your wife loves them and they're part of your life—like it or not. Of course not all in-law relationships are fraught with tension, but if yours is, learning how to peacefully co-exist can improve your marriage as well as your emotional well-being.
Whose Problem Is It Anyway? Hers or Yours?
According to A.R. Bob Maslow, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist who specializes in marriage and relationships, in-law problems are frequently pinned on the mother-in-law. "Married men typically complain about mother-in-laws who do not approve of them and daughters who are overly dependent on their mothers," Maslow says.
If you're not feeling the love from her mom, Maslow suggests speaking up before the relationship deteriorates. "It's important to address negative emotions. Feeling judged and criticized by your mother-in-law can stress the marriage," claims the expert who recommends resolving the problem through an open discussion. "If your mother-in-law is defensive and unwilling to accept any responsibility for your feelings, it's understandable why you'd opt to keep your mouth shut."
But this option only leads to more resentment. Enter plan B. Maslow says enlisting your wife's help is the next step in repairing the damage. "There can be no divided loyalties in marriage. When you marry, your first priority has to be to each other," explains Maslow. "Wives hear this: if somebody's got to get hurt it's better that person be your mother." Conversely, if your wife has a problem with your mother, it's your job to fix it.
Empathy Is Key
Above all, Maslow believes having empathy is essential. "Feelings matter—period. They are valid whether you agree with them or not so focusing on who's right and who's wrong won't get you anywhere," says the psychologist and author of Men, Women and the Power of Empathy. "To receive empathy, you have to show your vulnerability and some people aren't capable of doing that."
Understanding that you and your mother-in-law share a deep love for the same person can help you be empathetic toward her. If your wife won't speak to her mother, thinking about the family you grew up with can provide some valuable insight. "We can't help but recreate the family system we were raised in because it's what we know," Maslow explains. "The feelings we have for our own parents can be projected on to our in-laws, spouses and/or people in authority. In some individuals there may be a transfer of negative feelings."
An overly controlling mother-in-law can be another source of contention in a marriage, according to Maslow. When a woman marries, the kinship between a mother and her daughter has to change. "It must evolve from a parent-child relationship into a close connection between two adults," says the author. "A wife who is unduly dependent on her mother more than likely has unresolved issues with her."
Wives who don't trust their own judgment and turn constantly to their mothers for advice can leave a spouse feeling undermined and inadequate. "Decision-making should be kept inside the marriage. Seeking counsel is fine but boundaries need to be established," says Maslow who suggests resisting the urge to criticize your spouse for her relationship with her parents. "Criticism will only make matters worse."
Negotiate with your partner the parameters you want to establish for your in-laws but choose your words carefully. "Don't say: It's none of her business. She needs to butt out." Instead explain to your wife that you aren't comfortable with her mother's involvement in your affairs. "You might explain to your wife that it's time for you to make your own decisions as a couple and that her mom is interfering with that process," Maslow explains.
This is not to say that you and your wife should not be involved with your parents, but bear in mind that any time either of you turn away from your partner to resolve an issue, that's bad for the marriage. A problem in your marriage should be resolved in your marriage.
If your spouse can't or won't intervene, try seeking the ear of a friend. "A good friend can help you see what you're not able to clearly evaluate," says Maslow who advocates marriage therapy for truly strained relationships. "A few visits with a trained therapist may be all that's necessary to remedy a problem."
Interview with A.R. Bob Maslow, Ph.D
Clinical psychologist and author Men, Women and the Power of Empathy
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