In-laws – or outlaws?
Have you been married for years, yet still can’t find a way to get along with your husband’s family?
In-law troubles are as old as marriage itself and unlikely to vanish anytime soon. Sometimes it’s hard enough keeping the peace with your own family, never mind trying to deal with your spouse’s. You can choose who you spend your life with, but the fact is that their family’s part of the package deal. Nevertheless, there’s hope, says clinical psychologist Dr Sherona Rawat. ‘It’s possible to improve relations with your in-laws because over time, people, circumstances and priorities can change. With clear insight and good intentions, there’s always potential for growth.’
Why can’t we all just get along?
Research shows that in-law relations are a key determinant of marital happiness. There are many reasons people don’t
get along with their spouse’s family, depending on their circumstances. Some of the factors Sherona’s observed include mental disorders, dysfunctional families (on one or both sides), jealousy, possessiveness, different ways of upbringing and differing religions, cultures, socio-economic status and lifestyles.
Why is this so tricky?
Many people have stories of how their in-laws make their lives miserable. ‘We have long and complicated histories with
our own families,’ explains Sherona. ‘As a result, we’ve afforded them a status in our lives that we feel has been earned.
Extended family, on the other hand, must suddenly be accorded the same status as our own family in our lives, without
“earning it”. To make matters worse, we often feel we have to give them extra leeway because we want to be accepted
and included within our spouse’s intimate family circle. We feel pressurised to merge families, but find that due to vastly
different backgrounds and values, they just don’t fit.’
Do I have to make an effort?
Is it absolutely imperative that married people be close to their partners’ families? ‘No,’ says Sherona. ‘But a good relationship obviously has multiple benefits’:
- It broadens your horizons by providing an opportunity to see things beyond your usual family dynamic.
- It increases your available support structures and provides you with additional resources.
- It makes your spouse feel happy and therefore improves your relationship.
- It keeps your in-laws’ channel to your children open without tension or trouble.
You and your in-laws may not like each other, but it’s essential to show them the same respect, patience and kindness
that you show your own family. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t set your own boundaries, nor should you allow
yourself to be bullied or manipulated by them. Discuss with your spouse the limits you’d like to set with his family (and,
of course, the ones he’d like to set with yours). You need to be reasonable about this. You can’t expect your spouse to
break off relations with his parents just because you don’t like them. They’re also your kids’ grandparents, so you have to
form a relationship with them that’s at least civil, if not loving. For example, if they’re regular church-goers, but you’re
not, respect that aspect of their lives and allow your kids to spend Christmas with them observing the rituals they
uphold. If you detest their politics, resolve never to bring that subject (or any other contentious ones) up with them.
What if the problem lies with you?
How can you tell whether you’re the problem in the equation? ‘It’s very important to assess your own role within the dynamic of the relationship,’ says Sherona.
She says these are questions you need to ask yourself:
- Am I doing something that triggers aggression or hostility in my in-laws?
- Is there a pattern in my life? Do I often face the same problem with other people?
- Do I have insecurities within myself causing me to dislike or resent them?
- What are my weaknesses regarding my relationship with my spouse?
Caught in the middle?
What if the issue is between your spouse and your parents? How do you keep the peace and make sure everyone’s happy? ‘Don’t allow yourself to get caught in the middle,’ stresses Sherona. ‘Play an active, positive role. Your job is to minimise
harm and maximise love and support. For that, you need to be fair. Your role should be to prevent either side from getting hurt, emotionally abused, offended or traumatised by the other. Assess where the fault lies and support each party in remedying the situation. Should you be unable to do so, keep the peace by minimising contact. Seek professional help if you feel ill-equipped to do so.’
Karl Pillemer is a professor of human development at Cornell University, USA and the author of 30 Lessons for Loving: The Wisest Americans’ Advice on Love, Marriage, and Relationships (Avery), in which he interviews over 700 long-term married people about a range of topics, including dealing with in-laws. He emphasises the importance of being loyal to your partner. Many arguments arise from feeling that your spouse never takes your side when it comes to his family. In Pillemer’s book, almost all the interviewees advised supporting your spouse, especially in the presence of your respective families. Constantly siding with your own parents, or being too dependent on their opinion, can cause problems in your union.
Being authentic, but cordial
Since no-one can get rid of their in-laws, how can families make an effort to be friendly towards each other? Sherona argues that it doesn’t have to mean pretending, saying you should be genuine, but diplomatic. ‘There’s no easy way. This is when your values, morals and sense of justice are tested to the maximum. You definitely need to bring your best game. It may feel hard initially, but it’s worth the effort. If your in-laws are the ones in the wrong, then it’s important for you to discuss this with your spouse and develop a plan, moving forward. This way, he’ll know you’ve tried your best to make it work.
- Establish a strong relationship with your spouse. Communicate clearly and honestly. Agree on boundaries and the extent to which you’re both willing to go to when a problem arises.
- Honestly assess your relationship with your in-laws. Assess what you can and can’t change in the relationship. For example, you can’t change your mother-in-law’s character, but you can try to find common ground, such as activities you both enjoy or topics you both find interesting.
- Do it for your spouse’s sake. Make an effort to accommodate your in-laws because you love your spouse and expect him to do the same for you. A marriage is a lifelong relationship, as is your kids’ relationship with all their grandparents. Acknowledge the effort your in-laws make with your kids. For example, compliment them on how generous or patient they are with them, and let them know that your kids love spending time with them. Make that the basis of your relationship and take it from there.
- You can’t be friends with everyone. Don’t be over-sensitive – but don’t allow yourself to be trampled on, either. Not everyone can be your friend, but you can find something positive in your in-laws and focus on that. ‘Give each other space and be strategic with your battles,’ says Sherona.
FEATURE: NOLWAZI DHLAMINI PHOTO: STOCK.ADOBE.COM