Help! I Don’t Love My In-Laws    

Group photo of a large familyWhen we’re first in love with our partners, the world can feel like a very small place. We only have eyes for one another, and that bond, born of words, actions, gestures, physical touch, and hormones is a marvel of human experience. In that intimate couple experience, we might plan a future together. We imagine creating our own, two-person family, and what challenges, joy, and pleasure that will bring. We begin to share our joy with others, particularly our friends, siblings, and parents. Then the truth sets in: We are both members of an extended family, quite different families, as a matter of fact. Our marriage will bring our partner’s family immediately into our own, whether we are prepared, interested, or happy about that fact at all. We will become, and will have, “in-laws.”

And what a reality check that experience becomes. That whole emotional system is wrapped up in your beloved: the astronauts and the dropouts; the kind and the cruel. Your partner has a complex history with these folks, a history that you don’t yet share and may not immediately appreciate. That quirky sense of humor you have? Your new mother-in-law may find it unusual, or even offensive.  Your partner’s passion for books and research? No one in your family understands it and never asks her about her work. A healthy marriage will find ways to talk about this truth and face the experience together. It may be hard, because human loyalties run deep, even to broken or chaotic families. To your partner, an unexpected harsh word or angry critique about his or her family may make you seem the stranger. And that may be exactly how you feel at times.

Getting married means figuring out how to live with these automatic family relationships. Navigating early marital decisions like getting married and where, one’s last name, where one lives, finances, life insurance, holidays, and vacations can all involve issues we have to juggle from our families of origin. It can be exhausting and stressful, even in the happiest of relationships. Here are four suggestions to making this adjustment as healthy and positive as possible, to you, your partner, and one another’s family members.

  1. Show up. Nothing helps a family adjust to a new in-law more than your consistent, steady presence. You don’t have to attend every single thing your partner’s family plans throughout the year, but be sure you both attend the major gatherings together. Make it a point to have individual conversations with different people in the family. As they get to know you, you’ll feel more at home and less the stranger. Even if you need to take regular breaks to go for a walk, take a nap, or read your book, just being there is important.
  2. Respect the differences. You don’t have to suddenly become a Packers fan when you’ve had Vikings season tickets for years, but you do want to be a good sport and recognize the differences you have with your in-laws. They are Catholic and you’re Baptist? Learn about their faith traditions and grow in your appreciation for what’s important to them. Don’t expect them to become different just for you. Learn who they are, appreciate their choices, and you will find a place of increasing welcome.
  3. Negotiate. Bring your best skills of win-win to conversations that require hard decisions. Both grandparents want to see the children at Christmas? Each family has unique expectations for adult birthday parties? Your family has a big family reunion every year and your partner is an only child and can’t see the point? Figure out what is important and decide to try to reach a compromise or shared success. Keep talking about the compromises you are making, and as much as possible, keep an open mind and sense of humor.
  4. Maintain your boundaries when it counts. Life in all close relationships requires holding the line when important differences separate us. You’re a recovering alcoholic and some in the family drink themselves under the table every holiday? Speak up and leave events early. You expect to baptize your baby and your brother-in-law hates the church? Invite him, or not: it’s your religious event. Some of your in-laws smoke and you can’t stand it? Ask them to light up on the steps of your house when they visit. Your preferences count. Just because you want to belong doesn’t mean you give up your personal rights and responsibilities.

Getting married means that you become part of your partner’s extended family, for better or worse. Having a positive attitude and looking for the good in one another will go a very long way to making that automatic group of in-laws feel more like the new family you hope it to be.

Related articles:
Shutting Out A Family Member
The Two-Faith Marriage

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynne Silva-Breen, MDiv, MA, LMFT, therapist in Burnsville, Minnesota

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Dawn

    March 23rd, 2012 at 11:21 AM

    It is important to have a good attitude toward them when you go into the marriage, but they have to be willing to reciprocate, and in my case that has definitely not been anything that mine were willing to do. They always have this way of making it know to me that they think that their son could have done better and married better. It is not like they are overtly snotty, but I sense it and I think that my husband does too. I want to tell them to grow up, he chose me, now let’s move on, but how do I say this to these people who raised my husband and whom he still loves very much?

  • Suse D

    March 23rd, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    My inlaws are like my own parents. And I guarantee that if you go into the marriage being positive like that, then there will not be any of those problems.

  • JB

    March 24th, 2012 at 4:57 AM

    Women have more hangups with this kind of thing than men do. I don’t know what it is, maybe women go into their relationships expecting too much from the husband’s parents? They want them to be substitutes for the parents that they did not have and you know that most of the time it is not going to work out like that. But you just need to accept that you are marrying the guy and not the folks, and that you don’t have to see them all the time anyway, so who cares?

  • Barb

    March 24th, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    If your inlaws love and respect you then it is your obligation to love and respect them back.

  • rosemary t

    March 25th, 2012 at 5:29 AM

    I have been through several sets of daughters in law, and I agree with Barb. Some of them came into the marriages with preconceived notions that they were going to have a mean old mother in law, and I guess since that is what they expected, then I felt obliged to live up those expectations. But come on! Most people come into marriages thinking that just because the person they are marrying loves them that everyone else should too. But it takes work on both parts, everyone has to take some responsibility when these relationships don’t work out.

  • Tom.M

    March 25th, 2012 at 6:04 AM

    In-laws are never easy to navigate.,You need to make compromises but never become a door mat in the process.It takes a fine balancing act to keep things going but with a little effort it is not too difficult and can be learnt.I have been through it all in ten years of marriage and all the best to each one of you!

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