Much of life is shaped by the choices we make. We choose where we want to work and where we will live. We choose friends and partners. Most of us also choose who we marry (if we choose to marry). When we commit to someone, typically we are agreeing not only to commit to them, but to what—and who—they bring with them. In many cases, family members are part of what a partner brings to a committed, long-term relationship. And although we can choose our partner, we cannot choose their family.
Building a relationship with a long-term partner’s family can be difficult for all involved. Everyone involved is adjusting to a major life transition: parents are trying to adjust to a new relationship dynamic with their child and build a relationship with their child’s partner. The couple is establishing and strengthening their own relationship and making their own life choices. If these choices conflict with what the parents envisioned for their child, the parents may perceive this as rejection, which can put strain on the relationship. Parents who miss their child and want to have more of a relationship may seem pushy or over-involved. Any number of other reasons may serve to complicate this particular relationship.
In my experience as a therapist, strained relationships with a partner’s family members, especially the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, are quite common. If you find building a relationship with your partner’s parents to be challenging, or if you just don’t like your partner’s parents, the following tips and considerations may be helpful:
- Discuss the level of involvement you would like to have with your partner’s family. Do you envision seeing them every week for Sunday dinner? Do you envision seeing them for three hours on a major holiday once per year? If you choose to have children, what type of involvement should they have with them? If you and your partner disagree, you can talk through the reasons and try to reach a compromise that leaves you both satisfied.
- Work on building a positive relationship and focusing on the good. It can be hard to relate to someone if you don’t know them well. Try to have more shared experiences. Plan an activity, such as a picnic or mini-golf. Try seeking advice on small things, like which tablecloth is best or what dishes you could serve at a family meal. Maybe one parent is financially savvy and can help you figure out your mortgage application. Maybe the other parent is excellent at fixing things around the house. Seek out and enjoy each person’s strengths.
- This is a long-term relationship, so it is likely worth investing in. In most areas of life, it’s fairly easy to minimize contact with people we don’t like. However, in a marriage or other committed partnership, it may be worth trying to reach common ground. Discover the good aspects about your partner’s parents and learn what you can like about them.
- Hear their feelings behind the comments. When your partner’s mother asks, “Why don’t you move closer?” or “Why did you move so far away?” try to hear the feelings rather than the criticisms. Your partner’s parents are probably not trying to control you or tell you what to do. They may simply be trying to tell you how they feel about something, such as “I miss you and wish we could spend more time together.”
- Learn their love language as a way to communicate with them better. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages as a tool for your in-laws. What are their love languages? Do they really appreciate gifts? Would they better appreciate an offer to help them with house and yard work once in a while? Giving to them, in a way they will appreciate most, can help them feel more positively toward you and may lead to a greater sense of connection. This page contains at least one affiliate link for the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, which means GoodTherapy.org receives financial compensation if you make a purchase using an Amazon link.
- Not all events have to include all the members of the family. If it remains difficult—for whatever reason—for you to enjoy or even handle seeing certain members of the family, try instead to create (or allow) opportunities for them to see your partner or their grandchildren. Grandparents might be thrilled to spend time with your kids for a few hours or even a few days. You don’t have to attend every single get-together.
- Don’t force your partner or children to cut off their relationships. You may dislike your partner’s parents. You may have drastically different approaches to parenting. But allowing your children to spend time with their grandparents may really benefit them (and their grandparents). Preventing your children from building this relationship can be a huge loss (unless you have reason to believe they are in danger). And if your partner wishes to spend more time with their parents (with or without you) and you prevent them from doing so, conflict and resentment may be the result.
- Set boundaries. Doing this early on in your relationship is likely to make the adjustment easier for everyone involved. Assuring your partner’s parents they are an important part of the family may help them agree more easily to the boundaries you set without feeling as if you have cut them off. If they tend to overstay their welcome, try being specific: “Are you available from 1 to 3 on Sunday?” or, “Would you like to come for a visit for two nights next weekend?” If they express the desire to stay longer than you would like, simply say something like, “It would be better for us to just do two days this time.”
- Realize that your partner’s long-standing familial relationships and communication dynamics precede your relationship and are not likely to change. You may feel irritated by your partner’s interactions. Suddenly the confident and self-assured person you know cannot stand up to their mother! This may be infuriating, but try your best not to harp on it or try to change them. Your partner’s relationship and patterns of interaction with their parents (and siblings) are unlikely to change much. (However, if some aspect of this interaction or any family issue appears to be harmful or distressing to your partner, you may wish to discuss this, perhaps with a counselor.)
- Communicate clearly. If you primarily communicate with your partner’s family through your partner but find things often become muddled, try speaking directly to them instead. This not only shows them respect but can help prevent miscommunication and misunderstandings—and will keep your partner from being caught in the middle.
Dealing with your partner’s parents may be one of the more challenging parts of your relationship, but it may be worth the effort to make your interactions with them as pleasant as possible, if for no other reason than to respect your partner’s bond with them.
© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mieke Rivka Sidorsky, LCSW-C, CST, therapist in Silver Spring, Maryland
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