How To Deal With In-Laws

Trouble with the “outlaws”? Read this.

by Chimère G. Holmes, LPC, Mental Health Editor

Does your “‘til death do us part” include in-laws that you want to part with right now? You’re not alone. An academic study published by Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., who was then a professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, showed that, over time, in-law relationships can have a distinct and often deleterious impact on marriages.

The study followed cis gender heterosexual spouses over 26 years. The results? The rate of divorce decreased by 20 percent if husbands had close relationships with their in-laws. But in marriages in which wives reported close relationships with in-laws, the rate of divorce increased by 20 percent.

Reasons vary by age, ethnicity and income level, and every family situation is different. One thing is true: Some people marry into families that were incredibly toxic and psychologically unfit long before they arrived on the scene.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Many in-laws feel like outlaws because of ever mounting and unresolved hurts, unspoken tensions, or blatant disrespect that doesn’t get acknowledged. Navigating these strained or non-existent relationships is both discouraging and exhausting, particularly if you’re dealing with passive aggressive, conflict avoidant people who would rather pretend as if nothing were wrong. Sadly, not everyone is blessed with emotional intelligence. 

If a family system has been dysfunctional or emotionally abusive, perhaps even manipulative – and for decades – it is important for the spouse marrying in to realize that this familial ship has sailed, and the dynamics are not likely to change. You have two choices: adapt and making the most of an unfortunate situation or implement boundaries to maintain your emotional safety. 

How? Here are six tips on finding peace with your in-laws.

  1. Have compassionate and honest conversations with your spouse that are framed with curiosity, respect, and kindness. Both spouses benefit from understanding how anxiety inducing and sad this is for the other person.
  2. Always take the high road. Talk about your in-laws in a respectful manner so your partner does not feel obligated to defend them.
  3. When your spouse talks badly about your in-laws, don’t join in. Keep those lips zipped! Your spouse will remember – and perhaps repeat – what you said. It may come back to bite you.
  4. Create some distance from your in-laws. Gracefully bow out of the next several family engagements but encourage your spouse to spend time with your in-laws without you.
  5. Don’t make your spouse choose sides. Implement your boundaries with your in-laws but allow and respect your spouse’s decision to stay in touch with them.  
  6. If your spouse decides not to be around his or her family of origin, acknowledge, validate and respect the decision.

If you are in an emotionally unhealthy or turbulent in-law situation, remember that your dignity and integrity are priceless. Do not feel obligated to place yourself in a hostile or uncomfortable environment where you will not feel safe or genuinely respected. Keep your distance and protect your peace. With a little preparation and intentionality, we can choose to cultivate radical acceptance in the face of emotionally turbulent situations.

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