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Advice on dealing with tricky in-laws

Advice on dealing with tricky in-laws

From heated discussions to awkward family dinners, your relationship with your in-laws can have a big impact on family time. Here’s how to navigate this sometimes tricky dynamic.

There’s nothing worse than heading to a family engagement when you have a son-in-law (or your daughter’s parents-in-law) that you just don’t get along with. Whether there's been a fight that you haven’t been able to move on from, or you simply don’t get along, if you find your in-laws draining or annoying, you may need to change the boundaries.

Do you know the old saying, “good fences make good neighbours”? Think of your in-laws like your neighbours – there needs to be really good fences (aka boundaries) in place for the relationship to run smoothly. The best way to go about this is in such a way that you don’t make anyone feel as though you're closing them out, but rather comes off that you are simply focussing on yourself and things you have going on.

Once you’ve set boundaries, don’t be afraid to talk to your family and in-laws about them, they’re not as fragile as you think. But do choose your words carefully and keep the focus on you and what your needs are, rather than making any judgements or comments about them or their behaviour.

Still not sure how to deal with your son, daughter, sister or brother in-law? Here are some top tips for setting boundaries and dealing with awkward situations:

  1. The person with the primary relationship (for example your daughter, not your son-in-law) should be the one to step in and help fix a problem if it arises. You should never be the messenger or go straight to an in-law. Gently raise the issue or concern with your immediate family member.

  2. Decide with your partner, or in your own time if you are single or widowed, what type of role you want your in-law/s to play in your life. If you don’t get along and spending time with them just seems to cause issues, then you might want to limit catch-ups to birthdays and big events. This is ok. Just be gentle if asked to explain. And keep your explanation brief and about you. Something along the lines of, my schedule is quite busy at the moment or I don’t feel up to going out too much, but I am looking forward to the next family get together.

  3. Never criticise your family for their relationship with his or her spouse/your in-laws, nor comment on your in-law to your immediate family member – for example don’t criticise your son-in-law to your daughter/his wife. This tends to only lead to complications and awkwardness. And remember, you only know what your daughter tells you and if they come to you everytime they’re upset or angry with their partner or their partner’s extended family, you’re only hearing the problems when your daughter is frustrated and upset. You might not hear all the good things and about when they make up. Don’t take these things on board and stay out of it by reserving any judgement or comments.

  4. Don’t get involved. Easier said than done, right? You have to trust that you have brought your children up right and they are responsible enough to navigate their own relationships, treat others respectfully and can stand up for themselves if need be. As such, you should not get involved in their issues, arguments and general day-to-day dealings with their other relationships. Stay on the peripheral, be there for some light guidance if need be, but ultimately you should just help them come to their own opinions, decisions and judgements on things rather than sharing your ones with them.

  5. Don’t get pulled into arguments by your child and in-law. You can be supportive and still let the couple handle their own problems. Take a step back and trust that you have raised an adult who has the vision and the courage to resolve the problems that concern his/her own family. Couples need to set boundaries for their own relationships and this can, as I am sure you know, take some time to find the right ones.

  6. Think of yourself as a guest. When spending time with family in big groups, and especially when you’re at someone else’s home, it is best to think of yourself as a guest and act accordingly. For example you may not like the way you son’s wife is doing things in her home (child rearing, cooking, cleaning etc), but unfortunately it is not really any of your business. This is between your son and his wife. A good checkpoint is to ask yourself if you have a sense of entitlement and expectancy that is inappropriate. If there are issues that you just can’t stand but can’t let go, then you may need to consider not visiting them.