Ladies, I get SO many questions from you for help with in-law problems! Trust me, you’re not alone. In-law troubles have always been around in one form or another; I even dealt with that a bit years ago. While you usually choose your spouse, his extended family can sometimes be more than you bargained for. Not feeling accepted by them, having difficulty with differing family customs or beliefs, or seeing them treat your man or children with contempt can be painful but also dangerous to your marriage. Why? Because, if not handled carefully, more than one relationship can be greatly affected. Do you sometimes feel like you’re in the middle of a virtual sandwich? That is more normal than you might expect.
Let’s go over the 14 most common types of “sandwiches” and to try to address each one. Hopefully by the end of this exercise, you will feel more equipped to smile and press forward with a greatly reduced stress-o-meter.
In going over the most typical questions I receive about in-laws, (and to not make this article exhaustingly long!) I discovered some common themes, finding that I can list them in three main categories to simplify things:
1. Questions that involve boundary issues
2. Questions where the typical responses often lead to us trying to compensate by mothering, controlling, or trying to change another person
3. Questions where simple advice is needed
I’m going to go over the questions now from each category and discuss what you can do about them:
Involving or Including:
1. Lack of privacy in your marriage
2. Unsolicited opinions on raising children
3. In-laws who show up unexpectedly and stay for weeks
4. The husband who confides personal issues with his parents about his marriage
5. In-laws with no boundaries and lots of unsolicited advice
6. In-laws and money (such as “Is my husband obligated to tell me when he gives/loans money to his parents?”)
The answers to the above dilemmas are all similar in that they involve boundary breaches where in-laws trample on the reasonable boundaries of their married kids. The problem isn’t in recognizing it; the problem is in what in the heck you’re supposed to do about it (without hurting your marriage that is).
When there’s an issue with his parents, it’s up to him to set the appropriate boundaries. What if he doesn’t? The fact that this question is asked so often by so many women tells me that a lot of well-meaning husbands are failing to either notice or address these problems. It’s a tricky dilemma because you can’t force your man to “shape up” without hurting your relationship with him, and there’s only so much control he has over the situation in his own family.
The key is in living the principles of FW first; accepting him at face value, understanding him (why doesn’t he set these boundaries?) Second, having talks with him where you express yourself without accusing him or threatening him with consequences; just listening and validating his side of the story. Next, tell him what boundaries are being breached, how it makes you feel (remember, don’t accuse him), and then ask him if he would please help you. You can also set your own boundaries; for example, “I simply can’t live with a, b, or c”. But make sure these are reasonable requests, not picky small things. Appeal to his sense of protectiveness, the hero in him. But remember too, you must accept him at face value. We work best by feminine influence, rather than a “You better do this or else” type of psychology. Bossy, negative ultimatums don’t work, and can definitely damage your relationship.
Most men, when they are in a loving relationship, will want to protect and defend the woman they love. If they are intimidated by their own parents for some reason, your understanding of their background can help them get past this with time; but till then, patience will be required. We ladies are engaged in the long-term winning of “battles” to be the gatekeepers of civilization in our own marriages and families.
Circumstances that Bring Out the Mother/Teacher in You (Wanting to Change People):
1. Couples rooted in Different Faiths
2. Mother-in-law who is passive-aggressive, mean, vindictive, and/or disagreeable
3. When your mother doesn’t get along with his mother
4. Mother or Father-in-law who plays favorites with grandchildren, ignoring the grandchildren they enjoy less
All these issues involve our very strong feeling of needing to either educate, control, or change someone because it’s so important. And it is of course. But like the first section, what can you do about it and not cause issues, some of which could end up being serious?
The first one: regarding different faiths—this is one you likely knew about before you married him. Sometimes he might change faiths during your marriage. But nevertheless, this question involves important truths about the two of you, and in many cases your extended families. Accepting his and his family’s belief system is crucial. Having respect for each other’s deepest beliefs is paramount to your lifelong love affair. In contrast, trying to get him (or them) to change could hurt your relationship deeply.
Accepting your in-laws, and everyone for who they are now plays a big part too. As we say in FW; this doesn’t mean they are right or you agree with them at all. It’s accepting what IS. When you do this, you are well on your way to not trying so hard to change someone you can’t change in the first place. It takes a huge load off your shoulders! It relieves you of the never ending feeling of needing to change things.
In some cases, like the issue where your mother doesn’t get along with his mother; minimizing contact where possible is the best solution because you can’t control either party. Otherwise, tolerance and patience goes a long way, as well as running careful interference when occasions arise that both of them are unavoidably in the same space for an extended length of time.
When your mother-in-law is mean or vindictive or any other negative description, I’d try learning to understand what is motivating this in her. Is she threatened by you because you “took her son away” or because your life has been very different from hers? Does she have some great insecurity or experience in her past that contributes to her treatment of you? Do you, even innocently, trigger some of her behavior towards you?
Charm goes a long way to win people over. Making it a goal to learn more about her and to understand her will possibly help even more. But, there are some people who no amount of understanding or empathy will seem to affect. In those cases, living the principles of FW and strengthening your marriage can have a powerful effect on your husband’s desire to protect you, either by actively keeping you from her proximity, or by standing up for you when encounters are unavoidable.
Something you can do on your own is to learn what she likes and has expressed interest in, and for Christmas, her birthday, or better still—for no apparent reason at all, gift her with something thoughtful from you (expect no thank-you by the way).
Or if not a gift, show her you remember these little things about her in conversation with her. These tips work on fathers-in-law as well. I read in an article that Megan Markle impressed and endeared herself to her prickly father-in-law Prince Phillip by showing great interest in his Greek heritage. She asked him tons of questions about his youth and listened in awe as he described it to her. It is said he grew very fond of her because she took the time to validate and learn about him. Show interest in your in-laws. Practice your listening skills, validate anything you find admirable in their words or experiences or preferences. Teach yourself to look for the best qualities in them, and then show enthusiasm for those qualities when you’re with them.
Occasions When Simple Advice is Needed:
1. How to accommodate food preferences during a long family stay with in-laws.
2. Cultural Differences
3. How to voice opinions to in-laws when dealing with our children and their upbringing
In the case of the first example: If it were me, I’d take responsibility to bring or purchase any unusual food preferences my family or husband might need while visiting in-laws. This is also a boundary problem in some ways, but one you can more easily do something about. Being thoughtful by bringing foods your in-laws don’t normally buy or eat shows respect and sensitivity for them. For example, if your husband or one of your children loves couscous and your husband’s parents never eat it (or in some cases, don’t know what it is!) it’s very thoughtful to take this responsibility on yourself. Your in-laws will see your sensitivity and care for them when you make their hosting job easier. If your in-laws tend to prepare foods your husband does not like then he, who is most familiar with their style of cooking, will probably let them know—but kids are a different matter. You’re the main person who understands their food preferences. That’s why it’s good to take care of that yourself.
Cultural differences is something you’ll hopefully be aware of before you get married. Your parents might not be so aware of the family traditions you’re marrying into. So if your husband is from a different culture, you can be a great bridge in helping your parents learn a little about his and how beautiful it is. You might learn some of the cuisine from his culture and learn to make it so that your parents experience the exotic flavors of another culture’s menu. There are so many beautiful things to learn about other countries of the world. As in so many things, if your husband has cultural differences from you, this is where FW fits in so perfectly. Patience, understanding him, tolerance and love make all the difference. As a female, you were born with special relationship abilities, and this stuff is right up your alley (even if you doubt yourself)!
In-law issues can be challenging of course. Like I said earlier, I had to navigate some of these issues with both sets of parents early in my marriage. But I learned a lot from it and so can you. These concerns hold such potential for developing even deeper relationships as you are tolerant, accept others at face value, and learn what you can control—but particularly what you can’t. As you learn and practice, you’ll actually feel so much freer and able to truly love others. Your relationships on all sides will be better, even if some of the people you are now related to respond positively or not!
Ask your Husband for Help
Men don’t like or get hints very well. A wife who verbally processes her frustrations to him about his parents (or in his eyes, complains about them) can leave him feeling frustrated and might even lead him to feel more defensive than he would otherwise. Simply telling him what’s not working doesn’t give him a target to shoot for, and men need those targets. Instead of telling him his family is making your life hard, give him a simple task in your most feminine way, telling him how much you need his help and how much you’d appreciate it. When you need him to do something for you, be specific. And by specific I don’t mean “Get your mother to be nice to me”. That won’t work because “nice” is so hard to measure, and he doesn’t have that kind of power anyway. Depending on what it is of course, you might say something like, “Next time your mother criticizes me would you step in and change the subject quickly?” or “When your dad criticizes or demeans one of our children, would you please say something to defend them or find an excuse to take that child out for ice cream or something?” Just be specific to that day; that moment.
I realize some in-laws will continue to be difficult despite your best efforts. Don’t give up hope. Foster the love you have for your husband and try to remember that this is his history—he came from these people for better or worse. If he’s a great guy, they must have done something right. You can always choose to distance yourself, and that is completely valid in many cases. That may be the healthiest alternative, and you know best about that. But I encourage you, if you can, to take the advanced approach with your knowledge of Fascinating Womanhood and the Timeless Principles contained in the philosophy. You were born for great things, one of which is to be a powerful beacon to your extended family. Let them see your kind, generous and loving example and learn from you. Touch their lives in a way that makes them grateful you joined their family. Your influence is more powerful than you think.