By: Abigale Hassel
Before I get started with this discussion, let me just say that I have wonderful in-laws. They respect our boundaries. They never insert their opinions unless we ask for them. They never say a bad word about anyone and they are always there when we need them. Most importantly, my mother- in-law always takes my side. In all seriousness, I am very lucky, but a lot of people are not as lucky as I. We all hear in-law jokes. The in-law issue can make for hysterical comedy. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” just happens to be one of my favorite movies and it deals with overbearing in-laws. While it can be funny, it can also cause a lot of problems within the marital relationship. If you are having in-law issues, I hope the following suggestions help.
Be a united front: Just as a couple must be a united front with the children, the same holds true for the in-laws. I will use a family member’s situation as an example. For the sake of anonymity, I will not specify which family member. So the wife married into a very overbearing family. From the planning of the wedding, her husband’s family tried to dictate the terms. It continued through their marriage. It eroded to the point where it negatively impacted the relationship. He never stood up for his wife to his family and then he started to talk about her behind her back to his family, which only added to the intrusion in their lives. They were on the brink of divorce.
If this sounds familiar, let me be very clear. The husband and wife are a team. No one has to cut off his or her family; however, a spouse must absolutely show his or her family that allegiance goes to the spouse first. The message must be clear and consistent that bad-mouthing one’s spouse, criticizing, or undermining one’s spouse’s role by family will not be tolerated. Whatever issues exist in the marriage will be addressed by the husband and wife only. You must make it clear that unsolicited opinions are neither wanted nor appreciated.
Draw clear boundaries: A couple consistently communicates the message that they are a united front with healthy boundaries. Boundaries teach others how you are to be treated and the same holds true with the in laws. As I have said time and time again, we cannot control other people’s behavior nor can we change their personalities; however, we can change our reactions to them. This is drawing a boundary.
Have you ever seen the show “Everybody Loves Raymond”? The wife, Deborah, is constantly dealing with intrusive in-laws who have no boundaries. Again, that makes for good comedy, but in real life, it would cause a lot of strife in a marriage. If Deborah and Raymond were a real life couple, I would help them learn to communicate clear, concise boundaries to Raymond’s parents. They would need to set limits to how often Ray’s parents can visit and they could insist that they call before coming over for a visit. I would encourage Ray to hold his mother accountable whenever she criticized Deborah. He could communicate to his mother that type of behavior will not be tolerated and she could either respect that, or not come over at all. These are just examples of course. Your boundaries may look different, but the point is this. Boundaries must be established by both of you and you must stick to them to affect positive change. By not holding to the boundaries you have set and by not being consistent, there is no protection of the marital relationship. You do not have to be cruel and you do not have to completely cut contact with intrusive in-laws. You can communicate your feelings appropriately and still maintain a loving relationship, but you will have a relationship with healthy boundaries.
Communicate expectations to one another: There is that word again: communicate. Sometimes, what is bothersome to one spouse may not be so to the other. Often, a spouse feels loyalty to both his or her family and to his or her spouse. When we marry, we marry our spouse with all of his or her baggage. Our souse does not suddenly change the way he or she interacts with his or her family overnight, but if something is not working for us, we have to communicate to our spouse what that is and what we expect from our spouse in response. Remember, spouses cannot read each others’ minds.
I will use a friend’s situation as an example. My friend grew up in a home where her parents “knew everything” and her father always solved her problems. When she got married, she slowly learned that while she loved her parents and appreciated everything they had done for her, they were also very controlling and intrusive. Her husband grew more and more angry as they constantly criticized, butted in, or gave their opinions without having been asked. It got so bad that my friend felt like she was being torn in two. Her husband expressed how he felt and communicated how he expected my friend to handle her parents. She agreed to some of his reasonable suggestions and she was able to keep her boundaries. While her parents were not happy with those boundaries, over time, they learned that they had no choice but to respect them.
Try to be flexible: Look, even intrusive families are not all bad. Most of the time, families just want to be a part of each others’ lives. This closeness does not suddenly end just because a member gets married. Sometimes, a spouse does not want to give up the closeness he or she shares with the family and that is ok. The problem comes when it starts to negatively impact the marital relationship. People are different. One spouse may not be used to a big, close family. That spouse may believe that family is only for special occasions. One spouse may find it weird that his or her spouse needs to have constant contact with the family. Remember, just because that type of closeness is something that you are not accustomed to, it does not mean that it is wrong, strange, or inappropriate. Keep an open mind.
I will use my parents as an example. My mother had a difficult upbringing. Her father was domineering and abusive at times. Her mother was a wonderful woman, but she did not engage in physical shows of affection with my mom, like hugging. My mother was very inhibited when she met my father. My dad, on the other hand, was very affectionate and outgoing, as were his family members. My mom shared with me that at first, all the hugging and kissing made her feel uncomfortable. Over time though, she realized how wonderful it was and how much she actually enjoyed it. She challenged herself to open up and not only receive the love, but give it freely and she has lived that way ever since. Had she not kept an open mind, she may have missed out on having all of that love in her life.
The take away is this. Both spouses must communicate their feelings and come to a compromise. It not reasonable to expect your spouse to put up with obnoxious intrusions by your family members, nor is it reasonable for your spouse to expect you to to cut all contact with your family. The middle ground between those two extremes is where you want to be. You achieve that with healthy and appropriate boundaries. Keep marital issues between the two of you and use good judgement. For example, if you know your mother is overbearing and puts in her two cents even when she is not asked, you may want to think twice before telling her about the fight you and your husband had last night. That is just inviting trouble. Basically, with the proper boundaries, family can be such a blessing. We do not marry our in-laws, but we do marry into an extended family. You become a part of a new family and your spouse becomes a part of yours. With healthy boundaries, good communication and a little flexibility, you can enjoy your family every day and not just on holidays! Good luck and God bless!
Abigale S. Hassel is a licensed Clinical Social Worker, and individual and couples counselor. MSW, LCSW, OSW-C.
**The advice provided represents the opinions of the author. It is not to be considered therapy or professional advice of any kind. If you require such advice, you should consult an appropriate professional. Refer to the Marriage Rocks Website Terms and Conditions (link in page footer) for other applicable terms and conditions.**