Category: For parents

How to Deal with In-Laws: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Published : Jul 11, 2024
By Dr. Ana Aznar

Family relations are not always easy. And with the in-laws they can be even more difficult. After all, when you get married, you get ‘thrown into’ a family that you do not know. You do not know their history or dynamics. You may not even share the same values and beliefs. And you are expected to fit in seamlessly.

The reality is that families are a system (1) with many relations between the members. There are relations between the father-in-law and the daughter-in-law, the mother-in-law and the son in law, the sisters in law, and so on.  Each of those relations influences the rest of the family members. When a new member arrives to a family, the whole family needs to adjust, and stress and conflict may appear. 

Even though conflict with the in-laws seem to be quite prevalent in our society, there is not much research examining this topic. And most research has focused on newlywed couples. However, we know that relationships change as we get old. The relationship you have with your in-laws at the beginning of your marriage may be very different to the one you have 20 years later (2)

It is also important to note than when talking about family relations, culture (3) matters a lot. The research that I am about to explain has been conducted mostly in the Western world. These societies are mostly individualistic whereas in collectivistic cultures, family relations and traditions may be very different. 

Also note that most studies in this field have examined legally married heterosexual couples. So again, be careful when extending what you are about to read to same-sex couples or to couples who live together but are not legally married. 

Is it Possible to Have a Good Relationship with Your In-Laws?

It is possible. The reality is that relations with the in-laws are not all black or white. People often report these relationships as being ambivalent (4). They can be positive at times and very negative at other times. 

Relationships between same gender in-laws, particularly between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, tend to be more difficult, than those between opposite gender in-laws. However, both men and women report having more problems with their mother-in-law (5) than with their own mother. 

When a new member arrives to the family, parents-in-law have a lot to say in how they integrate within the family. When parents-in-law show them love, make them feel as part of the family, include them in family rituals, and share family stories with them, their children -in-law are more likely to feel part of that family. 

In contrast, when parents-in-law create distance, when they criticize or gossip about family members, when they interfere in marital issues, or do not show their children-in-law that they care about them (6), their relationship with their children-in-law is more likely to suffer. 

Why Should I Care About Having a Good Relationship with My In-Laws?

The relationship you establish with your in laws is an entirely personal decision.

However, it is important to know that when you have a bad relationship with your in-laws:

  • Your own wellbeing and mental health are more likely to be negatively affected (7)
  • Your marriage tends to be less stable.
  • You and your partner are more likely to be dissatisfied in your marriage.
  • Your partner’s own relationship with their own parents is more likely to struggle.
  • Your in-laws’ access to your own children tends to be restricted and their relationship is more likely to be complicated (8).  

Finally, consider that you are modelling family relationships to your child. If you have a very negative or even a toxic relationship with your in-laws, your child will grow up believing that this is how ‘normal’ and healthy family relations look like. Remember that even if you do not explicitly say to your child: “I truly dislike your grandparents”, they will notice it. Children learn more from observing us, than from we say to them. If you want your child to have healthy family relations in the future, the best way is for you to model how those relationships look like. 

Most Problems with the In-Laws Appear When the Grandchildren Are Born

Most disagreements between parents-in-law and their children-in-law are about the grandchildren. 

With the arrival of the first grandchild, daughters usually say that the relationship with their own mother improves whereas the relationship with their mother-in-law gets worse (9). Indeed, when daughters-in-law need parenting advice, they are much more likely to ask their own mother than their mother-in-law (10).

Daughters-in-law complain of mothers-in-law who challenge or undermine their parenting decisions. For mothers-in-law, it is tricky to find the balance between being supportive but not intrusive (11). This disagreement may appear because daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law do not share the same values.

Because mothers are more likely to be closer to their own mothers than to their mothers-in-law, grandkids are more likely to be closer to their maternal set of grandparents than to the paternal grandparents. This means that quite often, paternal grandparents spend less time with their grandchildren and paternal grandmothers feel left out of their grandchildren’s life. 

Sometimes, fathers make a deliberate effort to ensure that their children are also close to their own parents, but this does not happen as frequently. This is in part because men’s relationships with their own parents are ‘wife-mediated’ (12). This means that marriage and fatherhood tend to distance sons from their own mothers. In general, husbands are gradually pulled towards their wife’s family (13).

Over time the relations between parents-in-law and their children-in-law tend to be more positive. This happens because the main source of disagreement between parents-in-law and children-in law are due to the grandchildren. As grandchildren grow, these disagreements are less frequent. 

So, How to Deal with the In Laws? Six Tips to Have the Best Possible Relationship with Your In-Laws.

1. Set boundaries from the beginning.

It is always much better to set expectations and ‘rules’ from the beginning so everyone knows where they stand, than having problems because you or they do not know what the ground rules are. Remember that what is ‘normal’ for you may not be ‘normal’ for them. We have all been raised differently, with different norms and expectations, so it important to establish the ground rules from the beginning to avoid problems and misunderstandings. 

2. Protect your marriage. 

If you have a difficult relationship with your in-laws, your marriage may resent it. Whatever happens, do not say negative things about your in-laws to your partner. If you have a problem with them, describe the issue to your spouse without being judgmental, dismissive or disrespectful. It is not the same to say: “I am angry with your mum because she gave Lucas sweets just before dinner” than to say: “I can’t stand your mother, she is the absolute worst and I have told her a thousand times not to give Lucas sweets before dinner”.

3. Remember that one day you will (probably) be in their position.

Yes, one day your daughter in law may think of you as the monster in law or the toxic mother-in-law! 

4. Be aware of the flashpoints and prepare for them.

The holidays are usually when problems within the families appear. If both set of grandparents celebrate Christmas, they both expect their families to be there. But also, with increased contact, there are more chances of problems to appear. This makes the summer, Easter, and Christmas particularly problematic. Again, discuss the ground rules at the very beginning so that everyone is on the same page. 

5. Discuss the issue in a respectful manner. 

It has been found that mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law have different strategies to cope with conflict. Whereas mothers prefer to talk about it, daughters prefer to ignore it (14). Avoiding the problem may make the problem worse and fuel unexpressed hostility.  Even if you find it difficult, discuss the issue from a position of understanding and respect. Discussing the issue is the best way to make sure that you do not end up having a toxic relationship with your in-laws. 

6. Reframe your in-laws’ intrusion as an expression of interest and love.

Most people (including your in-laws) act from a place of love. They do not want to make you angry or make your life difficult. Whenever you feel frustrated with your in-laws, think that they have acted with their best intention. 

I hope you find this information useful. If you are having issues with your in-laws and would like some 1-2-1 support to learn how to manage them, get in touch with me

Love, 

Ana

Dr Ana Aznar

References

  • Rothbaum, F., Rosen, K., Ujiie, T., & Uchida, N. (2002). Family systems theory, attachment theory, and culture. Family process41(3), 328-350. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2002.41305.x
  • Fowler, C., & Rittenour, C. (2017). A life-span approach to children-in-law’s perceptions of parent-in-law communication. Journal of Family Communication17(3), 254-272. https://doi.org/10.1080/15267431.2017.1281280
  • Rothbaum, F., Rosen, K., Ujiie, T., & Uchida, N. (2002). Family systems theory, attachment theory, and culture. Family process41(3), 328-350.
  • Jean Turner, M., Young, C. R., & Black, K. I. (2006). Daughters‐in‐law and mothers‐in‐law seeking their place within the family: A qualitative study of differing viewpoints. Family Relations55(5), 588-600.
  • Ayers, J.D., Krems, J.A., Hess, N. et al. Mother-in-Law Daughter-in-Law Conflict: an Evolutionary Perspective and Report of Empirical Data from the USA. Evolutionary Psychological Science 8, 56–71 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40806-021-00312-x
  • Rittenour, C. E., & Kellas, J. K. (2015). Making sense of hurtful mother-in-law messages: Applying attribution theory to the in-law triad. Communication Quarterly63(1), 62-80. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463373.2014.965837
  • Fingerman, K. L., Gilligan, M., VanderDrift, L., & Pitzer, L. (2012). In-law relationships before and after marriage: Husbands, wives, and their mothers-in-law. Research in Human Development9(2), 106-125. https://doi.org/10.1080/15427609.2012.680843
  • Fingerman, K. L. (2004). The role of offspring and in-laws in grandparents’ ties to their grandchildren. Journal of Family Issues25(8), 1026-1049. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X04265941
  • Fingerman, K. L. (2000). ” We Had a Nice Little Chat” Age and Generational Differences in Mothers’ and Daughters’ Descriptions of Enjoyable Visits. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences55(2), P95-P106. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/55.2.P95
  • Marx, J., Miller, L. Q., & Huffmon, S. (2011). Excluding mothers-in-law: A research note on the preference for matrilineal advice. Journal of Family Issues32(9), 1205-1222. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X11402176
  • Fischer, L. R. (1988). The influence of kin on the transition to parenthood. Marriage & Family Review12(3-4), 201-219. https://doi.org/10.1300/J002v12n03_11
  • Fischer, L. R. (1983). Mothers and mothers-in-law. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 187-192. https://doi.org/10.2307/351307
  • Lee, E., Spitze, G., & Logan, J. R. (2003). Social support to parents‐in‐law: The interplay of gender and kin hierarchies. Journal of Marriage and Family65(2), 396-403. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00396.x
  • Marotz-Baden, R., & Cowan, D. (1987). Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law: The effects of proximity on conflict and stress. Family Relations, 385-390. https://doi.org/10.2307/584488
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