Mother In Law and Father In Law: 8 Tips to a Healthy Relationship
Unless you marry someone who is an only child and has lost both their parents you will very likely have in-laws. Sometimes that’s great but some people experience the classic problems of dealing with a spouse’s family who try to dictate the way you raise your kids or find fault with you and your household.
Some conflicts are more serious. It’s not an unusual situation and not impossible to handle. The most important thing to remember is that this is a perfect opportunity to model for your children how you hope they will behave in a stressful situation. Remember, too that they will be watching even if you fail to keep your feelings in check and blow your top. So let’s stack the deck in your favor and make this as easy as possible.
Handle Hurt Feelings as Soon as Possible
You might love your in-laws and have a great time with them before you have children but this relationship can change when babies arrive. These newcomers change the equation in many ways. We find ourselves sounding like our own parents and doing things we swore we would never do. Our spouse no longer understands us and the feeling is mutual because no matter how much we’ve talked about everything there are always surprises and unwelcome intrusions from the subconscious.
It’s confusing, too, for the new grandparents who may be delighted at what a good mother you are. But instead of taking that as a compliment your hormonally compromised brain might take it as an insult as though they’re surprised that you’re any good at anything at all! Misunderstandings abound and everyone tries to keep the disappointment and the hurt to themselves but these things can fester.
Helpful advice can sound like a questioning of your intelligence. If you request that grandparents ask you about gifts before they give them to your child they may feel like you don’t trust or appreciate them. Hopefully we work out the bad feelings right away but we’re not always aware that we’re carrying a grudge. Sometimes the in-laws go away mad without saying anything, too.
Try to deal with these problems as soon as you become aware of them. If the issue is yours then know exactly what you need your in-laws to do or say to end it. It may take more than one go around to get it worked out but it’s worth the effort. If you know that your in-laws have been upset with you or even your spouse in the past then call them up and find a way to end this, too.
Identify Problems and Offer Solutions
When you have a disagreement try to state the difference very clearly and ask your ’opponent’ if they see the problem the same way. If so then try to propose a solution that both of you find suitable. It might be as simple as agreeing to disagree though it could require more effort and a more sophisticated solution.
If your in-law is in the habit of finding fault with your cooking you might ask them to be specific about their criticism. If they claim your food is too bland then try to ignore the insult and ask what kind of spices they would like you to make available to them in the future. You can offer to cook 2 different versions of the same dish or ask if there is something they do like that you could make for them instead in the future. Be nice, be polite and try very hard to find a solution instead of making them feel as though you are trying to make them feel bad.
We are not trying to turn the tables on them we are defusing the situation. Imagine the attitude you would like your kids to take when trying to negotiate peace with a sibling. If you do it well enough you might even inspire your in-laws to treat you this way when they have a complaint.
When an Old Issue Keeps Coming up
Sometimes you don’t know that there is a problem until something triggers an old insult or dispute. If you are already gathered together and you sense that someone has been spoiling for a fight for a long time you might want to suggest that you’d love to talk about but not right now.
You should avoid having it out during a holiday dinner or birthday party or any kind of happy gathering unless you want your children to grow up thinking that family get-togethers are a perfect excuse for acting out and having fights. If there is a particularly incendiary subject you should certainly not try to work it out it in your home where the children might be witness to it.
If at all possible make an appointment to meet in neutral territory somewhere that raised voices won’t alarm anyone. If you can, have a moderator on hand. We don’t always hear ourselves in the heat of an argument and it can be helpful to have someone there to make sure that we are clear in what we’re saying, that we are being understood and not just confusing the issue. A moderator can help clarify the issue and make sure that everyone understands exactly what is being said.
Anyone will do as long as all parties find them impartial and respectable. They can also make sure that issues are separated out and solved one at a time. Too often grandparents obsess over and over again about a perceived slight or an old gripe. “You always…” isn’t going to get us anywhere so it’s best to have a moderator keep the discussion on track. You have to get to the heart of the matter, find out what will finally lay this to rest and, if at all possible, do it.
That usually means apologizing, paying for something, acknowledging a slight or explaining the facts of a situation that was misunderstood. Everyone involved should then make a solemn, mutual agreement that it is now over and it will never be spoken of again.
Make Rules and Set Boundaries
Most problems are simple and, if handled immediately are fairly easy to solve. When the kids are small we can make simple rules and insist that grandparents take our requests seriously about what foods we prefer our children to eat; how we want them to behave; what time they go to bed; what kind of gifts we want them to have and when we want them to have them.
A cell phone or a computer for a birthday is something that must be discussed. Food issues need to be taken seriously and, since this can be a battleground for parents and child, there is no room for a third party to interfere. A child’s schedule is an important part of healthy sleep habits. These things are usually worked out without too much trouble as long as the requests are made firmly and in-laws understand that it’s not just a suggestion or an arbitrary rule.
Consequences for non-compliance might include fewer visits or no unsupervised time together. Hardly anyone can ever be perfect so we should forgive an occasional lapse of judgment like allowing a tot to stay up late one night or letting kids to skip a vegetable at a meal as long as the outcome is benign. Being too strict about rules in general can lead to problems for your kids so if you find yourself being too rigid with your in-laws you may want to review your attitude in general.
The Worse Case Scenario
While you love your spouse you cannot enjoy their parents on any level. The first thing to remember is that the kids are watching so avoid saying terribly negative things about our in-laws in front of them when you’re alone while acting like complete hypocrites when the relatives are around.
Whether it’s a personality issue, a religious difference, or diametrically opposed political beliefs you can’t avoid them forever. Eventually, your spouse’s parents will probably want to assert themselves as grandparents. Unless they are criminals or legally considered a danger to kids you can’t really deny them access.
Unless you have a very good reason to limit their contact with your children you will have to figure out how to share time with your in-laws for holidays, birthdays, graduations and other special occasions. If you work hard enough you will find something about them that you can tolerate. And hopefully they will discover your charms as well.
Practice Guiding Conversations Out of ‘dangerous’ Territory
We want to teach our children to listen and tolerate people with differing opinions so we should do just that. And, if at all possible, we should make a reasoned, dispassionate and respectful reply. However, we should keep in mind that not everything is an appropriate discussion for kids to hear.
If there are subjects that you know will turn into arguments you need to become very adept at changing subjects and moving the conversation in a less emotional direction. Politics and religion, vaccinations sometimes even talking about racial and other kinds of discrimination can get out of hand very quickly.
If a discussion becomes too heated or the subject is too adult then you should suggest that it’s time to step into another room or to table the discussion for another time. It’s preferable to establish these parameters ahead of time but there are instances when taboo subjects arise out of the blue and we have to be quick to keep it from boiling over in front of the kids.
Advanced Warning: These Subjects are Off Limits
If you already know your in-laws cannot be trusted to keep their tempers in check and their language on an acceptable level then tell them ahead of time that you are declaring some subjects off limits. They might advocate things that are against your beliefs. These are subjects that you may wish to avoid in front of your kids. Religious issues are particularly tricky, too.
Deeply held beliefs might be aired in front of teenagers without confusing them while younger children should be protected from heated arguments about whose observation of faith is superior and who is going to hell because of their religious choice.
It’s reasonable for grandparents to request that you educate the kids about the traditions of their ancestors but until your children are old enough to make this decision for themselves, it is up to you to you to determine their spiritual path. Again, be polite and listen when the kids are out of earshot but remind your in-laws that you want to avoid confusion and conflict for the children.
A Word to The Wise
If you’re ok with a guest saying, “I’m sorry I can’t deal with your rules and I’m leaving” then you probably shouldn’t invite them for more than an hour at a time. Have them stay at a hotel if they’re visiting, have meet ups at restaurants, parks, the zoo or the museum where acting out is less likely.
Family dramas are full of plots that involve someone using a family gathering to try to get something from someone else. They want a loan or permission to do something or a commitment for a future event. It can be entertaining to watch but it’s not something you want to live through.
If your in-laws are in the habit of doing this then you need to stop it before it starts. If they try to convince you that your daughter must go to an expensive private school or they often talk about subjects you don’t want them to bring up then you need call them before the gathering and have that discussion. Insist that they not bring it up.