Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Getting Along With Your In-Laws

June 5, 1995

I've given plenty of advice to June brides and grooms. Here's some for parents and their new son or daughter in-law. As a by- product of the wedding, you inherit new family relationships. These relationships have the potential for tension and hurt. They can be respectful and accepting. Ideally, they are loving and rewarding.

Suggestions for the mother and father-in-law.

1. Don't be too critical or rejecting of a steady boyfriend or girlfriend. One may end up being your son or daughter-in-law. They will remember and perhaps resent your attitude toward them.Your own child may harbor anger about the way you handled the courtship.

The boy or girlfriend may have actively sought to subvert your authority and been disrespectful. In either case, hurtful things may have been said, remembered and remains unresolved and unforgiven. Be willing to talk directly with your new son or daughter-in-law to resolve past hurt or conflict.

2. Accept your son or daughter-in-law as permanent and support their marriage. Side with your child only if there will clearly be a divorce. Then you can go back to being their primary support system.

3. Be patient. If you have unresolved conflict with your child, let them mature and work it out in their own time. Acknowledge your mistakes. They may need time to work on their own autonomy and identity at the expense of your relationship.

If the in-law is acting out his or her unresolved parental conflict with you, don't over react. There’s plenty of time for them to figure out that you are different. Your child will notice and help correct the problem.

4. Stand back and let the new family come to you with problems or advice. Be slow to comment on their affairs unless they encourage discussion. Even then, be a listener and don't be quick to give advice that they might resent. Don't interfere as they work out their differences. Define your own boundaries when you feel they are taking you for granted. There are positive ways to help adult children without shouldering their responsibilities.

5. Prepare yourself to let go and accept the loss of closeness and control. You’ll lose some closeness you've had with your son or daughter. That is a major loss, but their primary loyalty should be to their spouse. You now play a secondary role in their lives.

6. Be clear about what you want in the way of family events and visits. Negotiate and be accepting of their decision. Be friendly, hospitable and let them set the tone for how much closeness they would like. Avoid guilt trips.

7. Enjoy family time together, especially with your grandchildren. The safest and most positive way to be in their lives is to focus on the grandchildren. Take their lead on how much to give them. Ask first. Respect their different lifestyle and parenting style.

Suggestions for the new son or daughter-in-law.

1. Don't try to strengthen your marital bond by attacking or undermining your partner's bond with their parents. Make your own relationship good and the loyalty issue will sort itself out. Don't try to shut off relationships. Everyone needs roots to live strong. Don't put your spouse in the middle with loyalty tests.

2. Accept your in-laws as imperfect. Be pleasant, easygoing and try to get along. Watch your nonverbal communication too. Establish a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. Get acquainted, draw them out and be interested in their lives. Be gracious about gifts and hospitality.

3. You will disagree a lot during the first years of your marriage. Each of you have your own ideas on what the relationship should be like. Occasionally you’ll put your spouse in the middle between you and the desires of his or her parents. Don't expect things to be all your way. Negotiate middle ground with your spouse regarding holidays, vacations, gift giving, family celebrations, and amount of visiting and phone calls. This will be a test of your ability to communicate positively and resolve differences.

4. Be a sounding board for your spouse. Don't create division and conflict by taking over his or her problem. Let them work through their own issues. Be supportive.

5. Forgive any judgment or rejection from your in-laws that you may have experienced during courtship or early marriage when you were establishing new boundaries. Acknowledge any hurt you may have caused. Occasionally, you may want to resolve the conflict directly. Go to them and ask what they would like to see improved in the relationship. Don't go into a litany of past hurts and resentments. Focus on the future.

6. Your spouse is the best one to communicate with his or her parents about difficulties, problems or plans. Don't be the heavy. Unify first and then let your spouse be the spokesperson in resolving conflict or establishing limits. He or she will have more credibility.

Honest communication and respectful boundaries will set the stage for the family bonds that will grow as the family enlarges. Family events and relationships take on new meaning as both families continue a happy, harmonious journey through life.