They say that when you marry somebody, you also marry his or her family. And while you love and adore your honey-bunny, you might not have hand-picked your mother-in-law...
Having a baby or small children can increase stress on the relationship with in-laws, especially during special occasions like holidays, birthdays and anniversaries when parents want to be with their adult children and grandchildren. The stress and expense of travel and gifts adds additional strain and much togetherness can send you over the edge. While you might be able to bite your lip and mostly contain your frustrations with your in-laws, it is common for these negative feelings to spill into your relationship with your partner, causing conflict and distress.
As both a married mother-of-two and a therapist who has counseled parents for nearly 20 years, I recommend the following tips:
- Understand that most people are partial to their own families and customs, traditions and ways of doing things. This can apply to big things like religious practices or little things like how to load the dishwasher. Recognize that these differences are neither bad nor good, right nor wrong—they simply ARE. Try not to interpret these different preferences as rejection or criticism either by your partner or your in-laws. Accept that human nature is to like what is familiar and do not take any of this personally.
- Prioritize your marriage over your relationships with your families-of-origin. You are each other’s primary family now. Of course, healthy connection with both of your families-of-origin is important, and the key to success is compromise. There must be “give and take” to achieve a happy balance between time alone as a couple and time with each of your extended families.
- Make sure you are in unified alliance and agreement before discussing plans or issues with your respective families. To come to these agreements prior to speaking with family, practice good communication and conflict resolution skills together with your partner. These include demonstrating empathy, assertive communication, openness and flexibility.
- Ideally, each partner should be the spokesperson to their own family-of-origin. They should be the one to communicate about plans, especially if bearing disappointing or difficult news like not coming home for a holiday or choosing to stay in a nearby hotel than on the living room sofa. It is unfair to expect your partner to set boundaries with your family that you may not have ever established yourself, nor is that good for your partner’s relationship with your family. Difficult news is typically better received by the member of one’s own family.
- Have healthy boundaries as a couple with your families-of-origin. Boundaries are the parameters around things like information (do they need to know you had a fight about your sexy neighbor who suns herself topless?), money (do they need to know the balance on your American Express?), space (is it okay to share a double hotel room with your in-laws??) and time (is a weekend visit better than a 10-day vacation together?). Set limits that are healthy for your relationship in a way that is kind, diplomatic and clear. Remember, it is easier to set a boundary initially and maintain it than it is to set a new boundary after the lines have been blurred. Setting healthy limits is a bit like parenting and you will need to let your families experience natural consequences to their actions (i.e. if your mother-in-law refuses to travel, then she may not get to see you as often.) Prioritize your mental health and your relationship and detach from any undue guilt or anxiety.
- Plan breaks during visits. Take a walk, read a chapter of your book, go get a haircut or hit the gym. Rebooting yourself with some self-care will help your feathers become unruffled. Some of these breaks may be by yourself or with your partner (sneaking off for a love nap, for example.)
- Zoom out to gain perspective. Remember this moment is one blip in time. Take a step back and look at your situation from a farther perspective. Try not to sweat the small stuff and conserve your energy for the more important boundaries that need to be set (i.e. let your MIL dress your baby in a hideous outfit but don’t let her rearrange your living room). Understand your interactions with them are limited and temporary (unless you live with them, so help you God!).
- Control what you can and let go of the rest. You cannot control your mother-in-law’s antics or your brother-in-law’s drinking, but you can control your own words, choices, behaviors, boundaries and actions. Focus on that which you can control and let the rest slide off your back. Mindfulness practices like deep breathing and meditation promote emotional grounding and release tension.
- Practice gratitude. Remember your in-laws brought the love of your life into this world. Embrace their strengths and cut them some slack. Extend some compassion and empathy for the ways in which they can be difficult. We are all products of our environments and life experiences and there are reasons that they are the way they are.
- Let go of resentments and practice forgiveness. If for no other reason that yourself, forgive and let go to free yourself of negative feelings that keep you tethered to the past. Clear your mind, body and spirit of toxicity and create space for joy.
Choose compassion. Choose love for self and others. Choose forgiveness.
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