How Happy Couples Deal with In-Laws: Tips for the Holidays... and All Year Long

"We're going to a marriage counselor or a divorce attorney," Susan demanded when her in-laws went too far, one too many times. Susan was so shut down I questioned whether she'd make it through our first couples session. John always felt that Susan, as the daughter-in-law (DIL), should navigate her critical and blatantly meddling mother-in-law (MIL), as he desperately tried to cope with feeling caught between his mother and his wife.

John was in a difficult position, yes, but his grave misperception of his role and priority became the first dynamic we turned around: 'in-law' marriage repair 101. Susan's iron curtain came down a notch ... the power of feeling understood. 

Countless married couples and individuals bring similar, dramatic stories into my office, unpacking them with their feelings of hurt, betrayal, frustration, insecurity, confusion, and hopelessness. Inherently tricky to navigate for many, in-law strife shows up most especially between mothers- and daughters-in-law. The MIL jokes don't run rampant for nothing. While I see challenges surfacing among all kinds of in-law relationships, the MIL and DIL are clearly the most delicate and complicated. 

In short, the MIL desires for her DIL to acknowledge what a wonderful job she did raising her son, and is still protective of him. At the same time, the DIL wants to feel welcomed, valued, and appreciated for how happy she makes him and what a wonderful wife he has chosen. She feels the need, rightfully so, to feel safe and assured that her needs and views stand in front. A MIL can fear she might lose her place with her child. Welcome to power struggle land. 

We can see why both MIL and DIL feel especially sensitive to the others view of them, which helps us further understand why a critical MIL, (i.e., any overt or implied disapproval, attempts to control, or any message of not being good enough) cuts so deeply. Confrontational words between a MIL and DIL tend to feel more difficult to shrug off. 

So now we will talk about some specific tips for couples to ensure that in-laws don't become a barrier in one's marriage. With the holidays upon us, these issues tend to become particularly distressing and pronounced. And pouring into the mix the degree of conflict and division from our unprecedented election year 2016, the views and dynamics among all family members- especially in-laws, makes for quite a vulnerable time. Thanksgiving falls with very little time to heal the intense and deep emotions for so many, particularly when faced with others who feel hopeful and elated (gloating not recommended!).

The true issue most commonly between couples struggling with in-law problems stems from the DIL or SIL not feeling she has full marriage backing. Going in strong together as a couple greatly reduces the threat and vulnerability from any in-law negativity. Sometimes this means that spouses need to go to bat for their partner and stand up to parents or siblings. Those with avoidance tendencies... be prepared to go out of your comfort zones. (See Tip 3 below for more about boundaries.)

Consider this sign on your door this Thanksgiving, "No Politics, Only Pumpkin Pie." Especially this year, focus on common ground and shared interests (e.g., hobbies, movies, charity projects, even stuffing recipes if you are desperate). And to whatever degree of difference you face in your views, as Phillip Galanes of the NYTimes put it this Sunday, "Don't be shy to say: 'I'm feeling bruised by the election. Let's wait to have that discussion. We'll get through it. People of good faith always do.'"

Whether your mother tries to take over the kitchen, your wife prefers to direct, or your father talks down to your husband in some way, you must firmly let your parents know - with respect and love- what is okay with you and what is not. Furthermore, it's up to you as a couple to decide how you want to live and love. (E.g., how you want to birth your babies, what to name them, where you will live, how you will parent, your spiritual path, where you will go for the holidays, who stays home and who works, how you allow others to talk to you and your mate ... you get the idea.)

At the same time, happy couples also realize parents and in-laws are vital in our lives and we must make sure we reassure them of their value directly to them. Spouses can also need reassurance from one's mate that his/her family of origin will not be taken away due to your in-law problems. Here's an example of how to balance boundaries with reassurance with a MIL. A son, when his mother makes judgmental comments to her DIL about choosing to be a working mother, could say to his mother, "Thank you so much for how you cared for me and your love for your grandchildren. We both love your care and expertise. At the same time, it works best for us to both work and I respect my wife's wishes and choices. We both share in the parenting/household responsibilities and I'd like to ask you to show her more support. We will let you know when we have parenting questions since I know it makes such a difference to have been there yourself. In the meantime, we are happy with our decisions. I hope you always know how much I appreciate all of the care we know your concerns are coming from."

Work on the issues that get triggered by your in-laws behavior. Whether they be comments about the food you feed your son, the girdle your MIL buys you (yes this actually happened), the dismissive behavior as if you don't exist, the negativity or offensive remarks- many uncover important growth opportunities their in-laws so 'graciously' bring to the surface for them (slight sarcasm intended). Our emotional reactions, even for all the right reasons, can become a great and proactive opportunity for taking our own growth and healing to the next level.

Some common issues include: not feeling good enough, not feeling heard, having no control, self-doubt as a parent/spouse/person, unresolved pain or disappointment from one's own family of origin, body image issues, injustice issues, etc. Remember this and remember this well: We are never victims as long as we exercise the free will, given to us as our birthright, to choose how we respond to any challenge or external circumstance in our life. 

Talk together as a couple about your feelings, needs, and desires, without blame or attack. Listen to each other well. Be proactive and brainstorm how to make family events the most positive for your marriage and the family you've created ... and for everyone involved. Set a specific intention for your marriage before each gathering. Create your own family or couple traditions to add to or insert within your family dinners and gatherings. Some find it helpful to keep time spent with their in-laws shorter vs longer. If staying in the same home with your in-laws, then don't be afraid to go to bed early to rejuvenate (or perhaps lick your wounds). Plan ways to come with love and sharing in your heart - this always cushions any tension at the outset. (e.g. Bring gifts or a card, arrange special one on one outings, send positive angels before you arrive, etc.)

Accept yourself and the present reality even if you don't like the situation. Trust the order of the universe. See this difficult situation as an opening to help you grow - perhaps stronger, more empowered and self-reliant, freer, more compassionate. Acceptance brings joy and peace, empowering us to share our Light rather than being busy with what is lacking. Our expectations can serve as the worst "party kill." Let go and embrace, grieve what you dreamed of, but don't spend too much time there. Life and love await. 

While it's understandable to feel hurt and angry when your in-laws do and say hurtful or insensitive things, keep in mind that honestly, that's their movie and you don't need to get sucked in. Without judging them, see their behavior as a mere reflection of their mindset than on who you are or what you are worth. Your in-laws' opinions are just that. Opinions. We control our own truth and whether we live by that truth. We decide who we want to become, even though our emotions often trick us into believing we are stuck or trapped. 

I recommend that my couples with in-law issues read further on the topic of couples and in-laws (e.g., What Do You Want From Me: How to Get Along With Your In-Laws by Teri Apter). Many of us are quite uninformed. I have learned that winging it doesn't prove very effective. Also, consider marriage counseling. Even just a few sessions can activate a profound shift in your relationship. Furthermore, self-care, including individual counseling, can help bring inner healing and empowerment- which makes any difficult situation we face smaller and more manageable.