The relationship one has with their in-laws is bound to be cumbersome. Being married to their offspring means you have to hear about — and sometimes deal with — every single problem that plagues their family. Being someone outside of the actual bloodline, though, usually means you have less authority when it comes to making important decisions about how they navigate, well, literally everything, so when something troublesome does arise, you often find yourself stuck in the middle of a firestorm without the power to do anything about it.
What can make this even more difficult is the fact that in-laws — and people in general — come in many shades of crazy, and finding specific advice on how to deal with your particular disastrous duo can be frustrating. But you came to the right place, because I spoke with several specialized psychologists about how to confront all kinds of problematic in-laws.
Before we delve into specifics, though, consider some more general advice from one of those experts — Ann Buscho, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in family issues. “My first advice is to support your partner’s relationship with his or her parents,” she says. “This sometimes means the best you can do is say nothing at all. The second piece of advice is to get on the same page as your partner, even if you don’t agree totally with their approach. The third piece is to let your partner deal with them as much as possible and leave you out of it. The last piece is, no surprise, boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. If all else fails, consider inviting them to a family session with a therapist who can help them understand what you’re trying to tell them.”
Now, equipped with an understanding of the basics, we can take a deeper look at dealing with some of the more awful versions of the people whose problems you inherited when you said, “I do.”
The In-Laws Who Ask Too Many Favors
These in-laws are completely helpless, and yet, they somehow managed to raise a competent child who you fell in love with. They feel no shame demanding all kinds of assistance — having you drive across town to turn on the TV, picking them up from the airport in the middle of a workday, smashing the stupid spider in their stupid bathtub and so on. They also have zero consideration for the fact that you have a life, too.
Perhaps the simplest way to deal with these in-laws is to stay strong when it comes to saying no. “If they ask too many favors, it’s probably because you’ve given the impression that you’ll do their bidding with pleasure,” explains psychologist Jeanette Raymond, who specializes in relationships. “Begin to think of boundaries and limits for yourself — that might be difficult if you aren’t used to doing that. Then you have to convey what your limits are. For example, you might be fine with doing favors in genuine emergency situations, but not if you’re just used as another pair of hands. Choose what favors you actually feel good about doing, and politely refuse the others. Give the message that you’re going to be in charge and make choices.”
Buscho reiterates this notion, emphasizing the fact that you and your partner have a family of your own that might need help more than your in-laws do. “Only say yes when you’re okay with the request,” she says. “If you have to say no, let your partner tell them, since the parent-child relationship is stronger than your relationship with them. Your priority is your own family — if you have kids — and your marriage. Sometimes you have to say, ‘Gee, I wish I could help you out, but I don’t have the time. I have other commitments.’ If they’re insistent, you can say, ‘I apologize, but I just can’t do it’ — no explanation necessary. If they push back, don’t get defensive: Just stick to your message.”
The In-Laws Who Are All up in Your Business
In-laws who care about your life are nice. But in-laws who care too much about your life, to the point where they stop by unannounced and try to insert themselves into the choices you and your partner want to keep between the two of you, are annoying jerkheads who need to mind their own business.
Dealing with them is similar to dealing with in-laws who ask too much. “Once again, if you have in-laws who are up in your business, you’ve allowed it at some point,” Raymond explains (I feel personally attacked now). “Boundary setting is essential and must be done consistently, firmly and reliably so that you send a message about what’s private and what isn’t. Passively not responding to questions and efforts to tell you what to do is one way of dealing with this issue. Another is to change the subject when the line is being crossed. At the end of the day, this issue is one of self-care and of you putting up good, healthy boundaries around your personal affairs.”
While setting those boundaries can be difficult, not setting them can create a whole horde of new problems. “Parents who are up in your business are intrusive and can trigger conflicts between the biological son or daughter, who wants to be loyal to their parents, and the partner who wishes they’d just back off,” Buscho says. “You and your partner need to work together to plan an approach that sends a clear message to the in-laws that the two of you are an independent unit now.”
“Sometimes parents have a hard time letting go, and they still see their adult offspring as a child,” Buscho continues. “It’s important to understand their intentions — they want the best for you, they love you, etc., so tell them you appreciate that. But you can ask them if they’re willing to give you some space: ‘We need our privacy. I’m not ready to talk about that issue. This really doesn’t concern you’ (the last one being harsher than the others). Limit contact if necessary — that is, fewer phone calls. Change the locks if you need to.”
The In-Laws Who Love Everything You Hate About the World
Ughhhh. These are the in-laws who basically hold views that are polar opposite to every one of yours. This can start with mild disagreements, like when your father in-law loves football but you like computer games, meaning you need to pretend to know what the heck a “quarterback” is every time you have a family function. At the more extreme (yet not at all uncommon) end, this can take the form of serious political divisions that make dealing with each other downright painful.
The latter example is one Buscho notes of particular importance: “They support Trump, they like to hunt, they’re members of the NRA and you hate all those things? Or it could be the other way around, right? You have two choices: Ignore these topics if they get nasty, or try to have a reasonable conversation where you try to understand each other’s perspective — after all, understanding isn’t necessarily agreement. You can agree to disagree. If they’re trying to impose their views on you, you can politely say that you respect their right to their own opinion and would ask the same of them. If they don’t respect that, you can say that those topics are off-limits. Then, if they bring it up again, you can remind them that you’re not going to talk about those things and end the conversation respectfully.”
Likewise, Raymond says you might need to expertly direct certain conversations to avoid conflict. “This issue is about trying to connect when the parties are in two conflicting and competing worlds,” she explains. “One way of dealing with this is, again, to put up a boundary and say you’re not comfortable with the stuff they love and you hate. Talk about and model respect by avoiding those subjects that are controversial. Have another list of more neutral topics to talk about and steer conversations in that direction. Don’t be afraid to state clearly that you’re uncomfortable, offended and/or disrespected when in-laws stick stuff in your face knowing that you don’t like it. Be assertive, and create a comfortable space around yourself. It’s up to you to protect yourself and protect the relationship.”
The In-Laws Who Try to Control Your Life
These are like the in-laws who are all up in your business, but worse. They tell you what you should be doing with your career, how you should be raising your children, why that bagel you ate this morning is going to make you fat — and when you don’t listen, they make sure to remind you of everything you’ve ever done wrong.
While you might feel obligated to say something to them, Buscho recommends keeping this matter between the in-laws and their direct offspring. “Set up a conversation with the in-laws, where their offspring delivers the message,” she says. “It could be, ‘Thanks for your concern — we have it handled. We’ll ask for your advice when we need it. Trust us to make our own decisions.’ Dealing with in-laws is like dealing with stepchildren: The goal is for you to have a positive relationship and let the spouse or partner do the ‘dirty work’ or ‘discipline.’ Your role is to support your partner and demonstrate your alliance with your partner to your in-laws so they know you two are a unit.”
If that doesn’t work, Raymond suggests taking a more active approach toward, once again, setting boundaries. “Stating clearly, as early as you can — and reiterating it on a regular basis — that you’re your own person and will use your own mind is the best way of dealing with in-laws who try to control your life,” she says. “Show them who’s the boss and they’ll back off. The mistake you make is thinking that letting them control one tiny thing is making them happy, pleasing your spouse or just trying to keep the peace. But the message they get is that you’re open to letting them in and taking over. So never allow it. Show that you have a mind and will use it. It really works, even though there might be some unease at first.”
The In-Laws Who Are Just Downright Crazy
Sometimes, no matter how sane your partner is, their parents and/or siblings are just plain out of their minds, drama-obsessed or even outright jerks. Dealing with these kinds of in-laws is, well, perhaps not even worth the trouble. “Breathe, laugh, maybe have a drink,” Buscho suggests. “If crazy means you’re not safe with them, do whatever it takes to establish safety for yourself and your family. If crazy means they’re eccentric, hoarders, they tell silly jokes or act weird — many of those things you have to just laugh off.”
Raymond generally agrees with this approach. “Let them be crazy and see it as a sideshow of entertainment,” she suggests. “You aren’t going to change them or control them, so accept them. But again, have good boundaries so that you don’t absorb their craziness. Stick with your reality, and don’t go with theirs because it feels intimate or is a good bonding experience. Beware of the need to connect through buying into the craziness or trying to deny it. Let it be, but keep a good barrier around yourself so you don’t get drawn in.”
That said, their craziness might need some attention, depending on how it affects you and your partner. “If they’re crazy in that they have meltdowns or temper tantrums, that’s more serious,” explains Buscho. “This is where supporting your spouse and managing your own emotions is essential — once my in-laws got furious with us, but we didn’t know what they were mad about. My partner was beside himself with anxiety and trying to please them. When dealing with crazy in-laws, you might do better seeing a therapist or coach who can help you both disengage or detach.”
“In the end, you and your partner have to detach from both your parents and become your own new family,” Buscho continues. “This is hard for everyone, including the parents. Our culture is a little weird that way, because in other, more traditional cultures, parents and kinship networks are a lot more involved with the younger folk’s marriages. This was good in some ways — lots of support, guidance and love — and bad in other ways, like interference and judging.”
So, good luck out there, relationship people. And remember: The most important step to prevent yourself from ever becoming an insane in-law is to never have children yourself.