The adage says that when you marry someone, you marry their family, too. So, if your partner’s family scream-fights at holiday dinners or has an overbearing dad who has an opinion on everything you do? You’re tethered to the family as long as the relationship lasts, or potentially longer if there are kids or other ties. Of course, in-law issues also affect partners who are not married.
You might be wondering how to navigate someone’s family, your partner’s relationship with their family, your connection with the family, plus your and your partner’s relationship! There’s likely some potentially messy overlap. When an in-law issue arises in your relationship, it can be challenging to work through. With these conflicts, it’s not as simple as solving a problem. You’re also dealing with someone’s history with family members, deep emotions, and their own set of problems and patterns concerning their family.
How in-law issues come up in relationships
From personality clashes to critical remarks, disagreements around raising kids, to financial entanglements, in-law issues can take many forms. While conflicts with parents-in-law commonly come to mind, issues can also abound with siblings-in-law and other family members. You might see the potential for in-law conflict right off the bat when you start dating someone, or years later.
Some people’s experiences with in-laws can be positive and can strengthen the relationship when members are humble, kind, and helpful, explained Chelsea Hudson, licensed therapist, CEO, and founder of Cityscape Counseling in Chicago.
Hudson explained that when in-laws are critical, demanding, or interfering, this can place unnecessary strain on relationships.
Sometimes, these issues show up through loose boundaries from the in-law side, explained Matthew Schubert, counselor and owner of Gem State Wellness in Idaho. “These situations may manifest as extended visits, unwarranted involvement in personal family affairs, or the offering of unsolicited advice and feedback,” Schubert said.
The pieces of a relationship that in-law issues can complicate are pretty boundless. “Parts of relationships impacted by in-laws issues include couple’s ways of managing finances, discipline methods, health, and religion,” Hudson said. The stress of these conflicts can seep into day-to-day life, too.
Why dealing with in-law issues is complicated
When it comes to dealing with in-law issues, it’s usually complicated for a few reasons. “When one set of in-laws is causing the tension, the spouse related to these in-laws may feel torn between trying to please their partner while also trying to appease their parents,” Hudson said.
A partner may have emotions like love or gratitude for their family. In-law issues can complicate positive feelings, which can end in avoiding conflict (and creating more of it) with your partner.
The other partner can then doubt their spouse’s loyalty to the relationship, Hudson added. “The spouse of the interfering in-laws may develop anxiety and depression symptoms as a result of chronic stress related to feeling as if they are constantly disappointing both their spouse and parents,” Hudson said.
In some circumstances, in-law issues without resolution can turn into a “them or me” situation. “For the partner whose parents or family is causing the conflict, they are likely dealing with constant internal conflict,” Hudson said.
In-law issues can cause tension, distance, and disconnection in a relationship, Schubert said. “It's crucial for spouses to recognize that speaking negatively about their in-laws is often interpreted as speaking negatively about their partner,” Schubert pointed out.
There are endless potential conflicts that can come up with someone’s family. But when these issues are toxic, the person whose family it is may feel a sense of grief about holidays, communicating with family, or loneliness.
How to deal with in-law issues in a relationship
Having issues arise with in-laws is extremely common. Though it can be complicated to navigate in-law issues, there are ways to deal with them. How someone feels about their family and deals with interpersonal conflict likely has a lot to do with their upbringing. Acknowledging some of your partner’s formations around how they navigate conflict within their family may give you useful insight.
For starters, having an understanding of where your partner is coming from before you try and come up with a solution can be useful. “Partners can deal with these issues by openly expressing their feelings to one another and humbly seeking to understand their partner's perspective,” Hudson said. Approaching concerns from a place of curiosity as opposed to criticism can be helpful.
Drawing ultimatums or rigid lines from one partner is usually ineffective, especially when it comes to someone’s family. Hudson explained that collaborating on boundaries to enforce and protect the relationship against any negative effects can help.
“Empathy versus frustration from their spouse will be good motivation for the spouse to be assertive with their parents about not interfering in their relationship,” Hudson said.
Boundary setting shouldn’t be a one-time conversation, as you might need to adapt boundaries or set new ones down the line. “A helpful framework would involve having regular meetings as a couple to express feelings around in-laws, evaluate the negative impact caused by in-law behavior, and strategizing as a team to be able to put on a united front to in-laws around boundaries,” Hudson said.
Regular check-ins also can help circumvent explosive fights caused by pent-up in-law issues. Setting helpful boundaries may look like asking your partner’s family to call before coming over, avoiding certain topics if they usually end in conflict, or not talking about sensitive relationship matters.
Sometimes, having conversations with your partner and setting boundaries is not enough to solve the problem. For some partners, family matters bring up so much emotional activation that working through the direct issue can feel like going in circles. You might need more support from an unbiased third party. “Couple's therapy is in order if the spouses are not able to do this without support or if they find that their discussions continue to escalate in a negative direction,” Hudson said.
While dealing with in-law issues in your relationship can be tricky, emotional, and frustrating for each partner, it is possible through empathy on both sides. As hard as it may be for the person whose family is creating the conflict, it’s also hard to be the unrelated partner. Working together to create a shared understanding of what needs to shift and how to implement changes can help ease the tension around in-law problems.