We spoke with Michelle Bentley, an Ottawa-based private practice psychotherapist, to learn more about how to avoid conflict and learn to get along with your in-laws.
Getting along with anyone -- from your in-laws to your co-workers -- requires a certain amount of self-reflection and examining what part we play in how the relationship is working. "Dealing with difficult people, especially family members, is easier when we understand our own needs and sensitivities, and can recognize what is triggering our emotional reactions," says Bentley.
Is it possible that you push your in-laws' buttons just as much as they push yours? "Take a step back and try to identify patterns. Think about those times when you have thought to yourself, 'Here we go again,' and then consider whether your or your spouse's behaviours might be contributing to the conflict," she advises.
Always put your marriage and your immediate family first. "The marriage needs to remain the number one priority," says Bentley. "Unless a couple bases their marriage on honest communication, and each person can turn to the other as their main source of support, in-law relationships can act as underlying fault lines that can shift or erupt unexpectedly." Regardless of any tension you might have with your in-laws, you should make sure that what happens in your immediate family is your main concern.
3. Set boundaries
Decide with your partner what is acceptable and what is absolutely not up for discussion beyond the four walls of your home. "Boundaries enhance marriages and allow for comfortable interdependence with our spouse and our extended families," explains Bentley.
Boundaries aren't the same for everyone and will vary in every marriage. The key is to work as a team. "It is very helpful when establishing and maintaining boundaries if the couple can communicate them together, so that everyone knows what has been said and any misinterpretations can be sorted out together," says Bentley.
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Practise using assertive yet non-aggressive language to clearly communicate to your in-laws how it makes you feel when they comment on the state of your garden or when they reorganize your kitchen without asking you.
"People find it difficult to speak up for themselves when they have anxiety or if they fear negative consequences to their relationship," Bentley says. "It is often a desire to protect a relationship that keeps someone silent or leads a spouse to internalize a criticism." It is much healthier to be honest and to communicate what you're feeling. "Taking a risk and being assertive can open up the relationship to deeper levels of understanding and mutual respect," says Bentley.
5. Stick together
Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page and that you are both presenting the same message to your in-laws. "It is important to have a consistent message when communicating with your in-laws -- not only to avoid mixed messages and confusion, but more importantly to avoid creating conflict with your spouse," says Bentley.
"As a mutually agreed-upon step in protecting your own relationship, you can say together to your in-laws: 'We really appreciate you supporting us, but sometimes we are just not up for company. Please phone before coming by.'" When your in-laws see that both you and your spouse agree, they will understand that they are not being shut out and that their relationship with their adult child is not being threatened, and will agree to respect your mutual commitment to spending quality time together.
6. Solve the problem as a team
Don't bring your parents into your disagreements. If you have a problem, resolve the issue with your partner. "Whenever a spouse goes outside of the marriage to talk about issues or problems, this action undermines the mutual trust that is necessary for their relationship to mature and flourish," Bentley explains. Your parents want to provide support and are likely to agree with your hurts and perspectives, and while this may feel good in the short term, it can lead to bigger problems. "This will not only create distance between you and your partner, but also between him and his mother-in-law as he has now been established as the 'bad guy.'"
If the situation warrants it, find a counsellor who is trained to support couples and who will have the expertise and perspective necessary to help you address and resolve your issues. "If you notice that you are spending more time talking to other people about the problems in your marriage than you are talking about them with your spouse, that is a red flag that you need to find help talking directly to one other," says Bentley.
While in-laws can create challenges in any marriage, implementing these six key steps will set you on the road to a happier, more respectful relationship.
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