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While Cheryl's relationship with her mother-in-law is close and comfortable, for some of us, a healthy connection with our partner's parents is more elusive. But making it work is worth the effort, says Vancouver psychologist Dr. Joti Samra. "Even though they may be completely different from us, value-wise and personality- wise," she says, "an in-law relationship can be very fulfilling." A solid bond with your in-laws can mean a stronger marriage and family life, as well as closeness between children and grandparents. Plus, who better to turn to than family when you need emergency childcare, temporary housing or even financial help?
"We would not be debt-free today if not for my mother-in-law," says David, who asked us not to use his real name. Not only has his wife's mother lived with David's family in Ottawa for 12 years and covered a third of their home's costs, but she's also been an integral part of his two children's lives. A doting grandma, she's the connection to their Belgian family history, and because she speaks French, she is able to help her grandchildren with their French and English schoolwork.
Here's how to strengthen those valuable family ties.
1. Embrace the relationship
Disregard the bad jokes and the stereotypes of meddling, overbearing relatives from films like Monster-in-Law. Instead, approach your in-laws with an open mind and the same respect and kindness you'd extend to a coworker or a neighbour. When Bel started having vision problems, Cheryl visited multiple libraries to hunt down large-print books she thought her mother-in-law would enjoy. "I wanted to make her happy," Cheryl says. Those efforts were appreciated: "Bel's face would light up when I found a book she hadn't read."
2. Understand their perspective
Are your in-laws calling too often, judging your decisions or giving unsolicited parenting advice? Try to see it from their perspective. Maybe they're lonely or it's their way of staying involved with family. Maybe they're from a generation that holds different views about childrearing or believes parents should have influence over their adult children. In the past, Bel often remarked on her son, Dan, and Cheryl's choice to remain unmarried. Though it was challenging, Cheryl tried to understand that Bel's discomfort was rooted in her beliefs. "It was a sore spot for her," says Cheryl. "Being Catholic, she thought marriage was very important." They chose not to talk about it much, but eventually, after Dan's two sisters' marriages ended in divorces, they'd joke about Cheryl and Dan's long-lasting relationship.
For David and his mother-in-law, the sore spot was something else entirely. "Our families are just so different," he says. In his wife's family, no one raised their voices. David, on the other hand, grew up in a house where noisy discussions were the norm. He quickly realized that loud, excitable conversations about hot-button topics (finances, renovations, work schedules) upset his mother-in-law. Over time, David found a fix. He started to wait until his anger or frustration passed; his wife would act as a go-between, talking to her mother first. And when he was more calm, he returned to the conversation. With this process, it's become easier to work through challenges.
If this sounds familiar, first try to recognize how your in-laws' communication style is different from yours. Then, talk to them by mirroring their own communication style, as David did. You can also use humour to explain your conversation habits, says Dr. Samra, by saying something like, "I know my side of the family can be a little overwhelming sometimes, but we talk with our hands, and I feel it's impossible to speak if I'm not moving around!"
3. Work as a team
Your partner's behaviour is key to your relationship with your in-laws—it's important that you're a united front. Dr. Samra suggests that you try not to bicker in front of your in-laws; it will only create conflict and encourage parents to defend their own adult child. If your partner hears his parents speak insultingly about you, he should pull them aside to let them know it's not OK; and you shouldn't be expected to put up with it, either. Otherwise, over time, resentment might build. Furthermore, your partner should manage any personal conflicts with his own parents, and neither of you should bad-mouth your partner's parents. Finally, handle issues as a team—a practice that serves David well. When he has suggestions for the running of the joint household, his wife shows her support by being the one to present the ideas to her mother.
4. Set firm (but friendly) boundaries
Sometimes, it's necessary to set boundaries with things like having keys to your house, showing up unannounced or directing what should happen with your kids, says Dr. Samra. Setting these kinds of limits with your in-laws might be easier if your partner handles it—after all, they're his parents. But no matter who delivers the message, be gentle. "Tone and delivery—and a little humour—can go a long way," says Dr. Samra. She recommends trying something to this effect: "We love to see you, but things are a bit crazy for us on Saturdays with all of the kids' activities. We'd like it if you could give us a call a day in advance if you're thinking of popping by."
When Shannon, a Toronto health professional, started dating her husband, Mark (their names have been changed), she discovered that she couldn't keep up with her extroverted, energetic in-laws. "There are a lot of extended family gatherings throughout the year," says Shannon. "It depletes me." Her relationship with her in-laws is less stressful now that she limits the number of gatherings she attends over any given holiday.
Her in-laws respond best to strong convictions; so, when necessary, she firmly explains her needs. It also helps to let them know when they'll next be spending time together. "When I leave an event, I'll say, ‘I'll see you at the birthday party next month,'" she says. "I love Mark's family. They understand that, for the time I'm there, I'm really there."
Respectfully setting boundaries is reasonable; not making the effort to be sensitive about it will only hurt your relationship. If, for example, your in-law remarks on your messy house, you may think, Let him try to juggle a full-time job with a teething toddler and a last-minute day-care bake sale. But what comes out of your mouth could be quite different. How about being lighthearted? ("I agree it's cluttered, but it's the maid's day off!") Dr. Samra notes that you can also appeal to your in-law's wisdom by saying, "Yes, I've not been able to keep up with tidiness since the munchkin started walking! How did you manage when your kids were little?" In a pinch, you can also avoid replying at all and carry on as though you didn't hear the ungenerous comment.
5. Include them
Make your in-laws feel like they're an important part of the family by inviting them to regular activities and special occasions. And don't fret about being a perfect host when they visit from out of town. "It doesn't have to be a gourmet homemade meal every night," says Dr. Samra. "Sit down with your spouse and talk about who does what, or plan some time for yourself." When Shannon's in-laws come to stay, she focuses on being a good hostess, and also on family time. "I really try to make them feel like welcome guests." She buys them transit tickets to get around the city and makes time for them to be with their grandson.
When it comes to birthday gifts for your in-laws, choose something you can all do together; it will reaffirm that you want to spend time with them. Cheryl, for instance, once bought concert tickets for her in-laws and included the whole family. She has also organized dinners at her mother-in-law's favourite restaurant and invited her in-laws to visit the cottage.
Your efforts to strengthen ties with your partner's parents will be noticed, and don't be surprised if your warmheartedness is reciprocated. As Dr. Samra says, it's as simple as treating someone the way you'd want to be treated. Whether it's respecting people's time and space or contributing to cleaning and cooking, it's often simple stuff. We all want to be appreciated.
Cheryl's mother-in-law, Bel, had a stroke in 2014 and now lives in a long-term care facility. Cheryl keeps their connection strong by visiting regularly, sharing family stories and photos, going for walks together or having lunch at a neighbourhood restaurant. She always finds ways to give her "other mother" a giggle. "I really, really adore Bel," she says. "I feel very fortunate. I couldn't have chosen a better mother-in-law."
Not all in-law relationships can be saved. Here are the warning signs that the connection is more harmful than healthy.
1. Physical abuse, such as pinching, kicking, shoving, pulling hair or throwing objects.
2. Any behaviour that puts you or your family at risk, whether physically or emotionally.
3. Verbal abuse, such as chronic name-calling, using obscenities or making insults.
4. Persistent attempts to control major decisions, such as where you live, when you have children or how you raise them.
Your partner, or both of you, can try talking it over with your in-laws. But if the trouble isn't fixable, you'll have to create firm boundaries, and maybe even work out a more arms-length relationship. "Often, we get to a difficult situation where we have to restrict our contact to a handful of times a year, or not even that," says Vancouver psychologist Dr. Joti Samra. In other words, you just might be better off walking away.
For more advice, check out these six steps to getting along with your in-laws.
This story was originally part of "Why You Need Your In-Laws" in the March 2016 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!