July 14, 2024
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How Can I Improve My Relationship With My In-Laws?

Dear Dr. Chani,

I have really been enjoying reading your column. It prompted me to think about some of my own relationships that could use help. The first one that came to my mind is my in-laws. I wish that they would be easier to deal with and would understand me better.

When I first got married, it seemed that my in-laws were very nice to me. They always spoke politely to me and treated me like their daughter. Sometimes, when we didn’t do what they wanted, they would criticize my husband, but they left me out of it.

There were many difficult issues that my husband and I had to face in the first two years of our marriage. I noticed that my in-laws were very opinionated about how we should solve our problems. They strongly resented when we didn’t follow their advice. Eventually, my husband and I realized that we had to find our own way. This included having things go on in our own life without feeling the need to let my in-laws know.

We decided to establish boundaries. This became clear by the time our oldest child was four. My in-laws wanted us to visit them or allow them to visit us whenever it suited them. They also criticized our parenting in front of our children. We decided to visit less frequently and we told them not to visit when it was not a good time for us. We explained to them that it was nothing personal.

This changed the way my in-laws treated me. They turned from being nice to being aggressive. When we go to them for Shabbat, they ignore me most of the time. We still visit them, but it is uncomfortable for me. I try to leave as soon as possible.

I wish that when we explained to my husband’s parents why we make certain decisions, they would respect us and understand our point of view. I also wish that they would act normally with me. How can I make my relationship with my in-laws better?

Sincerely,

Tali

Dear Tali,

It sounds like your relationship with your husband’s parents has caused you a lot of pain. You have tried to fulfill their requests and respect them, yet they did not respond with the understanding you would have imagined. You also noticed that you and your husband were not respected when you chose to make decisions that are different than your in-laws would have wanted.

When it comes to navigating this relationship, it is important to keep in mind the expectations that your husband’s family has for the relationship. Some families might consider children’s absolute obedience to parents as the norm, while others consider children and parents as equals. Many families fall somewhere in between those two extremes. It is important for you to understand the expectations that your in-laws have in their relationship with their children. Do they generally expect children to be obedient, with little of their own boundaries? Are they usually champions of individualism among their kids? The more you understand your in-laws’ expectations, the more you can gain insight into what you are experiencing.

Fortunately, you have access to inside information here. You can speak to your husband about his own experiences with his parents. You describe how in the early stages of your marriage you noticed that when you and your husband did not act in the way his parents wanted, they would criticize him. Discuss this with your husband to find out more about his dynamic with his parents. This can give you a deeper understanding of his parents’ expectations. It can also help you and your husband to bond together and get support from one another to deal with this issue as a team.

Some questions for you to discuss with your husband: What was his relationship like with his parents while he was growing up? What are his interactions like with them now? How involved were his parents in his own decision-making processes? Did they encourage him to make his decisions independently, simply let him make them on his own, or not even allow him to make them at all? Ask him to describe important decisions that he had to make and how his parents behaved.

Your discussions can help you understand the dynamic that you are experiencing. If your in-laws’ behavior with you seems consistent with the interactions you are seeing now, it can help you gain a greater understanding of your current dynamic. It might have little to do with you and much to do with their perspective on how to interact with children. It helps to also reflect and discuss with your husband your experiences with your own parents and how they might lead you to your current needs and expectations about how your in-laws should interact with you.

The next step is to have a conversation with your in-laws geared toward improving your relationship. This conversation can only be successful if you have two ingredients. Firstly, it is important that you express how you feel. In a respectful, balanced tone, convey what your needs are for yourself and your family, the difficulties you are encountering in the current relationship, and how you would imagine things changing. Secondly, be prepared to understand where your in-laws are coming from. Even if you sharply disagree with the way that they interact with you, try to see their perspective. You can still assert your opinion about how the relationship can be if it is different from the way your in-laws see it. Trying to see their approach does not invalidate yours. It allows you to see their perspective and still explain your own preferences. If you do your research beforehand by having those conversations with your husband, you will be better equipped to understand his parents’ perspective.

One difficulty you might struggle with is how you can bring up the discussion with your in-laws in the first place. You might be concerned that having conversations with them about their behavior might make them upset at you and harm your relationship with them. It can be helpful to observe the fact that your relationship with your in-laws is strained as it is. Although you might be dancing around issues and playing the part of acting properly, you still feel the underlying tension.

Based on your description, your in-laws also notice that your relationship is artificial and awkward. Ironically, that is a good space to be in because things can only improve. Even if you have discussions with your in-laws that do not go smoothly, you are not increasing ill will. You are merely verbalizing the issues that already exist and bringing them to the forefront. Whether you both pretend things are OK or not, your discussions are not making things worse. They are just turning a spotlight on a difficult dynamic that exists anyway. By discussing your needs and expectations with them in a calm and sincere way you can try to make things better. If you think about it, your relationship is not so ideal as it is. There is only one way to go—up.

If you combine greater understanding of your husband’s family dynamic with open, honest conversation, it can help you be on the way to a deeper and more understanding relationship. That will likely be helpful not only in your relationship with your in-laws, but also in deepening your relationship with your husband, too.

Wishing you much success,

Chani


Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional connection and communication skills for over two decades. She coaches individuals and couples, teaches courses on how to become a master of relationships and provides free relationship resources at chanimaybruch.com. Learn a step-by-step method to improve your ability to emotionally connect with her new online course: The RELATE Technique™—Seven Steps to Emotionally Connect Through Conversation. Reach out to her at [email protected].

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