Dear Dr. Chani,
I read with great interest your recent response to a question from someone newly married. I, too, have been married for under a year and I am struggling with a specific aspect of my marriage. I feel like there is a tug-of-war between myself and my in-laws when it comes to my husband. When I was dating, one of the things that I looked forward to about marriage was having a close friend to speak to and to spend time with. Unfortunately, my in-laws cannot seem to let go of my husband now that he is married and they are constantly interfering with our lives.
My husband is a wonderful person and I could not ask for a more loving spouse. If it were not for my in-laws, I think we would have nothing to argue about. Unfortunately, my in-laws have a never-ending presence in our lives. They call or text my husband constantly, often to talk about the events of their day. Usually, they also ask him about every detail of his day—to the point that I feel a lack of privacy. Aside from this, they often want to get together with us on weekends. They will either invite us to their house or invite themselves over to our apartment for a visit. Even though we would love our space, my husband finds it too difficult to refuse. He knows that they will get insulted and he doesn’t want to create a conflict with them.
Recently, my husband discovered that he has a mental health issue and he is pursuing treatment for it. The mental health issue affects my life a lot and it is important to me to help him navigate this and to help him make decisions. But since he told his parents about it, they are taking the lead on his treatment plan. They contacted all of their doctor friends for consultations and referrals. Whenever my husband meets with a professional, they ask him for a complete report and they call him about any new information they receive.
Sometimes I want to let my in-laws know that they need to take a step back, but I fear it will ruin our relationship. Right now they like me and they are happy that their son married me. I would rather not “rock the boat.”
What can I do to get my husband to explain to his parents that we need our own space as a newly married couple? Is there any other way to deal with this?
Every family has a unique culture and way of doing things. When you married your husband, his family came along as part of the package. Unfortunately, your husband’s family dynamic is different than what you are used to and what you expected when you were dating. You are wondering what you can do to create a balance that keeps the peace and makes you feel more comfortable.
Often, the perspective you use to look at a situation can affect the way you react to it. It sounds like you feel like your in-laws are “outsiders” who are invading your space and your time with your husband. This might be very much the case. Yet, seeing it this way will foster a certain reaction from you. You will naturally feel resentment and annoyance. Once you have this perspective, you will be more likely to be negatively triggered when your husband’s parents call him or come to visit.
It is in your best interest, and the interest of your husband and your in-laws, to adopt a perspective that is more understanding of your in-laws’ behavior, while still focusing on meeting your needs and nurturing your marriage. For example, you might choose to appreciate that your in-laws raised your wonderful husband and contributed to his being the loving spouse you enjoy. This paradigm shift, or change in your thinking, can help you approach your in-law’s behavior with a more tolerant and positive mindset. If you choose this mindset, it can help you deal better with the situation.
Once you allow yourself to be more understanding of your in-laws, you might recognize that there is truth to both perspectives. There are good and bad aspects of their behavior. On the one hand, they are frequently present in your life, which may be disrupting your routine or interfering with your way of doing things. Yet, on the other hand, they may be caring and helpful. Above all, they are interested in a relationship with you. Viewing it this way can help you accept the bad with the good. Of course, if you feel that there is a complete imbalance and your in-laws’ behavior is mostly negative and toxic, seek professional guidance about how to protect yourself and your marriage.
It is important that you think about how your own needs can be met here. Think about what you would ideally want the dynamic with your in-laws to be. Consider within yourself how you can create boundaries for your marriage so that you do not feel threatened. For example, would you like to set an expectation that your husband and your in-laws speak only during certain hours of the day and do not text unless it is urgent? When it comes to your privacy, would you like to draw lines around what topics you and your husband will share with your in-laws and topics that are off-limits? Then, discuss with your husband what routine would be better for you in terms of your in-law’s phone calls and visits. Communicating with your husband to clarify your needs and expectations for yourselves is an essential step.
It is possible that your conversation with your husband might not go as smoothly as you would imagine. It is common for spouses to feel that it is their job to protect their family, especially their parents. Discuss with your husband that your aim is not to label wrong and right behavior, but to discuss your needs and the things that matter to you. Your conversation is not about what is correct and incorrect, but what your needs are as a person and as his spouse. The goal is for you to be able to develop your own values as a couple (even if those start from only one of you). Use those as guidelines to develop a sense between yourselves of how you would like things to be.
After you decide as a couple how you want to proceed, you need to communicate your expectations to your in-laws. As a general rule, it is helpful for each spouse to be the spokesperson to his own family when communicating about your needs as a couple, although there are times when you may need to speak to your in-laws yourself. Discuss with your husband how and when he can explain to his parents the way both of you would like things to be.
Sometimes it is easier to address each situation as it comes up, instead of having a major discussion. You can help your in-laws be more receptive and less defensive by bringing up your expectations in the moment. For example, when your husband hears from his mother that they plan to come over, he can say something like, “We love seeing you, at the same time, we have a lot going on so right now is not a good time. Let’s set up a time for us to come visit you soon.”
If you hold firm to your boundaries, while, at the same time, proactively reaching out to your in-laws to promote your relationship with them, they will have an easier time adjusting to the ideal dynamic you want to create. You will also make it easier for your husband to not feel caught in the middle of the “tug-of-war” you describe. He will be able to balance his loyalties to his parents with his desire to build a loving home together with you. In this way, you can turn this challenge into an opportunity to grow closer as a couple and strengthen your marriage.
Wishing you much success,
Dr. 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, and teaches online courses to help you create your ideal relationship. Get free relationship resources and contact her at www.chanimaybruch.com