In-Law Blues No More

Three strategies to improve the relationship with your in-laws

Posted Mar 31, 2019

Is your in-law driving you crazy, cause you to feel sad or exhausted? I am sure you know that you are not the only one. For many, many millions the relationship with their in-laws is a challenge, from prickly to outright painful. Those who are cool enough to laugh off this challenge are not the ones reading this article. They are the ones, however, giving free advice, such as, “Just pretend you are not there” or “Just don’t take it seriously” or “What do you expect? Perfection? Get real.” Oh well. My first tip is to drop the subject with cool people immediately as their cool approach works only with them. You, on the other hand, must first be understood and develop a strategy tailored to your specific situation, which this article attempts to offer or, at least, inspire. 

There are good reasons for why in-laws trigger us so easily. First, all long-term relationships harbor trigger potential. Casual, non-committed relationships just don’t go where it hurts. Quite frankly, not that many people care as deeply about what you do and do not do as your in-laws. 

Second, the in-law family is often the second closest we have, right after our family of origin. It is an open secret amongst psychotherapists that if we want to test how far our clients have progressed, we send them home to spend Thanksgiving with their own families. It is amazing how quickly we become our worst selves when we return to the house in which we made our first acquaintance with love and power. It is no wonder then that being in the house of in-laws also triggers us. You might want to be liked, loved, seen and acknowledged from your in-laws who just won’t, and for many reasons. It is painful to let go of your wants and accept that which is. Cool people never understand the depth of this psychological pain.

Third, in-laws might idealize their blood relatives and harbor their own expectations. You might not be good enough in their eyes. This never feels good. Because trying to disprove a fantasy is as futile as it is exhausting, the best you can do is to be okay with the verdict. This you can do only if you do not concur with such a verdict. In other words, you must love yourself and have access to the inner peace that rests within us all.

What is there to do? Avoiding and shutting out your in-laws should be the very last resort. If you want to lead a happy, peaceful life, you must try to do as little harm as possible. Unless someone gets abused, cutting off family members exasperates your situation. Do not lightheartedly cause loneliness in this world as loneliness is a known killer.1 If nothing works, manage the time you spend with your in-laws wisely. Seeing each other less is better than not seeing each other at all. Be as loving as you can without inflicting harm onto yourself.

I believe there are three main constructive strategies that you can employ to shake off the blues regarding your in-laws:

1)  Involve Your In-Laws

Talk directly with your in-laws. Instead of blaming them for anything, open your heart and say how you feel. Share your desire to get along. Suggest adequate boundaries and inquire what boundaries they themselves might need. Ask what role they could play in your extended family life. Praise and thank them for what went right in the past and what goes right presently, for yourself, your partner, your kids and all others involved. Give your in-laws the benefit of the doubt. When there is meddling, ask if they worry. When there is distance, ask if there is suffering. Put yourself in the shoes of your in-laws to find out what exactly causes the negativity or the crossing of boundaries. This strategy is the best, but not always possible. You might have to,

2)  Involve Your Partner

Never put a wedge between your partner and your in-laws. Express how you appreciate his or her bond. Share your difficulties or pain without putting down your in-laws. Let’s imagine your husband is blind to the flaws of his parents. Take time to explain how important it would be if he understood the situation from your perspective. Leave no doubt about the fact that there is no bond more primal than the one between him and his parents but that, at the same time, no bond is currently more important than the one between you and him. As your partner learns not to feel threatened, he might be willing to talk to his parents and find an amicable solution. It might also suffice to feel understood by him without taking any action. This strategy might not work either, which brings me to the third and practically always viable one:

3)  Change Yourself

When everything fails, you can change how you react. For this you must first claim your experience as yours and yours alone. Often, we are solely focused on the “other” and how our crazed reaction is inevitable and completely justified. Just because our reaction is understandable – as a psychologist, I find almost everything understandable – it does not mean that it is the only one possible.

When we realize that we generate our own experiences, we can deliberately direct our attention. We can, for example, take a completely different angle on the same situation and reframe a particular behavior. Instead of seeing an angry, cold in-law, we can see a hurt, self-protecting person. A superficial, constantly talking mother-in-law can be seen as a comedic distraction, which is brilliantly described in David Evans' blog.2

If you cannot help being exasperated, walk away and take a breath. Go inward as you feel your feeling pass, which will take but a few minutes. Ask yourself what you expected differently and what origin your expectation has. Notice your expectation with keen attention. Be specific as you define your want. Observe it in all its painful glory. Do not judge yourself for wanting – the cool people do this already; no need to join them. Just sit with your want and let it be. You will find that this too shall pass. This last mental skill is based on the courage to acknowledge your claimed experience and to follow it mentally until it disappears. There is inner peace in us, no matter who we are. From there come and go all experiences, which we can observe once we are willing to take the time to "just sit" and trust the process.

© 2019 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

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