Jasjyot Singh Hans for NPR
Jasjyot Singh Hans for NPR
Ruth Nemzoff adores her four children-in-law. They have been there for her through thick and thin, she says.
When her house burned down in 2011, they dealt with her insurance company and found her a place to stay. They also assist her with everyday tasks. Her son-in-law, for example, helped her figure out how to record this interview for NPR.
For many people, getting along with your in-laws can be hard work. They might have different values and expectations, even different ways of communicating. And that can be a source of potential arguments and misunderstandings, says Nemzoff, a women's studies scholar and author of Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.
But it's wise to maintain a civil relationship with your in-laws if you can — and if possible, cultivate it into a great one. The payoff, she adds, is that you have a new family to lean on for support.
The secret, says Nemzoff, is to call "upon your most mature self" when dealing with your in-laws — "and embrace the imperfect because life is imperfect."
Experts share 5 common conundrums that people face with their partner's family — and how to handle these situations with kindness and grace.
1. How to respond to in-laws who nitpick at your life choices
Does your mother-in-law have thoughts about how you and your husband discipline your kids? Does your sister-in-law have suggestions about your home decor?
This kind of unsolicited advice can be one of the most challenging aspects of an in-law relationship, says New York-based therapist Moraya Seager DeGeare, who specializes in counseling mixed-race and LGBTQ couples. Long before you arrived, your partner's family were authority figures in their life — and are probably used to giving your partner feedback. Now, that feedback may include the decisions that you and your partner make in your relationship.
Even if your in-laws offer these comments with good intentions, they might make you feel on edge. Or you might feel like they're overstepping their boundaries. In these moments, Seager DeGeare says you have to walk a fine line between keeping the peace and not letting these unwelcome comments put stress on your marriage.
Seager DeGeare offers three helpful ways to respond to critical in-laws.
Just say "thank you." You don't have to take the advice, but you don't have to be rude about it either, says Seager DeGeare. If someone is genuinely trying to be helpful, responding with snarky comments is not a great way to foster a relationship. "Just say thank you and continue to go about your day."
Be open minded about what they have to say. Actually take an in-law's advice? What a concept! Instead of immediately closing yourself off to their comments, consider that they have your best interest in mind and might have ideas worth trying, says Seager DeGeare.
Compromise. Let's say you're planning a family dinner and your mother-in-law wants to bring a dish that you don't like. Instead of telling her not to bring it, which might hurt her feelings, find a compromise. You might tell her, "OK, I love that idea. I'm also going to [make] this" other dish, says Seager DeGeare.
2. How to prevent in-laws from dropping by unannounced
If you have an in-law who constantly swings by your house without giving you a heads up, don't be afraid to draw some boundaries and ask for what you need in a kind but firm way, says Seager DeGeare.
She says you might tell them, "I love being able to live close to you and that you have a relationship with your grandchildren. But I'm feeling uncomfortable with how [often] you show up here [unannounced]. In the future, could you shoot me a quick text and let me know you're on your way?"
3. What to say to in-laws who want you to spend every holiday with them
During the holiday season, couples often have to decide how to split time with both sides of their families.
Instead of aiming for a perfect 50-50 split or letting guilt or obligation guide your decision, Seager DeGeare says to create a plan with your partner that feels positive and achievable.
Let's say you normally spend Christmas Eve at his mom's house then drive five hours on Christmas Day to celebrate with your mom. If the tradition leaves you and your partner feeling drained, you might opt for spending the holidays with one family this year.
If this means that you have to break with tradition, clearly explain your reasoning to your families. "It becomes a sore spot when someone's not there and people don't know why," says Seager DeGeare. Tell your family you're going to try something new this year, and that "if it doesn't work, we can try something different next year."
4. How to deal with in-laws who have opposing political views
Frustrated by your in-laws' political views? Instead of debating them, which may incite an argument, or staying silent, which may cause resentment, writer R. Eric Thomas offers another solution: agree to disagree.
Thomas, who has answered questions about in-law relationships for Slate's Dear Prudence column, says that this approach can prevent people from storming out halfway through dinner out of outrage or insult.
The key is to decide with your partner ahead of time to keep hot-button political topics off the table at family get-togethers. And if your in-laws bring those issues up, you might set a boundary and say "I don't want to discuss this topic," says Thomas.
Drawing hard lines with family is often easier said than done, but it's important to protect your own peace. "Sometimes we let people in our family get a pass in a way that we wouldn't let other people," he says. "But we don't owe our family members more of ourselves to the detriment of ourselves."
5. How to develop deep relationships with in-laws you don't see often
It's hard to develop a relationship with your in-laws if you don't get to see them on a regular basis, says Seager DeGeare. Maybe they live too far away or you and your partner have a busy schedule.
So try to find creative ways to stay in touch, she says. If you grab dinner with your mother-in-law who lives out of town, for example, take actions to keep the relationship going. That might mean sending a follow-up text or a thank you card or setting up a coffee date.
The more exposure you get, the easier it will be to build a friendship with your partner's family, says Thomas. And friendship with the people who love your partner as much as you do is incredibly valuable.
To have more family to "rely on for little things and big things," says Thomas — "isn't [that] wonderful?"
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib with art direction by Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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