Solutions for In-Law Problems
Some bothersome behaviors can be ignored or laughed at; in fact, sometimes humor can be a highly effective tactic in dealing with problematic in-laws. To an interfering mother-in-law who insists on telling you a thousand and one better ways to make her son happy, you might say: “I really wish I was Mother Teresa, but unfortunately I'm not; in the meantime he'll have to deal with a mere mortal.”
The other possibilities — the in-law is unaware of the negative impact of her behavior on you, the parent is overly needy or meddlesome because of some lack in his own life, or your in-laws simply doesn't approve of you and want to drive a wedge between you and him — other tactics are called for.
The best way to approach the problem is directly. If you believe an in-law is unaware of her behavior, or its affect on you, a gentle boundary-setting move may be called for on your part. It may just be sufficient to say, “Your criticism of my cooking is really hurtful, could you please stop it?”
Another way to handle it is to give her choices. “From now on, if you don't like my cooking, you can cook all the meals when we get together, or we can go out to eat at your expense — but I prefer not listen to your complaints about my cooking.”
When confronting an in-law with an issue of concern, use “I” statements not “You” statements. Say, “I feel hurt when …” or “I'm upset about….” Do not say, “You are so insensitive …” or “You hate me …” even if you believe it to be true. Don't sound like a victim. Do have realistic expectations of the encounter. People don't change overnight, and they rarely change unless they have something at stake.
Oftentimes, if an in-law is critical of you, she will verbalize those criticisms indirectly to your partner. Or the in-law may attempt to enlist your partner's cooperation in excluding you from family events. One young wife complained that her mother-in-law constantly invited her husband, the woman's only son, to accompany her to dinner and on trips without inviting his wife. Out of obligation and guilt the son would not refuse, even if he and his wife had already made plans.
Whether critical, cutting, or exclusionary remarks are made in or outside of your presence, either situation puts your partner in the middle and unfairly forces him to choose between you and his parent. What can be done about this unfortunately common situation? First you must discuss the problem with your partner. He may not be fully aware of his parent's negative impact on you. Or he's well aware of it and reluctant to confront his parents for fear of hurting them, in which case he's unconsciously choosing to hurt you instead. Your choices are to accept the status quo or to negotiate with your partner to confront the problem.
Give your partner warning that you wish to speak with him about an in-law issue. Avoid at all costs starting the conversation with “We've got to talk….” Ideally, say something like, “When is a good time for us to talk about an issue involving your mother?” If he says right then, be prepared to address the topic calmly and firmly.
When you do approach him with the problem, be sure to focus not on who's good or who's bad in the situation but on how your in-laws' behavior makes you feel, and how you believe it's hurting your marriage. When you negotiate with your partner in this situation, always remember that it is probably very difficult for him. If necessary, give him time to think about it further on his own.
If the problem situation doesn't improve, the best way to handle a difficult in-law dynamic is to have your partner stand up to the parent and draw a boundary — a line in the sand.
To set a clearer boundary with a parent, he can say some form of the following:
I do not like to listen to you criticize my wife regularly; please stop it or I'll have to limit my time with you
My wife and I have decided to do [whatever it is] and I need you to stay out of our decision making
None of these actions necessarily results in a positive response from your in-laws. There may be emotional or physical distance created, temporarily or for the long term, between your partner and his parents. This is potentially very painful for him. Give him emotional support or space if he needs either, and let him tell you what he needs.
When you confront an in-law with a concern and she refuses to deal with the issue, she'll likely respond in one of four ways:
Deny the problem
Say you are the source of the problem
Play the victim
Go on the attack and find fault with you
If you know you're dealing with an emotionally unhealthy in-law, it's best to be prepared for one of these negative reactions and then do what you need to protect yourself from any further negativity. In some cases, you may decide to limit your contact with that family member, while agreeing to have your partner visit separately. These are difficult individual decisions with a host of considerations that differ for everyone.