My husband and I get to the hotel late and pull out the room service menu. We’ve got that I’m-so-tired-but-so-hungry look drawn on our faces. The door knocks. It’s the in-laws. We’re on family vacation for a week in Florida. Beach, ocean, fun, and, well, the in-laws. They want to go out for supper. We want to eat in bed. We know we’re going to lose, but with one last attempt my husband and I look at each other again, silently saying, “Choose your battles, babe.”
It's no surprise that the tagline for TLC's newest reality show Surviving the In-Laws acknowledges this less-glamorous part of the marriage equation: “Marriage has many benefits, but in-laws aren't always one of them." And it's true: getting along with your in-laws isn't always easy. But the reality is that marriage means learning how to get along with others using skilled communication and compromise.
Here’s are some of the things that work for us:
1. When an in-law shows up unannounced, smile. Period.
This smile is a great way to keep your own peace-of-mind, believe it or not. By choosing to smile, even if a frown feels easier in the moment, you are reminding yourself that only you can chose how you feel. If you’re in-laws show up on Sunday morning when you're bleary-eyed, just go ahead smile. Invite them in and simply excuse yourself if you’re in the middle of something. You can honor your needs while still being friendly.
Then, at a more appropriate time (and after chatting with your spouse), make time to talk to your in-laws about what’s acceptable for you, and what boundaries you need more of. This can be done in a kind and loving way, as you can make the conversation about what healthy boundaries might look like for both of you.
2. If you feel inclined to accuse your spouse of being like his/her parents, pause.
The pause is a true relationship lifesaver! If you are in the heat of an argument with your spouse, and you're finding that he/she is being controlling like one of their parents, keep it to yourself. Acknowledge your feeling mentally. But pause. Take a deep breath.
If you already went ahead and blurted it out (You're acting just like your mother!), follow a similar set of steps: Pause, breathe, and then acknowledge what you said. “Wow, when I said you’re controlling like your mother, that was hurtful and unnecessary. I’m sorry.” By accepting responsibility you can turn this conversation around to reveal hidden triggers, ultimately making your relationship stronger and more loving.
3. When your sensitive in-law seems upset, give them a hug.
Kindness can do more than simply foster a healthier, more peaceful in-law relationship; it can help heal any pain your in-laws might be feeling, too. Say your family is about to leave for holidays. Your in-law, who knew this was coming all year, turns to you and says, “Oh, don’t worry about me, I’ll just eat alone.” Don't just listen and move on. Instead, offer reassurance by letting them know that they’re wanted, loved and cared for (even if this feels a bit forced). Once again, making the choice to act kindly and with intentionality can transform your perspective more than you know. Plus, you'll be making someone else feel better in the process.
4. When your in-law overshares about their son/daughter, make light of it.
When an in-law shares a childhood bathtub pic, we usually laugh it off. That said, when the sharing is too personal, such as finances or history, we’re less likely to laugh. But here’s the trick: you can make the situation better by not engaging with further questions. Or you could even casually say, “Oh, well, that’s what he does!” as another way to disengage. Then, either later or at a more appropriate time, discuss with your in-law what is OK to share in a family-setting, and what’s best left private.
5. If you start fighting about his/her in-laws, tell the other, “I've got you" no matter what.
You and your partner have got to have each other’s back. The next time your spouse sides with a parent during a conflict about your in-laws, ask to hear what’s going on for them and really listen. When they’ve finished, tell your spouse, “I've got you," even if you feel like arguing is all you want to do. This simple gesture dismantles any implicit defensiveness, and lets your spouse know they’re supported and your marriage is solid in its foundation.
6. And finally, always keep the lines of communication open.
Say you’re raising your kid to eat (mostly) sugar-free. You and your spouse are on the same game plan here. But, when your spouse takes the kid to your in-laws who serve up double servings of ice cream, you’re livid! The in-laws are supposed to be on the same plan, right?
Well, don’t assume. The only way out of this is serious and thoughtful communication, not internalizing your anger and simply expecting everyone to fulfill your expectations. Life (and sugar) happens, but you have to keep a consistently open dialogue about what’s important, allow for slip-ups, and keep talking.
In-law relationships need as much care as any relationship does, and polishing up your communication skills will go a long way in keeping the peace. Be proactive, recognize the power of pausing, and, most importantly, find humor, love and light in everything you do. When things get tough, accept the reality.
Building healthy relationships is part of living vibrantly and abundantly as a whole health approach. If one slice of the pie is rotten, you bet it affects the whole pie, right? Take care of your family and your family takes care of you. Whole relationships are key to finding the whole you.