Tips for Navigating Difficult In-Law Relationships – Part 2

Most married couples are uncomfortably familiar with some level of stress when it comes to their in-laws. Maybe you’re dealing with invasion of your privacy, criticism, or jealousy, to name a few issues. The bottom line is, you married one another’s families when you married each other–now, you need to be able to work together to navigate the difficult situations that may arise from time to time.

This week, we’re completing our two-part series on challenging in-law relationships. (If you missed part 1, you can catch up here.) Read on to learn a few more ways you and your spouse can set healthy boundaries with your parents and extended families.

Apply the same rules and boundaries to the whole family

Do you have a few individuals in your family who have a tendency to create drama? Sometimes, it’s more diplomatic to set rules or boundaries that apply to the entire extended family on one side or the other, rather than singling out one or two people. For example:

  • If one of your in-laws tends to speak out of turn and ruin surprises, you may want to keep certain things a surprise for everyone–not just him or her.
  • If you have a family member who wants to be in control of planning events (birthday parties, wedding showers, baby showers, etc.), you and your spouse might agree not to ask any of your family members to help you make those plans.
  • You might create an across-the-board rule that you don’t do business with, or seek specific services from, family.
  • If some of your family members are overly invasive and tend to overstay their welcome in your home, you might need to set certain times when family visits at your home are off-limits to everyone.

We all love our families, but there are times when it’s better to set a blanket rule and stick to it. While other family members might not understand–and while it might be difficult for you to agree to if your own relatives aren’t problematic–setting rules like this can help take the pressure off you and your spouse and reduce the stress in your lives. It could even make the memories you create with your families much more pleasant.

Imagine how much easier it would be to set a rule, then be able to respond with, “Look, this isn’t about you. This is what we agreed on for everyone.” In addition to avoiding those sticky situations, you’re also reducing potential conflict when you choose not to single the person out.

Negotiate family visits and holidays ahead of time

When we marry, we blend our new relationships with the traditions and celebrations we’ve enjoyed in our lives up until that point. Holiday traditions are deeply held in families, and most of us are emotional about keeping those. But because scheduling and travel between two extended families can be complicated, it can be helpful to negotiate holiday and special occasion visits ahead of time.

Be sure to make your mutual plans for holidays ahead of time, making long-term plans you can both agree to. Because it’s emotional to change your approach to the traditions you’re used to, make sure you both own and process your feelings around these changes, too.

It can be difficult to miss certain family events where your presence is expected, and that might be hard for your parents or in-laws to understand. You may even get some pushback or pressure from one or both sides of your family when you break the news. But if you’ve made your agreements ahead of time and had plenty of time to process them, you’ll be able to give firm answers in response.

Some couples visit as many celebrations as possible on both sides of the family, every year. For others, this may be unrealistic or too stressful, so they might rotate visiting years (visiting one side every other year, and vice versa). You might also need to negotiate the length of your visits well in advance so that when the time comes, you’ll be well prepared with your answer if your family asks you to extend your stay.

Marriage means that we have to compromise on certain things; it’s a lifelong, give-and-take commitment. Even though we might be used to a certain family culture or set of traditions, once we’re married, we’ve begun our own family and can create something totally new and unique to us.

Time to negotiate

Have you and your spouse negotiated boundaries, holiday travel, or other interactions relating to extended family? This coming week, take time to have a conversation (or two, or three) about how the two of you can cultivate healthier relationships with the in-laws on both sides of your family.

Do you and your spouse have difficult relationships with extended family members? How do you approach them? Have you agreed on a strategy? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section.


  • BC says:

    I wish you would write a book on in-law relationship conflict as a prep for the soon to be married couple and their parents to read before the joining of families…kind of like a Trading Places approach for the mother in law/daughter and the father in law/son. 🙂

  • John Housel says:

    Is Part One available also?

    • Angela says:

      There is a link to part one in the right hand margin of this page, as well as embedded in the article.

  • Kathryn Morgan Abercrombie-Rodnick says:

    What about family members who live very differently- like alcohol, cigarettes, language, what they expose kids to? I don’t want to judge or cast stones, and I know what is right and wrong so I can act accordingly, but I don’t feel comfortable exposing my children to this environment. Help?

    • I grew up in a Mormon family which, on one side, had a lot of drinking, smoking, divorce, and cussing. As a young child, I was only exposed to that side of the family once every few years and experienced it all as terrifyingly different. By the time I was a teenager, I was figuring myself out and wasn’t bothered by the differences—they were familiar enough to no longer shock me but certainly never influenced my own behavior. If you have raised your child with firm principles, expose them to a broad spectrum of different people, and teach them that everyone—even those we disagree with—deserves compassion and family, you will have been able to guide your child to think about and understand a subculture that they are going to encounter eventually anyway—in a friend’s home or at summer camp—but probably without your supervision. See it as a learning opportunity for you child—in how to have relationships but also boundaries with those who have different values.

  • Kris Emig says:

    Also helpful, would be touching on the stress of managing aging and fixed income parents. The sandwich generation has some huge communication hurdles!

  • Regina P says:

    What to do in the event the ex wife is still invited and attend ALL family events.

    • John says:

      All depends on the purpose of the visitation to see children of the previous relationship which in that case there will have to be boundary set for everyone

      John Soham canada

  • Precious says:

    This is really helpful, I wish it touched also on how to deal with a jealous inlaw and a controlling mother unlaw. Thank you

  • CC says:

    Agree with most of the suggestions listed, definitely jealousy and controlling family members can be difficult. Setting boundaries & approaching the family in a united way is best!

  • L Okon says:

    I wish I would have stopped trying with my husband’s family years ago. I have been married over 24 years and have a wonderful husband and two beautiful children. I always wanted their approval and tried so hard only to deal with roadblocks and unkindness from SIL and MIL. The harder I tried the worse it became. It took an incident to open my eyes on what our family dynamic was and it wasn’t pretty. My advice to people is stopped being mistreated and focus on your immediate family. It doesn’t matter if your spouse’s family doesn’t like you because you don’t need their approval. I am so much happier now that I am not forced to deal with their unkindness and unfriendly attitudes. It makes sad for my children that they don’t have a good relationship with grandma and grandpa, but I know in my own heart that I have tried everything and no matter what I am ALWAYS blamed and criticized for everything. Life is too short, so be around people who care and love you and forget the critics. They aren’t happy people at all.

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