Navigating Negative Relationships With In-Laws for Your Child’s Sake
Turns out, you didn’t just marry your significant other—you married their family too. Welcome to life with in-laws. It can be wonderful (the more loved ones, the merrier!), or it can be challenging (especially if you and your mother-in-law dearest don’t exactly see eye-to-eye). So what happens if you do find yourself in conflict with your spouse’s parents? Suffice to say, your happily ever after may be thwarted by petty power struggles and passive-aggressive commentary.
But once you have children of your own, you’ll have ample reason to revamp the less-than-desirable dynamic of you versus them. Family is a blessing, and giving your kids the gift of involved grandparents is worth putting in the work—and occasionally sucking it up. In fact, a 2004 study found that the strength of a relationship between a grandparent and their son- or daughter-in-law was the biggest determining factor in the strength of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. In other words, it may be time to find common ground for the sake of the little people you both love.
Ready to mend fences and move forward? Below, 8 top tips from family therapists to help you put aside the drama and navigate this tricky terrain.
Even if you’ve had a positive relationship with your plus-one’s parents up until this point, adding babies to the picture changes things—and not always for the better. Regardless of how excited your in-laws are about becoming grandparents, this inherent dynamic shift can feel more like a game of tug-of-war. The roles have evolved, and everyone is struggling to find their rightful place. “When grandchildren come on the scene, the whole family is renegotiating their boundaries and expectations,” explains Kristen Mosier, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist practicing in the New York City metropolitan area.
What’s more, just as Grandma and Grandpa need to accept that you’re now the parent and decision-maker, you need to remember that their sometimes unsolicited opinions and often overzealous actions come from a place of love: “You’re relating to them as in-laws. But if you want your kids to maintain a relationship with them, you have to also start seeing them as grandparents,” says Ana Hernandez, LMFT, a family therapist and teacher with the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. She suggests prioritizing the benefits your kids get from the relationship, rather than focusing on the negativity you feel. And even if you can’t personally find resolution, you shouldn’t let it hinder the grandparent-grandchild connection.
The reality is, sometimes you have to bite your tongue—at least when you have an audience of littles hanging on your every word. So before you clap back at a back-handed compliment from an in-law, think of the children. Hernandez likens bad-mouthing grandparents in front of grandchildren to contentious battling between separated parents. “Often the advice is: Try not to speak badly about the other parent,” she explains. In that same vein, “you want the children to formulate their own opinions; you don’t want to add to their perception by talking negatively in front of them.” So what’s a frustrated mom or dad to do when they really feel the itch to air the dirty laundry? First, take a deep breath—and if you must vent, Hernandez suggests talking to your spouse without letting “the kids have access to that sort of information.”
It’s natural to want to sweep your in-law issues under the rug. But ignoring your negative history won’t make the awkwardness go away. Instead, you’ll need to face the music and approach your in-laws with an open mind and honest conversation. Maintaining an ongoing dialogue is key; don’t mince words or be wishy-washy. Share your feelings, and extend your in-laws the same courtesy. And if you feel that they’re still not respecting your parenting decisions? Hash it out. “Let them know where you stand. Instead of simply stating the rules of your family, explain why they’re important to you. You can be both kind and direct with phrasing,” says Mosier.
Remember, the push-and-pull dynamic between you and your in-laws often puts your partner in a tough spot. To this end, it’s important to do regular gut checks. Are you and your other half actually on the same page? Don’t assume anything: “Make sure you are communicating about your needs and boundaries clearly so that you can present a united front,” says Mosier.
No, you don’t have to stand for unannounced visits, but you can try to make room for more regular grandparent involvement. Establish boundaries and then try to open your heart (and your home) to their ideas and presence. “Most grandparents like to feel needed, so consider asking for their help in an area you’re willing to be more flexible. Perhaps your mother-in-law has a knack for design and can help with the nursery or Grandpa is eager to make a mean puree. This lets them feel involved within your parameters,” says Mosier.
Want to take the initiative to build a better connection with your child’s grandparents? Hernandez recommends weekly dinners or regular activities that bring you together with a common interest (you know, besides your child’s happiness). What’s more, small acts of kindness can go a long way: “If you know your in-laws like a certain brand of coffee, it would be nice to send it to them or stop by and bring them some. Do thoughtful things—just to show that you’re thinking about them and notice them.” It’s a way to make an overt effort, and it may encourage them to do the same.
It’s one thing to compromise about hosting holidays or babysitting schedules. But when it comes to bigger, more important parenting issues, it’s okay to maintain your ground. Pick your battles and, once you’ve found one worth fighting for, put your foot down—kindly but firmly. “Avoid defending your position. Instead, thank them for their input and state your decision with confidence (even if you’re not feeling entirely confident on the inside). If you leave room to negotiate, they’ll probably take you up on it,” advises Mosier.
It’s possible that the issues between you and your in-laws are real and complicated. But many common conflicts are rather petty—annoying, yes, but insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Remember, “there are multiple people in the picture that are affected by this: the kids, your spouse, the grandparents and yourself. Be mindful of that. I think we get stuck in our own internal process that sometimes we forget the bigger picture,” says Hernandez. In this case, the ultimate goal is happy, adjusted kids who feel the love from all their family members—and what could be more important than that?
About the experts:
Ana Hernandez, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist and the owner of Valiente Relational Healing in Boston, Massachusetts. She is also a member of the teaching faculty at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City.
Kristen Mosier, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist at Space for Systemic Healing in New York City.