in-laws and family gathered

Your spouse is the love of your life, but the people who gave your spouse life don’t like you. This is a difficult situation to navigate. Let’s skip past: Are you absolutely sure your in-laws don’t like you? If your in-laws don’t like you, you probably know it all too well. What can you do about it?

Understand the unique factors that affect relationships with in-laws.

First, step back and understand how strange in-law relationships are by definition.1 Hopefully, this will reframe your situation and possibly take some of the sting out of their lack of approval. Then you and your spouse should focus on healthy, practical ways to keep in-law issues to a minimum. 

Your relationship with your in-laws is one of the most unique relationships in your life. Think about it. This relationship: 

  • Is involuntary. (I could just stop here.)
  • Begins from scratch in your adulthood.
  • Is deeply mediated by a third party. (Your spouse.) 
  • Is labeled IMPORTANT but hasn’t earned that status organically.2

Relationships with in-laws can have significantly more challenges than other relationships. By legal and ceremonial formality, your in-laws instantly became important, influential people in your life. This isn’t how relationships typically form and grow. It’s actually the opposite of how relationships naturally operate. Keep in mind that these relationship dynamics are in play for your in-laws too. (They may be struggling to navigate them with you.) No wonder there is so much drama with in-laws. 

You might have to do some “mental gymnastics” to be your best self.

Their opinion of you is just that, their opinion. Understanding how you were tossed into a relationship with such unusual dynamics should inform your expectations. Your goal is to work toward a posture of: 

I’m not happy about it, but I get it. Relationships are already complex, and this in-law thing is extra complicated. I can’t make anyone like me. Maybe, as our relationship has time to grow naturally, things will improve. In the meantime, I can focus on loving my spouse by being kind, respectful, and diplomatic toward their parents when we all have to be together. 

And then, you can fully turn your attention to your relationship with your spouse. Because that’s where it needs to be. You need solid communication with your spouse about this, and you need their support. 

You’re working to come to terms with the fact that your in-laws don’t like you (just yet), but your in-laws don’t get to intentionally hurt you, play tug-of-war over your spouse, or meddle with your marriage. Unfortunately, these problems and other in-law issues are extremely common.

As you work to adopt a healthy perspective, your in-laws don’t get a free pass to hurt you or your marriage.

This triangulation of you, your spouse, and their parents can produce unusual challenges and has been the subject of a good deal of research. In-law terrain is fertile soil for all sorts of problems, assumptions, and complications.

  • Enmeshment is when a parent thinks they should be the most important person in their son or daughter’s life, even after marriage. It usually occurs between fathers and daughters and mothers and sons. This can create a “contest” of affection for a daughter- or son-in-law.3
  • A son may often take their mother’s side when issues arise, causing their wife to feel betrayed and unsupported. But sons often report doing this because they view their wife as stronger, more resilient, and more flexible than their mother.4
  • When wives were told a set of positive statements came from their mother-in-law, wives tended to view those statements as veiled criticisms. When wives were told a similar set of positive statements came from their mother, wives tended to view the statements as sincere and supportive.5
  • Similarly, relationship distance between individuals and their in-laws is often interpreted negatively. “My in-laws don’t like me and are shutting me out.” But relationship distance between an individual and their parents is often interpreted positively. “My parents are being considerate and respectful of my marriage.”6

Fortunately, your relationship with your spouse is the key.

Here’s what you and your spouse need to do to avoid or minimize in-law issues:

1. Put your marriage first. This is what that will involve:

  • Agreeing to be a “buffer” and play the “bad cop” with your own parents. As a general rule, each spouse should handle any hard conversations with their own parents. Each spouse should be proactive about being a “buffer” between their parents and their spouse when necessary. 
  • Developing a strong “team” identity.
  • Standing up for each other in front of in-laws.
  • Not oversharing or disclosing intimate details with parents.
  • Keeping each other’s needs and feelings the top priority.
  • Making final decisions together. 

2. As a couple, set appropriate boundaries with parents and in-laws. Parents and in-laws shouldn’t:

  • Insert themselves into your decisions as a couple.
  • Invade your privacy as a couple.
  • Intentionally make you or your spouse feel bad.

3. Have honest and transparent communication with your spouse. These will get you started:

  • This is specifically why I don’t think your parents like me, and this is how it makes me feel. You know your parents better than I do. Am I reading your parents correctly? 
  • Do you have any insights on how to improve my relationship with your parents or at least move forward in a healthy way?
  • These are specific situations when I think your parents are stepping over the line. Are we on the same page? How can we navigate these situations in the future?

Thinking your in-laws dislike you can potentially make you feel insecure or reactive around them. 

When your spouse’s parents don’t like you, it can put you, your spouse, and your marriage in a vulnerable position. Remember what you can control and what you can’t control. Your in-law’s opinion of you is ultimately out of your control. (It’s okay. Relationships with in-laws are strange to begin with.) How much their opinion affects you and your marriage is up to you and your spouse. Remember: Your spouse isn’t your in-laws and your in-laws aren’t your spouse.

Sources:

1Prentice, C. (2009). Relational Dialectics Among In-Laws. https://doi.org/10.1080/15267430802561667 

2Fingerman, F.L., et al. (2012). In-Law Relationships Before and After Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and Their Mothers-in-Law. https://doi.org/10.1080/15427609.2012.680843 

3 Weiss, R. (2021, November 8). How to Avoid In-Law Conflicts. Psychology Today. How to Avoid In-Law Conflicts | Psychology Today

4 Apter, T. (2009, August 11). In-Law Conflict and Troubled Marriages. Psychology Today. In-Law Conflict and Troubled Marriages | Psychology Today

5Bryant, C.M, et al. (2004). The Influence of In-Laws on Change in Marital Success. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00614.x 

6Mikucki-Enyart, S.L. (2018). In-Laws’ Perceptions of Topic Avoidance, Goal Inferences, and Relational Outcomes. https://doi.org/10.1080/15267431.2018.1492411

Resources:

Download: How To Have Convos With Your In-Laws Guide

So, You Need to Talk To Your In-Laws About Boundaries

5 Tips For Distancing From Your In-Laws

Dealing with Difficult In-Laws

What To Do When You Don’t Really Like Your In-Laws

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