Dealing with difficult in-laws

This article was last updated on June 18, 2022

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When you fall in love with someone, their parents come as part of the package. And since we can’t choose our in-laws, it’s important to reach a common ground, if you are finding it difficult to get along with them.

Shilpi Choudhary, a banker says, “I thought that my husband’s two sisters would include me in their relationship, and that we would be really close with one another. However even twenty years later, they do not call or talk much to me, and they only want to speak with my husband. While for many years it hurt my feelings, and caused many arguments between me and my spouse, with time I realised that my definition of family was vastly different than theirs.”

“The root of most problems is the difference in one’s upbringing. Each family has its own values, traditions and routines. Everything, from the way children should be brought up to how housework should be done, is deeply ingrained in a unique family blueprint. When your in-laws’ blueprint is completely different from your own, differences of opinion and problems can arise,” explains relationship expert Mahima Mathur.

Mahima further adds, “To get on with your in-laws in a healthy manner, your partner and you must present a united front. It can be difficult to stand up to a parent and set boundaries and rules, but if you and your partner agree with each other and are supportive of one another, you’re more likely to succeed,”

Here are some of the most common areas of conflict between couples and their respective in-laws, as well as tips to help you overcome them.

Annoying habits
Meera has a three-week-old daughter and is struggling with feeding problems, and lack of sleep. But her insensitive sister-in-law seems to be her biggest problem. “She drops in at any time of day, without notice, to visit my baby. Although I have given out enough hints that I would prefer a phone call first, but she just ignores all my hints,” confesses Meera.

“My mother-in-law has this irritating habbit of barging into our bedroom at all times of the day or night and hanging around there with absolutely no respect for our personal privacy. Once she almost walked in on us having sex, it was completely embarassing.I vented out my frustration to my hubby, but he was totally unmoved saying it was her house and that she was a lonely widow. It’s tough fighting the battle alone, so I have just given up. But after five years of marriage, I just wish my space was respected,” says 31-year-old graphic designer Sunita Sengupta.

Expert say : “Everyone has annoying habits. As a couple, make a list of the annoying things your parents or your in-laws do. Then, summoning all the good-will you can find, agree on the ones you can probably ignore or privately laugh about. If there are some you really can’t live with, discuss the best way of tactfully asking your in-laws to stop doing them. If it’s your parent or parents, chances are you’ll know how to do this best – whether it’s using humour or taking them aside for a quiet word,” suggests Mahima. Avoid making your spouse choose between you and a family member as it’s impossible for them to take sides. Rather try and understand the relationship your spouse has with his or her family. And if possible, try to support that relationship. Even if your spouse has parents from hell, they are afterall his or her parents.

“My mother-in-law never seems to be satisfied with my cooking skills. Whenever I prepare a dish, she will not stop commenting on how I could have added a certain ingredient to make it taste better. Somehow she always tries to prove that she is a better cook than me. Usually I shrug them off, but it does get to me at times,” says Vandana Mehra, a chartered accountant.

“My father-in-law can’t stop cribbing about the way I keep my home. It’s very hurtful when on every holiday he criticises my home saying it’s not well maintained. Me and my husband are working in jobs that hardly give us time, I do the best I can, but his sarcastic remarks are painful,” says Shobhana Sinha, a BPO manager.

Expert say : Anu Goel, a marriage counsellor adds, “Some in-laws have no qualms about telling you if they think you’ve done something wrong. It’s up to you to decide which comments you’ll ignore and which you will accept as positive criticism. Decide as a couple that you’ll ask them to stop making judgements about your career choices or parenting abilities, for example.”

“It’s easy for a woman to try and enlist her husband’s support, but it is reccomended often better to respond to your mother-in-law directly, since your husband may not feel that this is a battle worth waging and thus may avoid the discussion altogether,” feels Terri Apter, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, in England. Honesty is the best policy.

If housekeeping isn’t a priority for you, go ahead and tell her, say Liz Bluper and Renée Plastique, the pseudonymous authors of Mothers-in-Law Do Everything Wrong. But if her complaints seem unsubstantiated or become an incessant refrain, there could be deeper issues at pllay. “What seems like a small point may not be,” Apter says. “She may not just be saying, ‘There is too much dust here,’ but implying that you’re not the kind of woman you should be.”

Keeping in touch
“Ever since both are kids have started going to school, our trips to Delhi where our both sets of parents stay have been restricted to once a year. My husband and I try to keep in touch with our parents via phone. But my in-laws complain all the time that they feel ignored because we don’t call them often, because they feel it’s important to talk every day. Whereas for my parents, it’s just fine even if months go between phone calls. This stark difference causes friction between me and my husband,” says Lucy, a Mumbai-based home maker.

Expert say : “There’s no right or wrong amount to keep in touch, so if your partner’s family’s style of communication is different from yours, you need to accept this. But, if you feel it’s getting in the way of your relationship, you need to agree some limits,” says Anu. US-based relationship expert Dr Phil reccomends, “You’ve got a finite amount of physical and emotional energy. If you’re in-laws are draining you, you may need to change the boundaries. Reassure them that you are not closing them out, you are simply focusing on yourselves.”

“Recently we went for a family dinner and in front of all the family members, my mother-in-law starting asking me about my salary. I really didn’t like it because it is something that I consider my personal matter. However, she tends to think otherwise which later leads to conflicts between me and my wife,” quips Gaurav Juneja, a marketing executive with ICICI Bank.

Expert say : “When it comes to conversation, some families may feel that no topic is out of bounds. While others may have been brought up with a clear sense that some issues should ideally remain private. As a couple you need to agree upon which subjects are OK to talk about with your in-laws and which should remain private – financial matters, for example, or health issues or about when you should start a family,” recommends Anu.

Dr Phil adds, “There can be no divided loyalties. When you get married and start your own family, that’s where your primary loyalty needs to be. Good fences make good neighbours. Your in laqws need to be your neighbors and there need to be really good fences up. Set boundaries about when they are and are not invited into your lives.”

Family occasions
Weddings, holidays and festival days are a cause of friction for many families. Try to plan well ahead and let everyone know what you’ve decided. You and your partner may also have strong feelings about family traditions, so be prepared to compromise. “Whenever there is any occasion in the family, my in-laws expect us to come.They don’t realise the expenses involved in such trips and leaves from work etc. My wife too starts arguing and thanks to my in-laws we squabble. I can’t even criticise her for her blind affection because she starts crying and that makes me feel terrible,” says Pritish Mehra, a banker.

Expert say : Dr Phil says, “Try not to criticise your spouse for his/her relationship with his/her parents. It may only lead to more clinginess or complications. You need to love your parents, and have a rich and active relationship with them, but any time that you turn away from your partner to resolve a relationship issue, that’s a bad thing. If you have a problem in the marriage, you need to resolve it in the marriage.”

Getting on with the in-laws is something that gets easier as you get to know them better. Dr Phil concludes, “If a wife has a problem with her mother-in-law, it’s the husband who needs to step in and help fix it. Likewise, if a husband doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his in-laws, his wife needs to step in. The person with the primary relationship (the son or daughter, not the in-law) needs to be the messenger. Negotiate with your own partner the role that you want your in-laws to have. Don’t assume you’re on the same page until you talk about it.”

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