WRITTEN BY Felicia Kashevaroff

Feeling Overwhelmed by In-Laws? How Can We Navigate This Together?

During the holiday season, we often spend more time than usual with family. This extra time with in-laws can be wonderful and fulfilling, or it can be challenging and draining. I often talk about the internal challenges we face in our relationships, but external forces can wreak havoc on relationship health and happiness, too. One of the most challenging dynamics we can navigate is handling in-laws in marriage.

we can navigate is handling in-laws in marriage.
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In-laws can be especially tricky when you’re trying to improve your relationship dynamics or trying to build a more balanced partnership. Often, the faulty systems at play in your marriage are a DIRECT result of the role modeling from your family of origin and those of your partner, so when we try to update those systems, our families might have feelings about it.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by in-laws after the holiday season, here are four strategies to help you and your partner navigate them together.

Get Clear About the Issue

What is at the root of the challenges with your in-laws? Are there cultural differences, religious differences, political differences? Are your in-laws too demanding, too aloof? What are the expectations you have for your in-laws? What are their expectations of you and your partner? Before you make a plan on how to handle your in-laws, you’ve got to get clear about what is causing the conflict or disconnect. Take the time to have a private conversation with your partner about what is bothering you and be open to hearing what they have to say about their perception of the issues. If a cultural or religious difference is at play, look for a respectful solution that aligns with your shared values as a couple.

Be a Team

Remember that you and your spouse are a unified team, and while your in-laws aren’t necessarily the enemy, they don’t have the deciding vote on how you and your partner live your lives or parent your children. Both of you must have each other’s back when conflict arises. If your in-laws refuse to back down, say something like, “I love you and value your judgment, but the health of my marriage MUST be my top priority.” 

Have a Vision for What You Both Want

Before you consider confronting your in-laws on any issue, make sure you and your partner are on the same page about your desired outcomes. What role do you want the in-laws to play in your lives? If you and your partner are misaligned, it’s key to sort that out before you attempt to bring either set of parents into the conversation. When approaching challenging topics, I always recommend focusing on the desired positive outcomes first and reverse engineering the conversation from there. For example: 

  • Once we know what we ideally want from our in-laws  
  • We can get clear on the behaviors that are holding us back from what we want
  • Then, we can determine a strategy to get us to the desired outcome
  • And finally, we can make a clear request that is focused on that positive outcome

Communicate Effectively with in-Laws in Marriage

Knowing where to start when you need to have a difficult conversation is hard, but handling in-laws in marriage is especially difficult. I recommend using nonviolent communication techniques. Nonviolent Communication is a highly effective strategy for sharing and listening with empathy and compassion. It follows this framework:

1) What do I OBSERVE that isn’t in line with my well-being?

2) What do I FEEL in relation to what I observe?

3) What are the NEEDS, values, or desires that aren’t being met?

4) What is a concrete action I would like to REQUEST?

Try mapping out a script using this framework BEFORE you talk to your in-laws to set yourselves up for success. I always think that the person whose parents are the current issue are the ones who should take the lead in the conversation, but you decide what makes the most sense for your unique situation.

Handling in-laws in marriage can be a tricky thing to navigate, but getting clear about what the problem really is, approaching the issue as a team, having a vision for your desired outcome, and communicating effectively can help you and your partner to calm the overwhelm and find a more peaceful relationship with your in-laws in marriage. 

If you’re still struggling, consider bringing in an outside resource to help. As a relationship coach, I often facilitate family sessions to help move through conflict. Reach out if you think that would help you and your family.