How to Handle Toxic In-Laws

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How to Handle Toxic In-Laws

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: verkeorg/flickr

No matter how difficult your in-laws are, they’re still your spouse’s parents. Whether their bad behavior is aimed at you or your spouse (or maybe both of you), it can help to know how to keep a potentially explosive situation contained – or at least as calm as possible.

Do what you can to understand your spouse’s relationship with their parents and provide the support that your partner needs. For instance, though Nancy’s father-in-law constantly criticized her husband Sal, he was nothing but nice to Nancy. So, when her father-in-law came for visits, she purposely engaged him, pulling his attention away from Sal. This was helpful because Sal appreciated her efforts. If, however, he saw it as Nancy siding with his father, Nancy would have needed to find a different way to help.

It’s essential that you confirm with your spouse that your actions (or planned actions) leave them feeling supported. In addition to looking to your spouse for what they want from you, consider these tips for coping with your painfully difficult in-laws:

Observe and empathize: It’s not enough to just listen to your spouse to tell you about their parents and how upset they are with their relationship – you need to express your empathy and compassion. So, be sure to let them know that you really get what they are going through. If you don’t get it, then be sure to ask enough questions to help you understand.

Gain and offer perspective: Seeing your in-laws’ side of things can be helpful. However, share this with your spouse only after you are sure that they know you fully support them. Your discussions will likely, at some point, lead to your spouse trying to make sense of their situation and/or asking for input for how to deal with their parents. Then you can share your insights and suggestions.

Invest in your loving relationship: By nurturing your marriage with caring about each other and having fun together, your in-laws will take up less of the space in your marriage and in your spouse’s experience. You might also limit time with your in-laws or limit which activities you do with them. For instance, you might always arrange to have meals together in restaurants (rather than in your or their home) so that you can more easily keep the time shorter or reduce the risk of outbursts.

Be respectful: Even if you and your spouse don’t approve of your in-laws’ behavior or lifestyle, it’s always good to be respectful. To the best that you can, accept that they can have their own opinions. This does not mean that either of you has to accept disrespect from them. If you feel disrespected, you (or your spouse) can always ask for them to stop what they are doing or you can end your visit.

Be a team: No matter what happens, keep in mind that the strength of your marital bond is most important when coping with your in-laws. Be sure to support each other, expressing and listening carefully to each other’s thoughts and feelings. Present a united front to your in-laws, working together in expressing your decisions, expectations, and boundaries.

While your in-laws are important, your marital relationship is more important. At the end of the day, you have committed yourselves to each other. Even with the difficulties stirred up by your in-laws bring, your marriage and life together can be a happy one if you and your spouse steadfastly support each other.


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