June 20, 2024
Chicago 12, Melborne City, USA

How to navigate your in-law relationships



It’s an annoyingly persistent stereotype which suggests that everyone hates their in-laws. The holiday period in particular may bring these tensions up, and winter in general isn’t the best time for many people’s mental health. Add an argument about whether saying “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas” is better, and a fair amount of alcohol, and it’s not surprising that resentment boils over. 

Mothers and daughters

The worst kind of in-law relationships, apparently, are between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Supposedly, this can be traced to cultures where new wives move in with their husbands’ families and feel alone, away from their own families, trying to negotiate married life and different expectations from their new in-laws. As someone who likes things done in a particular way, I see why mothers-in-law might be annoyed by someone trying to make changes, but it’s easy to have sympathy for the daughters-in-law too. Traditional gender roles involving housework and child-rearing are common points of contention, as both women think they know best and would like the other to leave them alone. 


Taking alone time

Perhaps it’s a good idea to just give each other some space. Have separate households, and join because you would like to spend time with one another, not because you’re trapped together. Anyone who’s lived in a shared flat/apartment will agree. Experts seem to think there’s some merit to this idea, and believe that spending less time together reduces the chance of arguments. Presumably, this only works to a limit: if you go completely no-contact with your in-laws, parents may be resentful because you’ve “stolen” their baby. Who presumably is an adult and fully able to make their own decisions, but I digress. 

Reduce the likelihood of an argument

So what to do? Personally, I struggle to get along with my brother-in-law, so I’ve planned a few activities to give us space from each other. I’m adding some CBD supplements to keep calm, and I’ve spoken to my partner about support. We’ll see how it all works. If you can see some obvious points of tension that are likely to start arguments, like politics, try to avoid those topics. If you think there might be a disagreement over a perceived (or real) slight from a previous gathering, perhaps it would be best to calmly clear the air ahead of time and communicate openly so it doesn’t come up when everyone’s had too much mulled wine. Go for a walk every day – it boosts endorphins, and either gives you some alone time or allows you to bond with a family member. If you have a particularly difficult relationship, speak to a therapist about whether it’s even worth spending time with family. If you really, really can’t spend time with your in-laws because (for example) they’re racist, homophobic or abusive, have a conversation with your spouse or partner so you can figure out what to do. 


Draw boundaries

Remember, too, that it’s about quality over quantity. Don’t feel that you need to spend two weeks with people you don’t get along with: it’s much better to have one nice afternoon than drag things out. If that period goes well, maybe next time you can spend longer together. Draw boundaries and notice when they’re respected. While you’re with your in-laws, remember a mutual interest. If you’re all dog people, talk about dogs. If you support the same sports team, grumble about their latest loss. If there’s nothing else to go on, remember that this is your partner’s family and ask for cute, harmless stories from their childhood. You all love the same person, and it’s best for them if everyone can get on. 


 Families are complicated. You might be part of a married couple with a nuclear family, or you might have to co-parent through a separation, and you’ll all have your challenges. You don’t have to love your in-laws all of the time, but it’s much more pleasant to work out your issues and then build a bond built on kindness, instead of papering on a smile and becoming passive-aggressive. Whatever you decide to do, I hope you have an enjoyable and restful holiday season and don’t end up throwing brussel sprouts at your father-in-law because he wanted to watch the king’s speech. 

Rachel Hall, M.A., completed her education in English at the University of Pennsylvania and received her master’s degree in family therapy from Northern Washington University. She has been actively involved in the treatment of anxiety disorders, depression, OCD, and coping with life changes and traumatic events for both families and individual clients for over a decade. Her areas of expertise include narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and therapy for traumatic cases. In addition, Rachel conducts workshops focusing on the psychology of positive thinking and coping skills for both parents and teens. She has also authored numerous articles on the topics of mental health, stress, family dynamics and parenting.

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