Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Setting Boundaries With In-laws

Print
You're mother-in-law has different ideas about how to raise children.  Both your family and his family want you over for Christmas.  Your husband tells his mother everything.  And that's just a start!  Arguments about how to handle situations with in-laws is common among most couples.  It can be a struggle to balance your loyalties between spouse and family of origin, and sometimes it can lead to family feuds.  I'll share some guidelines to help you set healthy boundaries with your in-laws, but first, you may want to make sure you're caught up on what I mean by "boundaries".  Read my posts on boundaries here and here.

The big family-style dinner
Photo courtesy of Flickr
First of all, ideally your relationship with your spouse is closer than either of your relationships are with your own parents or siblings.  Marriage is a life-long commitment to your spouse, and your spouse only.  If you want your marriage to last, you have to make a commitment that nothing (including in-laws) will come between you.  This is not meant to discount the honor, respect, and loyalty you may have for your family.  It simply means that marriage is an intimate bond that has to come first.  Period.

Once you are able to make the commitment to your spouse that the marriage boundaries will be closer than all other boundaries, it's time to come together and establish boundaries with the in-laws that you both agree on.  This is sometimes the hardest part.  Think of each person in a marriage coming from a different country; each person with have his or her own language, customs, traditions, and beliefs.  It's up to the couple to create a new "country", and part of this new country will be a set of rules that govern boundaries with in-laws.  Just like most governments, these rules (boundaries) will be reviewed and updated as circumstances require.

Communicate your boundaries clearly to your in-laws after you have determined what they will be with your spouse.  Because different families have different forms of communication, you will need be as clear as possible.  Making side comments or jokes about what you want in your relationship with your in-laws is usually confusing (unless that's the language of that particular family).  Acting on your boundaries without explanation can also be confusing.  Your intentions might be misunderstood.  For example, continually opting out of family activities with various excuses may come across differently than simply saying, "My husband and I prefer to spend one-on-one time with the kids."  Consider using an "I" statement: "I need ____________ when _____________ because I think/feel ______________."

Along with communicating clearly, it's important to avoid triangulation.  Triangulation is therapy-talk for having someone else be the go-between.  Think back to elementary school when you were too embarrassed to talk to you crush directly, so you had a friend deliver messages like, "Do you like me?" and "I don't want to be your girlfriend anymore."  Now that we're adults, it's important to talk directly to the person that we are trying to establish boundaries with.  This can be a tall order in certain relationships, but trust me, it's worth it in the end.  For example, if you and your spouse have decided that you don't want your mother-in-law stopping by unannounced (because you want to have time to throw the kids' toys behind closed doors and turn on your Scentsy), don't have your sister-in-law be the one to tell her.  That puts your sister-in-law in a bad spot (even if she is willing an able), it opens the doors for miscommunication, and robs you of the opportunity to work on your relationship with your mother-in-law directly.  If you can't speak up for yourself on small boundary issues, how will you be able to address major issues in the future?  It is also fine if your husband wants to communicate the boundary to his mother as long as he is representing the team.  If he says, for example, "The wifey doesn't want you coming over unless you call first," he's not communicating that this is a team decision.  He would ideally say, "We would prefer some notice if you are coming over for a visit."  Emphasis on the "we".

With all of that said, here's a list of boundary issues with in-laws that you may want to consider discussing with your spouse.  You may have already discussed these, but chances are that you will be discussing them again as your family relationships change and develop.  If you're in a dating relationship, these are great things to discuss BEFORE marriage.  Have I mentioned yet that I'm a fan of premarital counseling?

  • Family time:  How much of your time will be spent with your extended family, his extended family, and your own little family that you have together?
  • Finances: How much are you going to let your in-laws help you out financially?  Remember that if your in-laws are helping you financially, you will have some obligations to them.  They may have more leverage to dictate decisions that would otherwise be only up to you and your spouse.  Which leads me to...
  • Major life decisions:  How will you incorporate the opinions and preferences of your in-laws?  Working together as a team is a great way to establish some independence.
  • Marital conflict:  Is it ever ok for your spouse to share with his parents the conflicts you two are having?  If the emotional boundary with a parent is so close that the parent knows everything that's going on in that marriage (and naturally tends to give a lot of advice), this could lead to further conflict and unhappiness in the marriage.  Remember that you want the marital boundary to be the closest.  If the couple decides that they need some help and advice, it might be wisest to go together to get counsel from a parent. 
  • Holidays:  Which traditions will you participate in with the in-laws?  How do you split the time between your family and his family?
  • Babysitting:  How often do you want your in-laws to babysit your children?
As I've said before, every boundary will look different in every family.  What is healthy for one marriage may not be healthy in the next.  You have to decide what kinds of boundaries work best for you.  

How have you managed your boundaries with in-laws?  What issues would you add to my list?

18 comments:

  1. This has been such an issue for my sister-in-law and her husband. They are not smart with money and he has been out of work for over a month. At first, they were very secretive about it and wouldn't tell her parents. But now, my husband's parents have been paying off a lot of their bills, paying their rent, and feeding them. They live just around the corner from his parents, too, which makes it even worse. It's really hard to separate yourself from the in-laws when you depend on them for your financial support. In your opinion, what is the best way to deal with this scenario? Is it better for them to move in with her parents since they basically live off of them already? I think her parents should just cut off all financial support and let them learn the hard way.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is an on-going discussion at our house. We don't necessarily have anything to add to the discussion about "what works" but I absolutely agree that this is important! It is a work in progress over here.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Fiona, it's hard to make a call on someone's situation when you haven't heard both sides of the story. It's possible that your sis-in-law and her parents may enjoy having close boundaries, and they may not mind the financial dependence. It's different for everyone, and it certainly depends on how much money parents have to share. The one thing I would recommend is being able to have a frank conversation about financial boundaries that includes expectations from both parties.

    It sounds like you have identified that you like stricter boundaries when it comes to financial issues. I'm glad you are able to identify that for yourself!

    Josh & Angela, I'm glad that the issue is an on-going discussion! That's the best way to get the boundaries where you want them to be! Good point: Every relationship is a "work in progress"!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I find boundaries are harder with my mom than my in-laws. My mom is a widow, so my in-laws have each other for holidays/vacations when we're not with them whereas my mom is alone. That's hard to deal with since she wants my brother and I to visit her together on the same holidays. My mom also rarely states what she wants openly (more the passive aggressive type thing), whereas my in-laws do--what a breath of fresh air! SO much simpler to deal with parents who just tell you what they're thinking/wanting. My mom also isn't really a self-sufficient babysitter, whereas my in-laws are, again this complicates her trips to see the grandkids. Timely post--both my in-laws AND my mother arrive tomorrow. :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. JJ - I'm curious how you manage that. We are in a similar situation with my father-in-law, who - from the start - has not only had trouble understanding boundaries but routinely completely ignores our wishes - showing up unannounced even when we've asked him repeatedly to call, letting himself into our home when we're away even when we've asked him not to, and even inviting his own friends over for dinner at our house when babysitting....and we find out about it when we walk in and there's a gang of people here. Now that my mother in law has passed, it has become exponentially worse (hard to believe, eh?) and, to top it off, it's made it much, much harder for my husband and I to come to an agreement on enforcing boundaries or talking to him about it because my husband empathizes so much with his father that, even if I take the bull by the horns and say something, it will - inevitably - end in a HUGE fight. Short of a "him or me" thing, I'm at a loss. Curious how you handle it with your mom....and how your husband does.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jen, I know you're interested in JJ's advice, but I'll throw my hat in the ring, too. :) As I stated before, the first step is finding common ground with your husband. It may be a HUGE fight, but the conversation has to start somewhere. Perhaps you can write down a few ideas about boundaries with your father-in-law and suggest to your husband to write down a few of his own ideas. Choose a good time and place to have a productive discussion about setting boundaries. If you both know you are going to discuss a particular issue, you can each prepare yourself menatally and emotionally so that you can be at your most agreeable. Once you're decided on the boundaries you want with your father-in-law, it might be best to have your husband talk to him about the boundaries because he has a closer relationship and may be able to talk to him more easily. I hope that helps!

      Delete
  6. I'm having some of the same issues but it involves a future sister-in-law that does not have any boundaries. She constantly calls/texts my fiancee thoughout the day (including while at work and while we sleep) to find out what he's doing, where he is, or sometimes nothing at all. She has moved twice to be closer to him (each time around 15-20 mins away). And often suggests that he does weekend sleepovers to hang out (they are both in their late 20s). The thing is: she has a family of her own and often calls/texts during movies/family time with her own family. All in all, she still finds the time to be a constant presence in our relationship and doesn't see anything wrong with the overbearing/inappropriate behavior. I am honestly beyond annoyed but I have no idea how to bring up the conversation of creating boundaries with her to my fiancee without him being offended. Any advice on the best way to approach this situation?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your question. That sounds like a difficult situation! Is your future sister-in-law your husband's sister? Am I getting that correct? As I have stated before, it's absolutely crucial to talk to your fiance about this boundary issue first. You both need to get on the same page about how you want to set boundaries in your relationship with your sister-in-law. I understand that you don't want to offend him, but harboring this resentment could lead to a big fight with him and/or your sister-in-law in the future. And that will probably be MORE offensive!

      I suggest writing down your feelings about this troublesome relationship. Try to figure out what your main concern is (is it time with your fiance, jealousy, etc.?). Then figure out a few solutions that you could live with. After you've done your own thinking, approach your fiance. Maybe set aside a specific time when distractions will be minimal. Present your thoughts and feelings on the issue, along with some ideas for soluations. Be open-minded and respectful of your fiance's response. This will be a good test to see how you both are able to work out difficult issues. Trust me, you will have many other things to discuss as a couple in the future! Praciticing the skill of working together to develop solutions is very valuable!

      After you and your fiance are on the same page, one or both of you will need to communicate your desire for different boundaries to your sister-in-law. Good luck! Let me know how it goes!

      Delete
    2. Thank you so much Amy! I'll keep you posted.

      Delete
  7. I don't know where to begin. This is our 2cd marriage, my kids are grown and live in another state. He had custody of 2 middle aged kids. My mother is no longer living and my dad lives in another state. I move to his state after dating for 1 1/2 years, all of his family live here in the same town. His parents are divorced, dad is remarried, mom is not. Before we married I talked to him about me helping raise his kids and what I expected out of a marriage and family values. How I wanted him to be head of house, all the way to his kids doing choirs and helping us. He never said a word (which should have been my sign) other then he agreed. We now have been married for 1 year. In the year has obviously been many problems. His mother actually raises the kids with no discipline, no chores. They all lived together before I moved here. His mother comes over everyday while we are at work after they get off the bus to "help" them do their homework (they are old enough to stay home alone for 1 1/2 hours by themselves and I work less then a mile from home). So Monday Thru Friday she is there. The Mother of the children gets them every other weekend (no problems with her). On the weekends that we have the kids the mom in law is over or the kids will spend the night with her. I am never informed of what is going on, if I discipline them she goes behind my back. I have found out that she also has done their chores for them. My husband and I bought a house that needs work, I have asked him time and time not to tell his mom what colors we choose or what we are doing to the house (she never likes my choices and tells the kids). With all that he tells her everything, including what we paid for things. He sees her everyday, they talk 2 and 3 times a day and text and he sends pics of the house as complete. I have numerous times tried talking to my husband, he blows up tells me I am ridicuouls. I have printed articles, bible verses, wrote letters. He just agrees and nothing is ever changed. When people say sit down and talk that is out of the question. I have told him that my baggage I have brought into this marriage is very minimum, no kids no parents. I am here to help him and I wanted a family but I am the out sider looking in.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds like such a difficult situation! Thanks for sharing. You are definitely coming into a family system that has been functioning for a long time, and changes are difficult. You can do your best to present your ideas for change, but it does require the others in the family to make changes as well. You will need to decide if you can make it work in this family system even if you can't always have the boundaries you want (not matter how right they seem to you). There are many right ways for families to work together. Have you ever tried talking directly to your mother-in-law? Good luck with this situation. Please keep me posted!

      Delete
    2. Respect sounds like a good place to start. It sounds like you have turned your life inside out for this family and they will continue to expect you to do so. When someone doesn't value us, they don't value our feelings, thoughts or opinions and it seems the relationship would not have progressed had you not given up your hometown to be with him. There seems to be no flexibility and no appreciation for what you do, do. The lower our boundaries, the more we risk getting hurt if the person doesn't value us. That is why it is so important to go into a relationship very clear of what your priorities are and what is required for you to be happy. I have gone into relationships with very low boundaries, but this time I am being very upfront about what is important to me and I don't extend myself passed half way in this dating phase. It really helps sorts out whether the relationship has merit. Also, I think instinctually, we value what we have to work harder for and we don't work for what we don't value. I can't see any room for anything to change without you being the bad guy. It may come down to you choosing to nurture your self respect in whatever way is important to you. Once you start looking after you, without apology, anger or closing off your heart to your hubby or your inlaws, possibly they might slowly see you differently - but expect a fight for you to be your own woman. It is very convenient for them to have you just as you are and just as you were when you "came into the family". Marriage counselling might help you and your hubby to create boundaries around your own intensely intimate, private sanctuary, and invite your inlaws in to your world only when you are both ready and have agreed. I'm here because my partner's parents are ultra conservative Christians. They accept me because I make their son so happy but they do judge me harshly and look down on me for being different to them. My partner and I do have our own private sphere and it is agreed that his parents are never to be given access to our intimate connection. That said, he does have a very loving and joyful relationship with his parents and I support that. They have daily contact and it works well. It's just I don't appreciate being judged, for being true to myself, although I am accepted, by his parents as a really good partner for their son.

      Delete
  8. I am having a lot of trouble with my partners family. They are always lovely to me but it feels fake like they are trying to drive me nuts they want to be involved in every part of our lives and it keeps getting worse. They gave us some money for the deposit for our home and I now feel like I owe them. They expect us to let them look after our son once I start back at work even though my partner and I have decided to put him in child care. They always buy things for my son and never listen when I say no thank you we want to stand on our own feet. My partner tells them everything we do and they come over at least three times a week, call him all day long and we all have to go for dinner once a week. They followed us on our holiday we had planned for months and they decided they would go there too and did all the same things we did! I told a friend we were planning to move to another town within two years, she told my MIL and now my MIL has now started to tell people that they are moving there too though she has not spoken to us about it! It is really making me angry and I don't think our relationship can survive his family I have tried at least three times toget her to back off but she never does.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wow this blog and the posts really helped me to identify a few root issues in my marriage that need to change. My sister-in-law lives with my husband and I and has been in the picture since we started dating. It's been a few years now, we have a child and she still lives with us and or otherwise maintains a close proximity (a few miles). She contributes financially to the household income and has been most helpful when things got tight budget wise. However she has meddled in our personal finances and it did result in a huge loss of money. My husband and I have been struggling a great deal and divorce is a topic that is brought up almost every time we have an issue, and if the sister is upset its overwhelming for my husband and he shuts down. I feel like I can't voice my concerns without overwhelming him. He is always concerned for her mental and emotional well being and making sure he attends her personal interests to support her. Usually this comes at a price, quality time with me, or me and the baby exhausted with no energy left for our marriage. Often times my husband chooses to rely on his sister for support because she has always been there for him which I understand but it doesn't give me a chance to be his rock. I thought I just needed to jump on board and support his efforts with his sister and try and bond with her, which is what he wanted, so I did but she is also best friends with my husbands ex-girlfriend and likes to bring her to family events which threw me for a loop. I'm afraid to put my foot down and become their mutual enemy. He is very loving father and works very hard but I feel like I have to fight for some personal respect... did I mention their mother is now ill? I think this could be a great opportunity for me to prove I can be there for him, but he would rather rely predominantly on his sister. *airing my dirty laundry*

    ReplyDelete
  10. Good day, i would love to share a wonderful testimony. I was happily married for about Four years before me and my husband started having problems haven tried everything i knew i thought all hope were lost and i cried for a long time before i was introduced to a prophet called Dibia Yesufu by a friend of mine that he had helped previously. This prophet helped me put everything back in order by his special prayers and today we are still happily married so i want to use this media to challenge anyone of you who is passing through difficulties to contact this man, we were created to have the best of life not to cry every night and day i know how it hurts because have been there so if you know you are passing through any challenge contact him on his email prophetdibiayesufu@outlook.com. this is the best Prophet that has ever lived am so sure of that because he has also helped some of my friends through me.Again his email is prophetdibiayesufu@outlook.com or his phone +2348170742631.

    ReplyDelete
  11. My husband and I recently had a little boy and everything seemed to be going well...until I found out that his aunt disrespected my wishes and showed up to the hospital while I was still under sedation from an emergency c-section. My husband was with me and my immediate family in recovery while his family apparently took pictures and passed around my little one. His aunt and family lied for weeks stating she never saw him and she wanted to com over, despite our decision to only allow immediate family and my best friend to come over for the first few weeks. When I found out and told my husband, he asked her and a family issue started to form. Now I have heard they talk about us not allowing them to see our son and how we do not allow his picture on facebook. And they are already giving us grief about the upcoming holidays, as we use to go to three different houses every holiday to accommodate their schedule. My husband finally said something to his mother and she still doesn't respect or decisions. Help!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Wow!!!! what an experience! dr.marnish is a wonderful spell caster, he has made my life complete again by helping me cast a spell to return my girlfriend and also make her to be faithful to me again. I was skeptical at first, but what a believer I am now, his spell really worked! my lover is now faithful to me, if you are also seeking for help to get your lover back? Call +15036626930 or email dr.marnish@yahoo.com

    ReplyDelete
  13. I savor, lead to I discovered exactly what I used to be having a look for.
    You've ended my four day long hunt! God Bless
    you man. Have a nice day. Bye

    Also visit my blog post :: seo companies in PHoenix

    ReplyDelete

 
Design by Designer Blogs