You know you're on the same team, but sometimes ...
It can range from instructions regarding housekeeping, cooking and care of the in-law’s “child,” to efforts to completely control your time and whereabouts during vacations, holidays and major family events.
When this occurs, it can cause huge distress in a marriage. The spouse whose family is the source of trouble has lived with the situation so long that it often seems normal to them. It may also be extremely difficult for them to set boundaries with their family and hold fast to any real change. The other spouse is often prone to feel their partner is siding with their own family against them.
Here are 10 principles to help those of you who are navigating this tough territory.
1. Be prepared so you aren't surprised.
If this happens to you, don’t be overly shocked. Your first reaction may be that your in-laws are being selfish and even unkind or mean. The truth is they may just be doing what they have always done and feel they have a right to having their requests fulfilled. It is not uncommon, and it isn't a personal statement against you.
2. Sort out your feelings and reactions.
Take a little time to sort out your feelings regarding what you are experiencing. Seek some additional input from someone you believe can be objective. Do your best to determine if your feelings are correct and fair, or if you may be guilty of the same thing you feel his family is doing — wanting things to be done they way you are used to YOUR family doing them.
3. Stand your ground — kindly.
When you know that your boundaries are being crashed, be firm but kind in your response. Let the in-laws know you respect their opinions, but you have your own methods of dealing with your household, and those methods work very well for you. If someone else is suggesting how you should plan your schedule and time, let them know you will take it under advisement and discuss it with your spouse before you make your final plans.
4. Don’t be surprised if your spouse doesn't get it.
Even though it is clear to you that certain members of his family are controlling, and at times may even team up to put you in your place, he may not see it at all. If they are coming on strong to you and offending you, they may be careful to not let him see it, so he is not certain it is as bad as you say. He may be so accustomed to their behavior that it seems pretty normal to him. He may even ignore most of it and wonder why you can’t do the same.
5. Don’t be surprised your spouse seems powerless to address it.
There will come a point in time when your spouse turns a corner and finally begins to see what you have been talking about for so long. It comes as a great relief to know that he believes you and doesn't think you are making all of it up, or making more of it than you really should. Even though he now is clearly aware of what is going on, he may still be powerless to do anything about it. He has lived with this for so long that his efforts to counter it will likely be ignored or passed off as not really his idea — but yours.
6. Both of you should work on how to set boundaries.
Now that you are on the same page, you can both begin to determine the boundaries that you want to set with your families. You will want to discuss strategy about how to best communicate the new rules you plan to operate by to the family.
7. Don’t be surprised if addressing it directly and clearly changes nothing.
Once you begin the process of addressing the pertinent issues with the family, it should not come as a big shock when your boundaries are ignored and things continue as if you had said nothing. At this point, it is necessary to team up and follow through with your plans even if they don’t fit those of the rest of the family.
8. Be prepared for the unexpected.
The main ring leader of the family did not miss what you said even though it may have been ignored. Once you begin to show that you are going to stand your ground and not acquiesce to the demands being made, other members of the family may contact you to try to talk you into doing what the family wants. Be prepared for this to happen and for it to possibly come from an unexpected source. Thank the family member for being concerned and reiterate your boundaries and ask that they relate this to the family for you.
9. Plan major holidays and events before others plan for you.
Take charge of your lives and begin to plan the holidays so that it meets your needs. Plan early, announce your plans early and be prepared for some push back. If reasonable adjustments seem to be okay to both of you, make some adjustments in the plan — but don’t feel forced into someone else’s plan if it doesn’t work for you. Families learn to adjust as time passes and things change.
10. Stand your ground so you have the life both of you want.
Stand together and stand firm in what helps you to have the life you both signed on for. If you are one of the first in the family to introduce change, it can be very hard. As others come along, they will thank you for breaking through the barriers — and it will become easier as they too establish their own patterns of living.
Dr. David McFadden is a couple’s counselor at Village Counseling Center. Receive your free copy of the Better Life Magazine filled with articles with topics from taking good care of yourself, resolving conflicts in your relationship and discovering how to have success in your life.