Question: What’s the difference between in-laws and outlaws?

Answer: Outlaws are wanted.

Although this old joke may sound harsh, it’s not entirely inaccurate for some couples. Navigating the in-law dynamic can be challenging at times. You may feel like your in-laws are bossy, critical, or unaccepting of you. They might have an opinion about every little thing and feel compelled to share it with you and your spouse, resulting in you wanting to spend less and less time with them. It’s often the case that the people involved aren’t clear about the boundaries of the relationship – they may misinterpret behaviors, get their feelings hurt, or hurt others’ feelings. On the other hand, you may adore your spouse’s parents, maintain a healthy relationship with them, and enjoy your time together. Either way, the quality of the relationship with your in-laws can directly impact your romantic relationship.

To live a healthy, happy, and fulfilled life, it’s important for us to repair any existing broken relationships. We may have convinced ourselves along the way that we’re not bothered by a particular severed tie, but in reality, it affects us. And if it affects us, it affects our partners, children, and other family members. For example, if you and your in-laws have a strained relationship, your spouse may feel hurt or like you don’t value his/her parents. Holidays, vacations, and family time may become damaged. Children may feel and absorb the negative emotions of the adults around them. This doesn’t equate to you being in an unhealthy marriage with your spouse, by any means; rather, it’s like conflict. Conflict doesn’t necessarily wreck a relationship, but if left unattended, it can have a long-lasting, detrimental impact…

…which is why it’s vital to work on how we handle the challenges associated with our in-laws. First, remember to keep your own relationship separate from your in-laws. You married your spouse, not their parents. Regardless of how difficult or demanding they can be, try focusing on yourself, not them. It’s not productive to think about how your marriage could be better if your mother-in-law would just do XYZ. You can’t control the behaviors of others, but you can control your own. Think about how you could make a positive shift in the relationship with your in-laws instead of reacting how you have in the past. Maybe you could try letting go of the little irritating things they say or not react at all to them in the future. I want to be clear, though, that does NOT mean that you, your spouse, or your children should tolerate any emotional, mental, or physical abuse from your in-laws.

Another component in managing the oft-complex in-law dynamic is communication. If you’re experiencing a tense relationship with your relatives, discuss it with your spouse. Being open to sharing your feelings allows you and your partner to gain a better understanding of the situation and interactions. Things can’t fester when we’re willing to explore our emotional experience, which helps to avoid overreacting, engaging in negative talk, and getting stuck in a rut. After you and your partner have had a chance to communicate, you can come up with a solution together of how to best handle a tricky situation – such as gently explaining your position or feelings with the parent-in-law or adopting a neutral attitude towards them going forward. Chances are, you and your honey will feel closer as a result.

Remember, at the end of the day, your in-laws are human – just like you. They bring their own doubts, opinions, concerns, feelings, needs, and experiences into every relationship they have. Some are obvious, some are hidden, some are uplifting, and some come at us sideways. Keeping in mind that we’re all mere mortals can help bring compassion, understanding, and empathy to a challenging situation.

TAKE-AWAY: Whether your relationship with your in-laws is healthy or not, it’s worth taking some time to consider your role in it. If you’re faced with an in-law issue, think about how you could positively impact that relationship by reacting differently than you have in the past. If you have a great relationship with your in-laws, ponder the aspects about it that you appreciate; if you feel up for it, share it them. The goal for both paths is resolution and peace. When you’re actively working on improving this relationship, it will undoubtedly lead to a closer, more intimate relationship with your spouse.