As the saying goes, when you marry someone you marry their family. Even if you aren’t married, chances are you’ll have to navigate your partner’s family — for better or worse.
When you meet your partner’s parents for the first time, your priority is to impress them and hopefully get along. But while you may be more accommodating at the beginning, your relationship with your in-laws is likely to change over time.
Relationships with in-laws can be complicated, but they’re equally important. Research by Dr. Terri Orbuch shows that how well you get on with your in-laws can impact your relationship with your partner.
While becoming part of each other’s family can be a wonderful aspect of long-term relationships, you might find yourself with overbearing or meddling in-laws, especially if you get married or have a baby.
Setting boundaries with your partner’s parents and wider family is an important step in having a healthy relationship with them. Just like you should set healthy relationship boundaries with your partner, the same can be said for your in-laws.
“Boundaries may be needed when advice turns into guidance,” says Dr. Jacqui Gabb, professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University and Chief Relationships Officer at Paired.
“In-laws may offer advice whether solicited or not, and this can be okay. But if advice, however well-intentioned, turns into interference in the relationship then boundaries will be required to manage the situation.”
“One common scenario to look out for is when in-laws try to help with parenting your children,” adds Erin Rayburn, a couples therapist and founder of Evergreen Therapy.
“Another is when they try to tell you how to run your household,” she says. “The biggest one I hear about and help with often is when the in-laws want you to attend holidays with them, but forget you have your own family to attend to. Lastly, sometimes in-laws may try to tell you how to love your partner or want to weigh in on how you're loving your partner, which can be awkward and tricky to navigate.”
Rayburn says some examples of healthy boundaries to set with in-laws can include:
limiting how much time you spend with them if necessary
managing expectations around traditions during the holidays
not talking about certain topics, such as relationship issues
being clear on what is appropriate to open up about with your in-laws.
Your partner’s family will most likely be part of your life, so setting boundaries with your in-laws is important to have a healthy relationship with them — but it requires some discretion.
Below are 10 tips on how to set boundaries with your in-laws.
Before you have the “boundaries” talk, reflect on exactly what you want the outcome to be. Ask yourself how these boundaries will improve your relationship with your in-laws as well as your partner.
If you have kids, consider how these boundaries will affect your child’s relationship with their grandparents, too.
Boundaries help you assess what is and isn’t negotiable for you, but for everything else, you’ll have to learn to compromise.
Every family has different values and needs so a healthy relationship with in-laws requires some give and take.
The earlier you set boundaries, the better. Ignoring a problem rarely makes it go away, in fact, it will make issues harder to address in the future.
You can — and should — still establish boundaries even when your in-laws have been part of your life for a long time already.
Stereotypes have primed us to expect nightmare in-laws. While that might be a real scenario for some couples, go into the relationship assuming you will get along.
This doesn’t mean that you accept any abuse or unwelcome interference from your in-laws, but rather that they probably have the best intentions.
You must communicate your feelings to your partner or spouse because you’ll have a tough time enforcing boundaries if you and your partner don’t see eye to eye.
“Remember that while a partner may find their own parents annoying, for someone to criticize them can make them feel conflicted about where their loyalties lie,” explains Dr. Gabb.
“Appreciate that this may be difficult for them to hear and respond to. It is often best for them to talk with their parents rather than a partner-in-law to broker a conversation. Focus on why things feel difficult, be empathic, and offer solutions.”
Boundaries are a need, not a want. “Listen to their opinions and be respectful, but make it clear that this is your relationship,” says Dr. Gabb. Your in-laws might take it personally, but that shouldn’t stop you from enforcing your boundaries.
Rayburn agrees. “Do be respectful with your in-laws, but also be respectful to yourself and the boundaries you've set to maintain your mental health and the health of the relationship,” she says.
“Family is important, but sometimes they can still push our buttons. Don't over-talk issues you and your in-laws don't align with, and don't feel like you have to over-explain yourself about your boundaries or differences.”
It might be tempting to take your frustrations out on your partner, but remember that your partner isn’t to blame for your in-laws' actions. We don’t get to choose who our parents are, after all. “It’s hard because we ‘know’ our own families well — quirks and all,” says Dr. Gabb. “It may be that we don’t see their idiosyncrasies as problems or we’re simply better at ignoring them.”
Boundaries are about preserving your safety and mental health, they’re not about icing anyone out.
Carve out some time to see your in-laws regularly — as frequently or infrequently as that may be. Something as simple as a monthly Sunday lunch or yearly holiday together will keep your relationship on track without them growing resentful that they never get to see you. And if you have children, this ensures they’ll have enough time with their grandparents.
Setting boundaries is never a one-and-done deal, so expect to have an ongoing conversation with your in-laws about boundaries. You might also find that your boundaries will change as you go through life.
Careers, health, children, and your in-laws’ lives will all affect your relationship, and therefore your boundaries with them. You may have to revise what you will and won’t negotiate.
There is no rule book on how to navigate a relationship with in-laws, nor is there one for how to be a good mother or father-in-law. If you’re newly married or have just had your first child, you’ll each have a learning curve around your new roles and responsibilities within the family. And if your in-laws are used to doing things a certain way, they may take a while to adjust or be resistant to change.
“If you plan to have a long-term relationship, play the long game,” says Rayburn. “Try to make incremental changes and be gracious to your partner's family. It's important to remember that regardless of how you feel, they are your loved one's family and you need to keep that in mind for the good of your relationship with your partner.”
Setting boundaries with in-laws might feel like an uphill battle at times, but if you take small incremental steps and focus on open communication you’ll maintain a healthy and happy relationship with them.