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Dealing with In-law stress

How many times do you hear people getting married being frustrated or upset with their in-laws?

On your wedding day, you marry your partner, but get the in-laws for free.  And herein lies the challenge. Whilst you can do all of the due diligence that you like about the person that you want to spend all of your life with, you can often end up getting more than you bargained for – as your marriage creates new relationships between you and the in laws, as well as changing the relationships that your partner has with their family.

Putting it simply, there are no guarantees that the person you love has family that you will love. Or that they will love you. When you find yourself in this circumstance, what can you do?

Decide what is acceptable for you.
Sometimes the family of the person we fall in love with has completely different behaviours, values and standards to our own. We can be thrust into circumstances that can vary from downright dangerous to simply unpleasant, and everything in between. We can be exposed to violence, aggression, racism, sexism, dangerous or threatening actions simply by being with our partner in their home environment. What they have learned to tolerate over time, may be completely against what we should accept, or simply find unpleasant and not aligned to who we are.

A common response is for people to ‘tolerate’ behaviours and attitudes because they want to impress their partner or fit in. As you are establishing a relationship with your partner’s family, it is critical to get in early and clearly set what is acceptable and what is not. There is NO relationship that is worth exposing yourself to violent, sexual or dangerous activity that you are not comfortable with. If you don’t call it, they cannot know.

Decide how important the in laws are:
If the relationship with your partner’s family is likely to be a ‘deal breaker’ for you, then it is important before the question is popped that you do your due diligence. That means really getting to understand them, their values and their intentions. Too often, we simply interact with our partner’s family in a very superficial way. This is often through limited contact opportunities, but also because everyone is being on their best behaviour – which doesn’t apply once you become part of the ‘family’ and their guards are dropped.

If the relationship is critical, then invest time and effort in really getting to know your partners family. Work to get beyond the niceties and learn about them as people. Find the rough edges and their values, and be prepared to find things that don’t always fit with your own view of the world.

The local footy rule
Sometimes, as we get to know our partner’s families, we find members of our new extended family tree who we just cannot stand, act in really unacceptable ways, or that we get into massive disagreements with. A great rule of thumb when choosing to how you want to spend your time is to follow the local footy rule: if this was someone you met at the local footy ground, would they be someone that you would want to spend time with? If the answer is no, then don’t make your life difficult by forcing yourself into relationships that are unpleasant for you.

In the same vein, your partner may have a different relationship with that person. It is not your job to destroy that relationship, but rather respect that you and your partner can have different positions and relationships with members of each other’s family, and you can have open conversations about what you get out of the interactions, and what you are prepared to do. Sometimes there are family events where you choose to attend for your partner’s benefit where you will come into contact with relatives that you don’t like, it is up to you to make the choice if the investment in your married relationship is worth the pain of spending time with that relative that you don’t see eye to eye with. It is, in the end, your choice.

Defining roles and boundaries
If there are issues in your relationships across the in law divide, then be clear. Set roles and boundaries first with your partner, and where possible have the conversation with the in-laws. Being clear about your limits, whilst respecting the decisions of your partner, is critical to not letting troubled relationships with in laws trouble your marriage.

You need more than tolerance.

If all we do is tolerate those that annoy or upset us, we are bound to keep being subjected to the same circumstances over and over. Take action – speak up, set your boundaries, define what interactions are acceptable (or behaviours that are OK) and be true to who you are. Staying silent and ‘tolerating’ the bad behaviour of others is akin to allowing yourself to be bullied. Tolerance doesn’t work in the long term. What is valuable is the idea of compassion and empathy – start by trying to understand the person and what they are trying to achieve, then have a conversation about what is acceptable and valuable to you, and then take actions in terms of how you want to participate.

Don’t expect them to change!
Although you may not get along with your partner’s family or friends, it is OK for them to. Except where there is significant threat or danger, then be OK with them keeping the relationships, and giving them space to enjoy them. It can be a really cool thing when your partner can go off and enjoy their family, and you are not forced to! Have a conversation about expectations, and where you will and won’t interact with their family and friends.

Expecting them to throw over their family just because you don’t like them is not reasonable. Encouraging them to have these relationships on their own without you is just good for everyone. (This does not apply if you feel they are in danger or under real threat).

Lots of authentic communication:
The key to navigating annoying in laws is authentic communication. Firstly with your partner, so that they can support your position, act as mediator, or simply be aware of why and how you will interact with their family. Because they have long established relationships, they often tolerate or even overlook the behaviours that so impact upon you. Being authentic and clear with your communication can bring these issues into a conversation that can help you and your partner work together on solving the in laws dilemma.

Prepare for interactions.
And those times when you just HAVE to interact with them? They will happen – you attend a Christmas function, a wedding or another relative’s birthday, and that relative is there. By preparing yourself to stay calm, focus on your intent (normally to support your partner), and minimising contact with that person, we can still enjoy the day and get through it regardless of their behaviour. Stick to your principles, don’t accept the unacceptable, and avoid alcohol as it never improves circumstances, only makes them worse.

As you prepare for your big day, prepare to get more than just your partner in the deal. Your web of new relationships can be wonderful, but if not then it should not cause you or your partner distress if you get on the front foot and deal with them thoughtfully.

Phil Owens works with individuals and couples to help effectively deal with stress, anxieties and relationship issues that couples face when they get married.  Contact Phil for more information now.

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