Caught In The Middle | Successfully Managing Life With Your Partner's Family
After a particularly difficult two weeks, and in feeling desperate with my current situation, after going over and over it until my head was spinning and finding I was only making things worse, I turned to Google for some advice, a bit of validation and as a way to release pent up feelings about sharing space with an in-law.
Upon Googling “Help! I (insert personal issue with in-law here),” I immediately came across a flood of personal forums in which people expressed their frustration and struggle with the very same thing that I was dealing with. Wait. Other people find plastic utensils and dirty dishes left in the in the sink for days on end completely maddening? So, I’m not the only one who can’t stand the fact that the TV is always on and at a deafening volume of 28!? Literally almost every post I read, I found myself feeling a little more relieved-and a little more normal. Yes! YES! YESSS! Me too! So what can you (and I) do about it?
Managing your relationship between you and your partner’s family can be tricky, frustrating and sometimes seemingly impossible. And it doesn’t matter how much you love them or how well you get along, either. Navigating the ins and outs of interactions with your in-laws (or soon to be so) can often leave you feeling like you’re caught in the middle, selfish and helpless.
Whether you are simply spending time with them, sharing holidays, staying for a long weekend or even living with them, it can be incredibly challenging when you have to share space with your in-laws. Things can get difficult and pretty messy even when you have a genuine love for your partner’s family (and managing those interactions and relationships can feel impossible if you don’t see eye to eye or simply don’t like them). No matter how you feel about them, when dealing with issues related to in-laws, you find yourself feeling like you have to be careful with everything you say and do or you find ways to express your frustrations in a passive aggressive manner or you feel like a nag or feel selfish, or disregard your own needs, or put your partner in a difficult position.
While you can’t change your partner’s family, their personalities or beliefs or even the circumstances of your situation, there are some important things to keep in mind that will help keep you sane, protect the relationship you have with your partner and elicit respect and understanding from your partner’s family.
Set and Enforce Boundaries and Rules
Make sure that important boundaries and rules related to privacy, roles, care of the environment, timeframe and time limits or parenting (if applicable) are established and enforced. For example, if you in-law tends to have drop-in company or unannounced/unwanted visits from friends or significant others or he or she tends to make a mess without cleaning up or contributing to the overall home environment, make sure to be clear about expectations, tell them exactly what isn’t working and be ready to address/enforce those boundaries or rules whenever need be.
Make sure that you are giving yourself enough space. Space between you and your in law as well as space between you, your partner and your in-law. Take time for yourself and find ways to take care of yourself. Spend at least one evening (or afternoon) a week doing something with friends or family or doing something to take care of your mind/body (get a massage, go to yoga, go to a movie, take a walk or a drive, spend time at the beach, the park, the library or a café, etc.). Self-care and space is essential in managing stress and creating balance, especially when you need to put your best foot forward to successfully manage familial (and any other) challenges.
Self-talk is a powerful tool in managing stressful situations. Saying things like “I can’t stand him/her!” or “don’t they know how annoying that is?!” in your head is not going to fix the problem or make you less upset. In those moments when you feel frustrated or overwhelmed with your situation, tuning out and engaging in positive self-talk (“I can handle this, take deep breaths, it’s only a few more days” or “It’s not a big deal, just walk away and take some space”) can calm your nerves and help you manage the situation without doing or saying something you’ll regret later.
Talking directly with your in-law about issues or the things that bother you is an effective way to solve problems-especially when done as soon as possible and as issues arise (to avoid an accumulation of negative feelings). If you want your in-law to stop doing something or to do more of something, make sure you tell your in-law instead of asking your partner to be the messenger. Communicating through your partner is often ineffective and can be quite unfair. You may want to consult with your partner before doing so, however, in order to ensure that you are communicating in the right way, are choosing what you would like to address wisely (and aren’t being too nitpicky) and are not treading on unspoken or sensitive grounds.
Work with Your Partner
Your partner has valuable insight about how his or her family functions as well as what approach might be most effective. Talk to your partner about concerns in a calm, non-blaming and unbiased way and ask your partner to support you in developing skills to deal with his or her family. Have your partner help you identify important boundaries, support you in getting the space you need and give you the appropriate language to use with certain family members when addressing issues.
Separate Your Own Relationship from Issues with In-Laws
Make sure you are dealing with your feelings related to your in-laws independently of your partner. Taking feelings, related to your in-laws, out on your partner can have devastating consequences. It is certainly difficult to separate those feelings, but making a conscious effort to be mindful of where feelings are coming from before reacting can save your relationship with your partner. If you are upset or frustrated with your in-law, make sure you are not treating your partner poorly as a result. Being mad at your partner for something that your in-law did or said is unfair and can be confusing to your partner and cause relationship troubles that never actually existed.
Respect your Partner’s Attachments/How your Partner Relates to Their Family-No Insulting, Bad-Mouthing or Criticizing
Even if you don’t agree with the way that your partner relates to his or her family, or think attachment styles within the family are unhealthy, certain topics and comments should be off limits. Saying things like “no wonder why your mother works all the time! She cant stand being around your father either!” or “If your mother knew how to back off, your sister wouldn’t be so lazy!” is a definite no-no. It’s called destructive criticism and it is exactly that-Destructive.
Think about whether your opinion and the way in which you express that opinion will be helpful to the situation or whether it will be hurtful to your partner and potentially cause them to get on the defensive. If you truly believe that sharing your opinion is essential to the health of your partner and your relationship, make sure your comments are gentle, factual and well thought out (thinking of how your partner will receive the information and possible emotions such commentary will elicit).
If and when your partner criticizes and tears into his or her own family member personalities, habits and patterns, just listen carefully, be supportive of and validate your partners feelings. Do not, under any circumstances, join in.