Dealing with difficult in-laws the grown-up way

Guest post by S M Prescott
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You don’t need to look far for stories and jokes about horrific in-laws. Mother-in-law jokes are so commonplace they’re tiring, not to mention horribly sexist and demeaning. It’s so cliché that I feel guilty admitting to it… but I am having issues getting along with the in-laws.

We didn’t have the wedding that my mother in-law wanted us to have — it was quick, cheap, fun, and fast. In other words everything that we wanted it to be, but not everything that my conservative, traditional mother-in-law was either expecting or desiring.

I took as much of this as I could within my good graces, deflecting her suggestions with as much kindness as I could muster. All of this with the hope that she would settle down after the wedding, and we could then begin to develop a normal adult relationship — one that wasn’t based on attack and defense. Needless to say, this didn’t happen.

This is hardly a unique situation; many people struggle to form cohesive, happy relationships with their in-laws. My husband is hardly best buddies with my own mother. But where he has been blessed with an easy-going personality and the ability to make small talk with everyone he meets, my own social skills leave a lot to be desired and I find family gatherings much more challenging than he does. I need to continually bite my tongue, through fear of saying something that I might regret later, and for me it seems to take more and more effort to remain unprovoked.

My husband being an only child contributes to this, of course — she is very clingy and protective of him. It took me too long to realize that she feels she’s lost part of her son to me. I needed to be more sympathetic to the fact that they are no longer as close as she would like them to be, and I obviously have played a role in that.

Whether I like it or not, these people are now members of my family, and family is important to me. I needed to learn techniques to help me deal with her in a kind and considerate manner, without exploding with internalized stress. For me, the following things have helped:
 

  • Be aware that you might not be the in-law they were expecting either. My mother-in-law buys Christmas presents for the daughter-in-law she wishes she had. Instead of getting upset, have the patience to thank her kindly for thinking of you.
  • Don’t let the little things wind you up. It irritates me when she paws at my husband’s appearance, but it is his job to tell her to stop it if he wants, not mine.
  • Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be rude either. Try and find the middle road between the two. Shut down the insidious remarks firmly, but be open to friendly suggestions which might get lost or misinterpreted along the way.

  • Find common ground. Talking about my husband works for us — after all he is the thing that has brought us together. Which is something I can hope we can bond over in the future.

Nothing would make me happier than eventually considering my mother-in-law as a friend, as well as my husband’s mother. And it’s up to me to keep working on developing the relationship. I’ve only been married a year, there are miles to go… and we’ll all be happier in the long run if we can just get along.

Any further techniques or ideas that you all use to get along with your in-laws?

Comments on Dealing with difficult in-laws the grown-up way

  1. My MIL and I simply don’t talk. Her son (my husband) has requested it be this way. She’s horrid, but honestly, she also has deep deep mental issues stemming from losing her husband 15 years ago, and she refuses help. She’s an old southern lady, and resents that I am not a version of her younger self. My husband looks and sounds so much like his dead father it’s nearly uncanny, and she said all through our marriage until we stopped talking to her “You’re just his wife, we (she and his little brother) are his FAMILY”.

    Well, that’s not the kind of marriage we have, we have an old school “leave and cleave” biblical marriage, and she knows that. I am his choice. She does not respect that, she has never respected that, and she’s made it very plain she does not like me or respect me and she thinks her son should leave me. Sucky for her, her son is madly in love with me and loyal to the Nth degree.

    She’s literally scowling in all of our wedding pictures unless it’s just her and my husband, and when she’s with my husband she’s staring at him adoringly like a schoolgirl with a crush (which is how she treats him). It was remarked as creepy by so many people that we haven’t gotten any pictures of her printed, because you know, scowl or creepy.

    So we simply don’t talk to her or my husbands little brother (who is a whole other story) anymore. Husband had issues with them before I came along, and them disrespecting our marriage, not respecting or accepting me as his choice, and constantly saying or implying that they were a family “before me” or that I’m not my husband’s family is just an extension of them not respecting my husband.

    And you know what? It’s awesome. It really is. Holidays don’t make me fret for weeks leading up to them, we actually enjoy them. No one is constantly telling me how my husband doesn’t really like how I do things and is just lying to me, no one is constantly downplaying our marriage vows, no one is telling me my husband only likes my fuller figure because he has emotional damage. No one is telling my husband his choice in spouse isn’t good enough, and subtly pushing for divorce. The people we have in our lives, particularly those close to us, are those who respect each of us and just as importantly respect us as a unit.

    I don’t know if it’ll always be this way. Maybe at some point we’ll patch things up? But honestly, not talking is OKAY. It’s OKAY to reach a point where you step back and go “I don’t like this person. They make me sad/angry/full of self doubt/etc, they try to manipulate me or downplay my role in my SO’s life. I don’t *have* to talk to them or interact with them. In fact, everyone would probably be happier if I didn’t.” There’s no reason you HAVE to keep putting yourself and your relationship in a toxic situation -even for a few hours or days at a time – for some social status quo.

    I think we downplay the mental and emotional havoc a shitty MIL (or FIL, if that’s your situation) can have on an individual or a relationship. Even if your relationship is strong and awesome and kick ass, it’s a judgement and a stresser you *don’t* really need. I’m a strong, intelligent, well read, opinionated woman, and after years of my MILs comments they dug into my head and did some damage that’s still being worked through, at times, because of the assumption that she knows her son better than I do. She doesn’t. It’s not a sitcom situation, it’s not funny or okay because it’s only a few times a year.

    Allll that rambling above said to say – Sometimes there’s nothing to be done. Sometimes people, even in laws, are just toxic and they will persist in being that way, and the best thing is just to cut contact, be it for a Holiday (“No, mom, we aren’t coming over for Christmas this year. {omit the I’m sorry}”) or indefinitely. AND THAT IS OKAY. Protecting yourself and your relationship is a beautiful, important thing.

    • “I think we downplay the mental and emotional havoc a shitty MIL (or FIL, if that’s your situation) can have on an individual or a relationship. Even if your relationship is strong and awesome and kick ass, it’s a judgement and a stresser you *don’t* really need. I’m a strong, intelligent, well read, opinionated woman, and after years of my MILs comments they dug into my head and did some damage that’s still being worked through, at times, because of the assumption that she knows her son better than I do. She doesn’t. It’s not a sitcom situation, it’s not funny or okay because it’s only a few times a year.” <– THIS! So much! Thank you for this.

  2. I just wanted to say I am SO GLAD this popped up in my fb feed just now. My mother-in-law is a lovely person, but we are very different. Our communication styles are so different some days we may as well be speaking different languages. Irritating, but no big deal…until we moved in with her after an apartment fire. We’ve been here over a month, and my frustration with her (seemingly deliberate) obtuseness, Catholic guilt tripping, and passive aggressive suggestions is at the boiling point. It’s a relief to realize other people have similar problems.

  3. This article is what I need more of!I’m getting married in 2 days, and my mother-in-law has been part of the most stress since starting plan it. These tips I hope will help. Though, I wonder if anyone has any advice on how to deal with in-laws that have mental illness (because that is one of the things I’m needing to learn to handle with my mother-in-law)?

    • This was a great article. My MIL tried to break me and hubby up, so needless to say, there is a LOT of internalized stress for me…over the past 4+ years nonetheless. There’s been a lot of ‘taking the higher road’ with her. But, she made an honest effort to be part of and help with my wedding. She is trying. So I have to realize that although she hurt me, she is only human after all.

  4. With our first Christmas as a married couple fast approaching the in-law issue has been on my mind a lot. I get along with my in-laws fine when I’m in their company, but I don’t enjoy being in their company. Particularly his younger sisters who are only a few years younger than me but act like spoiled teenagers. The bottom line is that my personality, and my husband’s for that matter, don’t really mesh with those of his family. The difference is he has a history with them and can overlook their negative and toxic behaviors. He recognizes the behaviors (thank God!) but puts up with them because they’re his family. I, on the other hand, bite my tongue nearly in half every single time I’m in their presence.
    What really resonated for me in this article was the concept of me not being the in-law they expected or wanted. I know that they prefer the type of person my husband’s last serious girlfriend was … unfortunately for them my husband prefers the type of person I am, and I simply don’t fit in with them. I also think they have some resentment towards me because my husband started spending less time with them once I came around and spending time with me emphasized just how different his values and personality have become from his family.
    They way I deal with them? I simply don’t. I don’t see them very often at all even though we only five miles away. I told my husband as soon as we moved in together that I would not spend major holidays with them because as an only child I feel I need to spend those days with my parents. I go to birthdays, I go to the occasionally Sunday dinner, and I’m pleasant and cordial when I’m there. I keep my mouth shut a lot and try to get him to leave as soon as it’s polite to do so. I love that my husband loves his family and wants to spend time with them. It’d be nice if I felt the same way about them, but I don’t, and I think that’s okay too.

    • Oh my, this is a hard one. My daughter is not a only child but spends most of her time with her in-laws. My husband and I do spend time with her in-laws as well because they are lovely people. My daughter is spoiled as well but she loves her brother in-law until my daughter had informed her that she bugs her husband. They joke with one another and have always, but now my teen aged daughter doesn’t know or want to talk with them as she may upset someone and start a fight between the couple. Don’t push the in-laws away, do a family thing with only the parents on both sides and you and your husband. This may be a good starting point for the bond to grow stronger. We all love our child and sad to say we don’t wont someone to come and destroy our family. NOT saying that’s what your doing it’s more how I’m feeling in my daughter/son in-law/and siblings. And it hurts that my daughter is’t defending her sister.. Best of luck to you and your wonderful husband.

      • I think it’s interesting that you felt I was “pushing the in-laws away” because I don’t see it like that. I don’t prevent my husband from spending time with them, I just choose not to very often and it seems to be working for everyone. We did had a little bit of a tiff about it on New Year’s because I really didn’t feel like spending my whole day there and my husband actually gets it a lot better than I thought he did. He said he understands that his family aren’t my type of people and vice versa, but it’s important to him that I show my face. I agreed to go with him to Sunday dinner once per month and to all birthday parties as long as they don’t conflict with my rehearsal/performance schedule.
        I like your suggestion about doing some dinners or something with just us and each set of parents but it’s just apples and oranges. Everything about my parents is the opposite of his and vice versa so I feel like that would actually cause more issues than it would solve! I am sorry that you’re going through this with your family though. I’m sure your daughter feels the way my husband has on occasion, very put it in the middle and torn between her family of origin and her family of choice.

  5. My in-laws visited us for a month. On second last day for their return, me and my husband had a very small fight. My in-laws on that day with my husband said many things about me which I didn’t like and my husband as well instead of stopping them, made good use of it and provoked them. I didn’t like their conversation regarding me and now they have left I can’t talk to them like I used to do before. Also, from their side they have stopped calling me. I call them now once in a week and they don’t. If I try to have a conversation with my husband regarding this incident, we again fight as he says,”You didn’t respect em in front of my parents”. I am really upset with how the things went and they were molded in such a way to make it look like a big fight. I want to forget all this and want to be normal again but the thoughts always come to my mind of the things they said and thus making me feel bad again. Please help me understand how to bring the things back to normal again with my in laws.

  6. My daughter gets married in July. Her and her soon to be husband came to the house for a visit. My youngest daughter and soon to be son in-law have always had such a fun joking friendship. Anyway she joked with him when he was over the way she does every time, and he does every time. Son in-law just up and walks out of the house. My daughter than starts yelling at my youngest daughter to go out and say sorry. My youngest daughter 17 can’t understand what is going on and says’ no… my daughter getting married leaves. Telling me that every time they visit her further husband complains about the siblings.
    What am I to do to keep the friendship they have had for 7 years…

  7. Mine hated me from the get go and even went as far as doing something unprofessional at her government work place in a vain attempt to get me in trouble, which backfired, and I received an apology letter from the agency she works for, after having filed complaints about a breach in privacy. She went as far to do that when I was just dating her son. My husband has a twin sister who soon joined the hate campaign along with her mother. When I first met my husband, his mother lived with him (in his house) – she was always rude, talking about me as if I wasn’t there “she this, she that” – when asked if she could move her car so that we could get his car out, so that we could take the dogs somewhere, she said “I will (move the car) when you tell your girlfriend to show me the proper respect”. Respect? I have a name, you know. -_-
    It’s a LONG story short (as I am sure many of these stories are) but eventually we wanted to progress with our relationship, and she was already creating as much drama as possible when I was merely visiting – partner wanted me to move in, but I said I am not living with you and your mother. So he made the decision himself to ask his mother to move out (she would never knock when I was in the bedroom with him, she’d just walked right in – asked him to get a lock put on his door – which he did, due to her not listening to him… he’d asked her to knock, and it was his house, but she still acted this way… and one day she actually walked in on us and never apologised, in fact stood there obviously aware of what she had walked in on and kept asking him where the washing powder was)… anyway when he asked his mother to move out, it wasn’t like “move out now” or even move out next month. It was more like, if it takes you six months to find a place, that’s fine. No rush. But she decided to move out within the month and that’s when the hate campaign intensified and when the twin sister became part of it.

    I’ve written letters to both the mother and sister which went ignored and unacknowledged. I’ve sent gifts that went unacknowledged – a restaurant voucher for husband and MIL to go out together, never got a thank you. When it came time to husband and his sister’s birthday coming up, I could have decided to do nothing to include them and rightfully so based on their treatment of me (his sister had started cyber-bullying me on FB, saying “not everyone is a c**t like you” and texting her brother, saying that I was an “ugly p**y mutt” – and she told me on FB that she would “not tolerate what I’ve done to her family”. Husband (boyfriend at the time) did confront both of them at various times but they don’t listen. After those comments he did ring her and tell her not to say these things. I blocked her after that anyway. After some time had passed I did invite them both over for their birthday but it resulted in the sister going off at me and the mum pushing me and being nasty and the next day claiming that I had punched her (she even had a photo to ‘prove it’ or a big dark bruise on her arm) which stunned me because I know I did not lay a finger on her, but I’ve come to understand that she is a narcissist who regularly gaslights as one of her abuse tactics. I’m a very short small person and aside from that, I have never punched anyone. After some time passed, we managed to get her to come to our place for a meeting as there was a lot to talk about… a lot to address, and husband and I were planning our wedding (we had decided to elope to avoid drama and that’s what we did, but we did a post elopement wedding reception…which in fact resulted in drama…) so she came round and addressed things from her perspective but derailed me whenever I shared mine. In the end she actually apologised for her behaviour at the birthday party (first and only time I’ve ever heard it) BUT it was underhanded and she said “I acted badly at the party but it was ONLY because you punched me” to which I became angry, maintaining that I had never laid a finger on her. This is where the gaslighting comes back into play because I WAS beginning to question my reality – I knew I had not touched her, but she was so adamant that I had. My memory was that she was pushing me and that my partner’s friend Daniel was standing in front of me to stop her, and then I crouched down, away from her, and was crying. Everyone had been drinking, it was a birthday party, but I had only drunk a few wines, and they had drunk more than me. I had been working that day and had come home in the afternoon to find them at the house, already drinking. So I trust that my memory is the accurate one. But I felt like she was trying to twist the facts, twist reality. At the meeting with her, I ended up saying something like “I have no memory of this, but IF it is true, then I am sorry”.

    Fast forward to recent events… husband and I had eloped in August, and we had our post elopement party Nov 25… she tried her best to sabotage things. For instance, she started off by wanting to pay and plan the whole thing. We said no (she didn’t have the money anyway and she’s up to her eyeballs in debts, but if she had got into further debt to pay for the whole thing, she would have been uncompromising and done everything the way she wanted it to be) so we delegated things, we said she could help with decorations. We said she could do a supper snack menu, and I said my aunties were doing a roving supper, which meant they were organising most the food, and it wouldn’t be a traditional sit down dinner, it was to be more of a party and mingling atmosphere with maybe a few tables to the side for if people chose to sit, but people would have plates and walk around with various finger foods. That was the plan and the agreement and his mother knew this, husband even called her to make sure she was on the same page because my aunties got into contact with her and became worried that she thought it was a sit down dinner as she was talking about needing lots of tables. Husband clarified with her, and said it was not a sit down dinner, we wouldn’t be needing all these tables, she said it would only be a few tables, and then I found out she had ordered food from a catering company (she didn’t ask us before doing it) – husband told her my aunties are still doing the roving supper as originally planned. She said fine. I knew she was trying to create drama before it even began but I was disgusted with how she treated my aunties (aunties and her were there to set up the venue before the party started) – she had never met anyone in my family until now and they hadn’t met her. Aunties described her as “horrible” and one of my aunties went to my grandma’s house and said that she was “a fucken bitch”. When we got to the party I saw that there were long tables everywhere (very 1980s looking too) with plates, cups, knives and forks like a sit down… and my auntie who went to the trouble of MAKING food was made to put most of it away back into the freezers because she declared that she had ordered in catering for 70 people (we had maybe 50 at the party…) and she told my aunties that my husband and I had ASKED her to do this. Complete and utter lies.

    Then during the speeches… my grandma and dad both did a speech, both making me cry…mention of my grandfather who has passed on and both speeches mentioned my husband, of course, welcoming him to the family, my dad even saying “thank you” for being part of our family. When his mother got up to do a speech, she didn’t even mention my name, not once. No mention of it, not even congratulations, nothing of the sort. In fact she started her speech by talking about my husband and his twin sister, saying that they are “like chalk and cheese” (meaning they’re opposites) and then she finished her long unemotional speech by saying at the end that my husband is “always welcome through my back door” (many of my friends were like wtf?!) – husband thinks it didn’t mean anything weird, and that her back door at her house is apparently the only one that is open (I wouldn’t know, never been invited)… oh and there were lot’s of photos taken and I noticed a few of husbands parents (have been separated since husband was 5) with husband and his sister… and I was not included in any of these pictures. The mum and sister didn’t make an effort to talk to me all evening and the mother approached my husband at one point when we were getting drinks, looking all upset about something. I asked him what was that about, he said she was upset because I hadn’t come to talk to her yet (which wasn’t true, I had thanked her for her help, introduced her to my parents) and after hearing that comment, found the gift basket with more thank you gifts for those who had helped and went to find her to give them to her.

    I can never do enough, I am either treated with contempt or ignored. People advise me to just ignore them because people like them seek reactions…

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