I was at a magic show, when after one particularly amazing trick, someone screamed out, “Wow, how did you do that?” “I would tell you”, answered the magician predictably, “but then I’d have to kill you.” After a moment’s pause, the same voice yelled back “Can you tell my mother in law?”

In-laws Are Special!

Even though it would be impossible to host an episode about in-laws without a little off-the-cuff humour, we do want to acknowledge that parents are always to be given honour. Having said that, we recognize that in-law issues – both parent to offspring and offspring to parent – can be a really hot topic for many marriages!

The Journal of Family Therapy published an article called “The Problem With In-Laws” (2003). They identified six common areas where issues arise in Western societies with in-laws. They are:

  • Jealousy
  • Competition
  • Transference
  • Displacement
  • Poor boundary regulation and
  • Discrepant role expectations

These are not all words we use commonly every day so we will unpack them a little below!

A note to folks from other cultures that follow our show: you may have to take what we’re going to talk about and evaluate if it fits your culture. At the very least, this might be an interesting insight into how things happen in the idealized world of North America.

Regardless of culture, the guiding principle here from the ancient wisdom of the Bible is that a husband shall leave his father and mother and cleave (cling, unite) unto his wife (Genesis 2). This implies there is a clear separation that comes into the parental relationship and then a joining in the marriage relationship.

1. Jealousy

When you get married, your loyalty changes from your parents to your spouse. Time, attention and affection get re-directed to the spouse from the parents which may make the parents jealous. The spouse may also get jealous is he/she feels that the parents-in-law are still getting a larger portion of the attention.

To further complicate things, a spouse may actually feel like they’re betraying their parents to some extent when they leave home. There may be grief, but the couple needs to build their own bond to compensate.

Realize that most in-laws want the best for your marriage. Usually, parents are not out to thwart a relationship but want their child and spouse to be happy. It is each individual coming to the new relationship with their own expectations of what that should look like that causes conflicting tensions.

2. Competition (or Comparison)

It is so easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with others. That is no different in relationships than it is with anything else.

We can bring a lot of expectations into our marriage about what it means to be a good daughter-in-law (DIL) or son-in-law (SIL) and even compare ourselves with our siblings as to who is doing a better job as an in-law.

We may also compare ourselves to our spouse’s parents. For example, a husband may compare the house that he has provided for his wife with the house she lived in with her parents and wonder if he measures up.

It’s also easy to feel like we need to compete for the amount of time devoted to each relationship.

How can we diffuse the competition?

We need to manage our boundaries – put your spouse first and your parents second. As a spouse, we need to voice our concerns to our marriage partner if we feel left out. Talk about it and try to find ways where you can still feel connected with the parents but are not taking time away from your spouse. Rather than come at it with an “either-or” attitude (competition) try to find a “both-and” solution.

3. Transference

Transference is looking to your family (my in-laws) to provide something that was lacking in my family or fulfill the role of my parents. It may not even be a recognized need, but it is in the subconscious as a deep desire.

For example, if one family of origin (FOO) was not very good nurturing, that spouse may need his/her in-laws to provide that nurturing. If the spouse’s family held the belief that they should give the new couple as much breathing room as possible, the spouse looking for the nurturing may interpret that as cold and unloving.

Negative transference: disappointment from my family is now transferred to yours.

Positive transference: I overly idealize my new in-laws. They are perfect.

How can we combat this?

Be aware of the expectations we bring to the table.

Look to the marriage bond to help us meet our needs rather than the in-laws. This has to stay within the boundaries of a healthy marriage – we are not referring to deep psychological needs here. You cannot expect your spouse to fill those, you need to work through those and get professional help if you need it.

4. Displacement

Displacement is me getting upset with your parents because that’s easier than being upset with you. Or, it may go the other way and again be my own issue – it’s safer to express anger towards your parents than against my own parents. If you’re on the receiving end of this from a parent-in-law, remember, it’s easier for them to be upset with you than to be hurt by their own flesh-and-blood.

For example, if I feel your parents are too intrusive (which is actually more about my own uncomfortable feelings towards them) and take on a victim role, they may actually begin to see me as needy and try to be more there for us. So it becomes a vicious cycle, and self-fulfilling, all because I was unable to originally identify my own uncomfortable feelings!

Most in-law issues are our own inability to look inside and deal with how we’re feeling. It’s easier to blame somebody else! Generally, we start into marriage when we are the least emotionally mature. That is a hard time to deal with complicated new relationships!

How can we stop this cycle?

Be aware of yourself. Stop in those moments when you’re upset and ask yourself, “What is my own ‘stuff’?” Think about what you need to own, and then how you are going to deal with it instead of dumping/projecting/transferring your issues onto someone else.

This can be painful, but be honest. Talk to your spouse about your realities and needs. This is a great way to bond – talk about and unpack your insights together. Marriages strengthen and grow when we start to understand how and why we do the things that we do. That is when marriage becomes the tool to make us holier and refine our characters.

In-law dynamics #5 and #6 (Boundaries and Role Expectations) will be coming next week! Also, a superb question you won’t want to miss – especially for those of our listeners who are helping other marriages.

Thanks for listening and feel free to share in the comments what you’ve learned about effectively navigating in-law relationships!

Image courtesy of Louish Pixel under the Creative Commons license.