What to Do When You Have Trouble with Your In-Laws

In-laws can be a great source of arguments in a couple. If you feel that you don't really fit in with your partner's family, we give you some tips for dealing with the situation.
What to Do When You Have Trouble with Your In-Laws
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Written by Yamila Papa

Last update: 21 December, 2022

You can choose the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, but not their friends and family. As a matter of fact, in-laws and friends of your partner can often become a problem in your relationship, even to the point of causing a breakup. Indeed, this is a recurring problem in many couples. Therefore, you should know how to handle it.

If you’re having these kinds of problems, you might find yourself telling your partner “I committed myself to you, not your family”. However, when you committed to them, you also committed to the world around them. While you’re not obliged to get along with their family, you must try and maintain a cordial relationship.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

-Leo Tolstoy-

Whether you get along badly or well depends on several factors. That’s because every family is different. Furthermore, it’s one thing to live hundreds of miles from your in-laws, but quite another to share the same house or be two blocks away.

Another relevant factor is the relationship you have with your own family. For example, the University of Lisbon (Portugal) published a study in the Journal of Family Studies.  In this work, they explained that, on average, women tend to establish closer links with their husband’s families. Such a bond can be a great source of happiness when shared and nurtured. Nevertheless, closeness also increases the likelihood of friction.

Do you have to choose?

Whenever difficult family politics are mentioned you might visualize the typical friction between a woman and her mother-in-law but stereotypes often mask other deeper and more revealing realities. For example, the fact that some people enter a relationship with a burden already in tow by way of a family history of conflicts or disagreements. On the contrary, others may show an excessive attachment to their family, which makes it difficult for them to maintain a satisfactory and mature commitment.

nosy mother in law

The worst situation you could find yourself in is if your partner or their family pressures you  to choose between one of the two ‘sides’ they’ve formed. We wouldn’t even dare to suggest a single solution to this problem since an in-depth analysis of each factor would be required. However, we can make a few suggestions.

As a matter of fact, even after a critical moment like this, you can get things back on track. That’s because people often give these ultimatums as a way of drawing more attention to themselves or to try and gain ground in front of the other party. If they’re successful, they’ll usually withdraw their demand.

When ultimatums are issued, it’s usually because there’s a long line of disputes behind them that haven’t been dealt with early enough. These can be caused by many different situations. Here are some of the most common.

Overprotective and controlling parents

Barbara Oudekerk, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (USA) conducted a study in which she claimed that the impact that controlling and overprotective parents can have on adult relationships is immense. So much so, that it’s common for people to choose their partners in accordance with the tastes of their family. Or, on the contrary, they end up breaking up or distancing themselves from these over-demanding kinds of family members.

A common occurrence is for parents to continue displaying an overprotective, controlling, and in some cases even dictatorial attitude toward their children. It’s difficult for the partner of the person with a parent like this to feel comfortable. For instance, imagine what it must be like to try and plan your vacations when one of your in-laws openly opposes your plans and tries to sabotage them using psychological strategies. For example, emotional blackmail.

On the other hand, you should take into account that these kinds of parents can only have an effect if their children allow them to. In fact, normally, when serious problems occur, it’s with parents and children who haven’t matured. In other words, the parents still want to protect and the child is happy to be protected. If not, they’ll eventually distance themselves from their parents when they realize that, although they may have good intentions, they’re actually interfering with their happiness.

Nevertheless, it would be untrue to claim that a bad relationship with the in-laws is always the fault of the parents. In some cases, the person at fault is the partner. This often happens when there are children in the relationship and one of the parents doesn’t want them to spend time with their in-laws for no apparent reason. Or, when there are special holidays and they use psychological strategies to ensure that they always celebrate with their own family and not their partner’s.

Is it possible to get along with your in-laws?

With rare exceptions, the answer is yes. There’s no a priori reason that prevents you from getting along with your in-laws. However, as we mentioned earlier, some people make this more difficult to achieve than others.

Meeting a partner’s family for the first time can often be challenging. These kinds of meetings frequently cause conflict. That’s because people assume that they’re going to be judged. Nevertheless, any anxiety may completely disappear, once the meeting itself takes place.

On the other hand, there are partners who’ve had dinner with their in-laws many times yet still fear that at any moment the father of their partner might appear with a shotgun. We’re joking here of course, but it’s simply to explain what could occur.

If this kind of feeling never disappears, it’s extremely difficult for there to be a good relationship between the couple and the in-laws. Because nobody likes to be in a situation in which they continually feel judged.

In this type of situation, most of your behaviors are artificial because you don’t feel like yourself. Furthermore, honest and open communication, which is essential to resolve a conflict, becomes extremely difficult.

A bad relationship

Discussion with the in-laws

If you have a tense relationship with your in-laws with the occasional disagreement, the ideal would be to resolve it as soon as possible and not let the situation become chronic. If not, you’ll both end up accumulating excessive tension leading to further differences and problems between you.

In situations like this, your partner, as the person in the middle has a really unpleasant role. Because they have to listen to both sides of the story from people they love, which is upsetting for them. In this instance, whether the situation improves or worsens will depend a lot on your social skills and your ability to manage differences.

It doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it and put on a smiling face every time you go to eat at their home, while secretly hating them. On the other hand, you have to accept that these people have been in your partner’s life for a long time.

What’s the solution?

In order to answer this question, perhaps you should put yourself in your partner’s shoes. For instance, would you like your partner to make you choose between your family or them? How would you like family Sundays, birthday parties, or Christmas parties to be? What if your partner should tell you that they can’t stand your parents?

It’s a good idea to be objective and remember that everyone has good and bad points. You can’t expect others to change if you don’t do it first. Therefore, if your partner’s family isn’t the ‘ideal’, learn to identify those things that are positive. After all, everyone has their good points.

Also, if you really love your partner, you need to realize that to take care of your relationship you have to know how to face difficulties. Doing it in the best way will undoubtedly help you grow in your relationship and move forward successfully.

You don’t need to accept your partner’s family to the extent that you’re almost married to them. Nor should you never see them. Indeed, extremes are never good. In fact, as a couple, your relationship should be sufficiently watertight to not let other parties interfere in your life and the decisions you make.

However, there are some habits you can adopt to help you get along with them. Then, not everything will become a battle, an argument, or a tense silence.

Set boundaries

First of all, you should set certain boundaries. Know what it is that you will and won’t accept when you visit your partner’s family or they come to your house. Make it clear from the beginning what the insurmountable barriers are.

Of course, you must agree on these boundaries with your partner. You may even be confident enough to chat directly with their family too, but that’s not always a good idea. That’s because some people can be over-sensitive and cause additional problems. Be careful.

Don’t force your partner to choose

Big family

Don’t put your partner ‘between a rock and a hard place’, forcing them to decide between you or their family. We all have the right to keep our relationships. Also, parents are parents and you can’t change that fact no matter how much you may wish to.

If the situation becomes untenable, don’t spend any time together with them. However, don’t force your partner to give them up unless they’re hurting him.

Consider your partner’s feelings

Another way to get along with your in-laws is to think about your partner, not just you. For example, if you have to go to eat with your in-laws, do it for the happiness of your partner. They’ll appreciate it.

Try to be yourself

Try not to put on an act. Your in-laws are people with their own interests, needs, and a great desire for the best for their child.

If you can just be yourself, your partner will recognize you in the moments you spend with your in-laws. Therefore, they’ll be happier and they’ll show it in front of their parents. On the other hand, if you’re usually a happy person, but the moment you’re in the company of your in-laws, you’re consumed by bitterness, your partner won’t even recognize you as the person they share their life with. Consequently, they’ll pass those feelings onto their parents. Try and adopt these habits and you’ll find things improve.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Costa-Ramalho, S., Marques-Pinto, A., & Ribeiro, M. T. (2017). The retrospective experience of climate in the family-of-origin and dyadic coping in couple relationships: pathways to dyadic adjustment. Journal of Family Studies23(3), 371-388.
  • Oudekerk, B. A., Allen, J. P., Hessel, E. T., & Molloy, L. E. (2015). The cascading development of autonomy and relatedness from adolescence to adulthood. Child Development86(2), 472-485.
  • Trujano, R. (2010). Tratamiento sistémico en problemas familiares. Análisis de caso. Revista electrónica de psicología Iztacala13(3), 89.
  • Willson, A. E., Shuey, K. M., & Elder Jr, G. H. (2003). Ambivalence in the relationship of adult children to aging parents and in‐laws. Journal of Marriage and Family65(4), 1055-1072.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.