You might assume we are talking about mothers-in-law. Well, to some extent we are, but we are also talking about your brother-in-law, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, and every other in-law you can think of. We’re talking about strangers who married into a family (and sometimes that’s you). Of all the relationships we have, in-law relationships can be the toughest. We did not choose these family members, but somebody close to us came with them or chose them. If you have a tough in-law relationship, we suggest three steps and the first one is the toughest:
1) Acceptance. The first step is accepting that this difficult human being is yoked to you, and that’s not going to change. Hoping for a divorce or worse is not going to help you manage that relationship. If your son married a selfish narcissist, you need to accept her. She is who she is. She’s certainly not going to change for you. Fighting the idea of her will cost you closeness with your son. It will also make his life harder. Acceptance is easier said than done. But write the truth down or say it out loud. “Sarah is my daughter-in-law and that is not going to change.” Repeat it until you can say it without anger or resentment. Repeat it until you can say it with resignation and eventually acceptance. It will help you stop fighting the facts and move toward a healthier life.
2) Determine if you need a separate relationship with the in-law. If it is your daughter or son-in-law and you have grandchildren, you might decide you need a healthier relationship with them. If it’s your mother-in-law who is distant from the family and not particularly interested in a relationship, you might be in luck. The challenge in that situation is to stop trying. We find that many people make the mistake of trying too hard in a relationship when the other person does not want or need it. Trying too hard doesn’t make someone want a relationship. In fact, it usually makes them withdraw from you. Check with your connected family member. If it’s your spouse’s brother you don’t like, check with your spouse about whether that relationship is necessary. If it’s not necessary, stop trying. Be civil or even friendly when necessary, but don’t try harder than that. If a relationship is necessary, the advice is similar. Be civil or friendly when you can, don’t avoid the in-law, but stop forcing interactions and conversations. Let the relationship unfold from a calmer, less desperate place.
Your spouse has a right to a relationship with a difficult parent. Your child has a right to have a healthy relationship with their partner unaffected by your dislike of them.
3) Set your loved one free or change your approach. If you realize you don’t need a relationship with an in-law, set your connected family member free. That means allowing your spouse or child to have a relationship with that in-law unencumbered by your issues. Your spouse has a right to a relationship with a difficult parent. Your child has a right to have a healthy relationship with their partner unaffected by your dislike of them. You need to have a conversation with your family member. If it’s your spouse or child, they already know your feelings about the in-law. It might help to let them know you are struggling with that relationship and what you’ve decided regarding a separate relationship. Let them know you don’t want to interfere with their relationship. Make sure you are honest with yourself about jealousy and resentment. You might see your spouse’s time with a difficult parent as dismissing your feelings. Set some ground rules if you like. If you believe your mother-in-law is going to whisper nasty comments about you to your spouse, let your spouse know they have an obligation to stop that behavior.
Think about a difficult in-law as you read through our three steps. Journal about each step as it relates to that in-law. Talk it over with friends or loved ones if that helps. Give yourself some time to go through each step. It might take you weeks to go through each step and truly embrace a new approach. Remember that your in-laws are simply being themselves. Hating someone for who they are only hurts you. As Martin Luther King Jr said, “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
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