Regardless of whether you get along with yours or not, in-laws and extended family are an obligation that comes with marriage. The relationship a son-in-law has with them, much like any other, comes with peaks and valleys. After all, in-laws have expectations hopes, and dreams that may conflict with the reality you represent. With this comes a lot of friction. The good news is that having trouble with your father-in-law or mother-in-law doesn’t mean you’re in an unhealthy relationship. It just means you have work to do — and probably need to get some perspective. Here then, are 19 pieces of advice to be an excellent son-in-law and navigate everything from setting boundaries with in-laws to dealing with in-laws who might not like you all that much. Because with some foresight and a bit of tact, issues can be avoided.
Go Out of Your Way to Assure Your In-Laws
One of the most helpful pieces of advice we received about in-law relations came from Dr. Terri Apter, resident scientist and professor at Cambridge University and author of What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along With In-Laws. Her advice concerns something all husbands need to do for their in-laws, which is that, from the start, they need to from the start address the their in-laws’ and extended family’s fears of being marginalized or excluded or criticized that underlie the problems. “You can reassure your in-laws that family connections will continue even as marriage changes kinship patterns. You can show that you value what an in-law brings to the family. You can show you want to learn who they are, and in that way you give the message that you welcome them — that you are not threatened by them.”
Try to Be Useful
If you’re at your in-laws’ house and it’s not the hour after Thanksgiving when everyone is so stuffed that they just sit around and act like they’re really invested in the Lions game, chances are laying on the couch with your feet up is not a good look. No, you don’t want to be needy and have your in-laws create jobs for you. But, there are probably errands that can be done, plates to be put away, stories that can be told, games that can be organized. This is to say that you want to play an active, not passive, role when you’re spending time with them. Otherwise, they’ll perceive you as someone who puts in no effort around the house.
Make Their Impact Obvious
Most grandparents love to dote on their grandchildren. They send toys. They send outfits. They send other stuff because ‘oh look how cute it is!’ And as your in-laws are humans, they’ll like to know that their small gestures are recognized. So it’s important, then, to send back a photo of your kid wearing said outfit (even if you hate it) or playing with said toy (even if your kid didn’t play with it all that much). This will make them happy — and, more importantly, give them a steady stream of new photos to show friends, coworkers, and, let’s face it, everyone they come in contact with.
Ask For Their Advice
Both mothers and fathers-in-law are fountains of advice, suggestions and guidance. Yes, much of it can be unprompted and therefor easy to tune out. But a better course of action is to flip the script and actually ask for their opinion on everything from home improvement to house rules. These moments are important — and they don’t make themselves.
Choose Your Words Wisely
Knowing what to say is important, but knowing what not to say is just as vital. In other words, it’s important to be sensitive and aware of what your in-laws are thinking and feeling. If you disagree with your family’s politics, you don’t have to keep it quiet, but you don’t always have to mount a rigorous defense during every dinner. Focus on other things, other interests that you know they’ll want to discuss. If you can even make enough conversation to get by for the night, you’ll score big points, both with him and with your partner as well.
Invite Them to Events
It’s important to think of ways to be more generous with how you include your in-laws. If your child has a game, a recital or a school activity, make sure they’re invited. Even if they can’t attend, the simple act of letting them know they’re being thought of will carry a lot of weight. Additionally, find ways to pitch in and give them a hand. If your in-laws live close by, drop in and offer to help with a household task that they have been meaning to get to. If you notice that their lawn is getting a little unruly during a visit, stop by and offer to mow it for them. Random acts of kindness and thoughtfulness build a lot of equity in your relationship.
Be Good to Their Daughter
This may sound obvious — and it is. But the simplest thing you can do to be a great son-in-law is to be a great husband and father. Above all else, most in-laws want to know that their child is happy and healthy and growing in a marriage. So, when you’re around them, be sure to demonstrate how strong your relationship is. A lot of sons-in-law, whether because they don’t want to step on any toes or because they think a visit to the in-laws is a day-off, tend to recede to the background when with their wife’s family. Don’t do that. Be present. Be affectionate. Be helpful. Be encouraging. Be jokey. In other words: Be your best self around them. Prove to them that their daughter made the right choice.
Balance Their Traditions
Maybe you and your wife live in a different state than her folks, but her folks are really big we-need-the-family-together-for-the-holidays people. Or maybe your father-in-law is really keen on the whole family being there for his Memorial Day pig roast. And now that you’re a dad, you’d prefer to fire up your own grill or spend a quiet Christmas morning with your kids. How can you navigate these issues without stepping on anyone’s toes? You have to be tactful and considerate. Can you alternate holidays? Maybe having one year at home and then visit her parents’ house the following year? Or would her dad be willing to slide the Father’s Day BBQ up a day or even a week? If you let them know that observing their traditions is just as important as creating your own, that will go a long way to making the in-law connection even stronger.
Get on the Same Page as Your Spouse
Whether in-laws are overbearing or you’re just trying to put a stop to irritating or insulting behavior, spouses need to get on the same page. If you’re the one whose in-laws are being problematic, it’s important to reassure your partner that they come first. And it’s up to you both to arrive at and express concerns and new rules. A united front is critical to prevent resentments from arising. Hopefully your situation won’t turn into a tag-team melee. But, if it does, make sure you’re in the right corner.
Set Firm Boundaries If You Need to
One of the major complaints one or both partners have is that their in-laws are nosy, pop-in without notice, or are overbearing. This makes sense. Your in-laws probably just want to be useful or helpful and you may have been a bit too accommodating to them in the beginning of your relationship when all you wanted to do was impress them. What you need to do, then, is establish firm boundaries. Maybe there’s a once a week dinner with grandma and grandpas. Or maybe there’s a yearly one-week vacation where you all go to a shore house. Said boundaries depend on your dynamics and level of closeness. But they should be discussed and, tactfully, set in a way that everyone reflects them.
Rituals Are Important
Be it Christmas cookie baking, playing two-hand touch at Thanksgiving, or just sitting around and playing a game of Gin Rummy, family rituals are extremely important for kids. In-laws inherently do this by teaching kids their interests. When making plans, be sure to consider the important family rituals you’d like to sustain. Grandparents are often their gatekeepers; if you deny them this, you’re also denying your kids it, too.
Remember to Keep Your In-Laws’ Interests in Mind
When parents are busy, they tend to ignore the needs of others. It happens. But, with in-laws who are older and likely have a set of routines and very specific hobbies or endeavors, it’s important to consider those. Such gestures have meaning and build a relationship that, over time, will be more solid.
Carve Out Kid-Time for Them
If they’re up for the task and you trust them with your kids, in-laws deserve time with the grandchildren. Besides the fact that grandparents play an important role in kids development (they pass down family history, they teach important skills), they’re also able to give moms and dads and much needed break. Despite your feelings about your in-laws, it’s essential to give them time. “Doing so will help them build special relationships with each other, and will give you extra time for yourself – a big plus if spending time with them is a true chore,” Susan Silver, Psychotherapist at the Wellington Counseling Group in Chicago told us.
Keep a Cool Head as Often as Possible
Family brings a lot of frustrations. And in-laws are especially frustrating, as they often have ingrained habits that just get to you. If your father-in-law is always planted in front of the TV because he has to watch House Hunters reruns every night or your mother-in-law insists that , it’s easy to want to blow up. But no matter what happens, losing your temper will only create bigger problems. “Always be respectful, courteous, and kind to your in-laws,” therapist Fran Walfish told us. “If you are displeased and opt to express it directly, be sure to remain respectful at all times.” No, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak honestly to your in-laws. But you shouldn’t lose it with them either. Take a few deep breaths and pick your battles.
Think of Families as Countries
Husbands and wives can often feel on the outside looking in of in-laws. Men feel this the strongest when they’re first marry into the family. One thing to keep in mind: think systematically. Very often, men will have tunnel vision and think only of the person they’re marrying and not all the other people that come along with that person. Nancy Tramontana, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, likens this to a new character suddenly coming on stage during the second act of a play. “The play has been going on and now you have to learn the lines,” she says. “And there can be conflict when the script is different and the other ‘actors’ don’t agree with it.” So, as a man entering into a marriage, you have to imagine yourself as a foreigner in a strange land trying to learn a new set of customs. “Every family is kind of like it’s own country, with its own set of rules,” she says. “And you don’t know what it’s like to live in that country at the outset. You have to survey the land.”
Overwhelmed? Examine the Relationship
Parental relationships run deep. If neither spouse can seem to wriggle out of their parents’ control, it’s reflective of their childhood, says Metzger. “If [you] had a very authoritative relationship with the parent where whatever mom/dad says goes,” Dr. Dion Metzger a relationships expert and board-certified psychiatrist, told us. “Sometimes it’s culturally related, sometimes it’s just parenting styles.” In extreme cases, Metzger said, a partner might even discuss big decisions with their parents before talking to their spouse, which, intentionally or not, sends the message that they don’t value their partner’s opinion. So, both partners need to make a concerted effort to examine the relationship and understand how to better approach the dynamic.
Try Not to Take Sides. But If You Do, Choose Wisely
So your spouse is fighting with her or her parents? It happens. Understand that whichever side you take in an in-laws fight, you’re going to end up making someone unhappy. In situations where a partner chooses their parent over their spouse, resentments and anger build and bubble over. This is a dangerous place to be because it puts a strain on your marriage. Honestly, nine times out of ten you want to take your partner’s side. If she’s raised an issue (spoiler alert) it’s because she’s upset about it. And you know that being compassionate was part of the gig when you signed up. But if you do take your in-laws side, do so with tact.
Try Your Best to Complain Constructively
If your wife’s family is driving you nuts, and she either doesn’t notice their bad behavior or just isn’t bothered by it, you have the right to bring it up and ask for change. Metzger’s overall advice is to talk about any issues right away so they don’t fester. Keep the conversation solution-oriented. Bad idea: Shouting about how hard her family sucks. Good idea: “Talk from an angle of trying to improve things and seeing what you can do better in your relationship in terms of communication.”
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