It has been asked before; In fact, I might have been one of the ones wanting to know.

There are a few things that typically come as a great shock to people when they take on a spouse or life-partner, such as:

  • How your partner really looks in the morning.
  • That “I love to cook” actually means he/she loves to watch TV shows about cooking.
  • “You and my mom will get along great” can be roughly translated as “The turkey won’t be the only thing getting carved up at Thanksgiving family dinners.”

As a marriage counselor, I can attest to the fact that the relationship between a couple and their in-laws is very often a source of conflict and pain in a marriage or long-term relationship. Mothers-in-law do get a bad rap, but it is in fact difficult making a successful transition from our families of origin to our new families, for both the parents-in-law and their adult children.

There are many reasons why these conflicts exist, but the core problem, and therefore the core solution, lies in one word: boundaries. Couples marry to become a unit, and by doing so they create a new family. This family then becomes their own primary family, and their family-of-origin must then take their place — cherished and important as always, but secondary to the primary family unit: the couple.

Problems occur when in-laws still want to be primary in their son or daughter’s life and set up demands or expectations as such. I remember early in my marriage when my mother-in-law and sister-in-law would come to visit unexpectedly and would simply walk into my husband’s and my new home without knocking. Oh, no, no, no. I don’t think so. We quickly put an end to that by politely but firmly telling them this was not good for us and insisting they knock and wait. Yes, chilly winds blew after that for a while, but we were happy to trade that for the unwanted intrusions.

Setting good boundaries as a newly married couple is hard, but if you don’t do it early it only gets harder later on. First, you and your spouse or partner need to have a conversation with each other about what your shared expectations are for contact with your extended families. Then, you both need to have a conversation with your extended families; be firm, loving, and clear. And then let them have their own reactions; that’s their business. You are not responsible for your in-laws’ reactions, bad or good.

Couples often get into trouble when they try to keep their extended families happy by meeting all of their expectations without first taking care of their own needs. This can quickly become a nightmare and can develop into frequent battles between partners about which of their extended families gets preference.

When a couple can work together to set and maintain healthy boundaries with in-laws, chances are good that those relationships will not get between the couple and cause problems. Often however, one or both individuals will ally themselves more with the extended family and become defensive about drawing boundaries. This can create a strain on the relationship and ultimately draw the extended family into the marriage in a painful and destructive way.

Couples that don’t have clear and shared expectations with both extended families will experience conflict, stress, and eventually very painful and angry relationships. These relationships can become irretrievably harmed over time, and this legacy of conflict can then be carried into our children’s lives as well. If you are struggling with this in your marriage or relationship and have been unsuccessful in creating change, marriage counseling may be helpful.

Those of us who are in-laws can be a great resource for support and care in our children’s marriages. We can and should strengthen their bonds as a couple and celebrate their independent new families. It is hard to let go of our children when they take on their own families; however, it is critical that we recognize we are no longer in a parenting role but can still offer powerful love and support. And spoil the grandchildren!

Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.

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If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

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by Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC