Strengthening Relationships with In-Laws

Here’s the understatement of the century: dealing with in-laws can be hard.  Another understatement – adding a baby can make it even harder.  So how do you keep good relationships with your in-laws, especially after you have your baby?

Start Before the Wedding

When you first meet your future in-laws, you are a starry eyed hopeless romantic, desperate to please your boyfriend and desperate to love his family as much as your own.  Because, after all, when you get married, his family becomes your family.  Like it or not.

So when you meet your future in-laws, you may be looking at them through rose colored glasses.  But what you really should be doing is looking out for red flags:

  • How do your boyfriend’s parents treat each other?
  • Are they still married?
  • Do his siblings make you feel welcome or focus on telling inside jokes that make you feel left out?
  • Do you feel comfortable being yourself around them?
  • Do you get a lot of unwanted advice?
  • What is the family dynamic with other in-laws?  Are they treated as part of the family, or are they talked about behind their backs?
  • Is the family close?  Are you expected to stay local after you get married?
  • What is their parenting style?

Start a Good Relationship

The most important thing to do when meeting in-laws is to be yourself.  Observe family dynamics.  Politely eat what is given to you.  But don’t water down your beliefs (big or small) just to fit in.  This means that when everyone says how much they love Star Wars, it’s okay to say that you are more into romantic comedies.  Being upfront even about little things will help shape the relationship down the road – you may occasionally be ribbed for not liking Star Wars, but you can also avoid feeling left out when the family starts to digress on the original series vs. the prequels vs. the sequels and expanded universe.  Of course, if your issue with the family is a big thing like religion or politics, stand your ground but don’t start a fight.

This leads to another way to start off on a good foot – be helpful.  If the conversation is boring you or getting into uncomfortable territory, try to get out of it by offering to help do the dishes.  Volunteer as often as possible.  Even if you don’t know where things go or how things are done, they will appreciate your helpfulness.

Finally, always ask about what is important to your in-laws.  Think of three things to ask each person before you arrive at their house.  In the beginning it may be simple like, “Where do you work?” or “Do you like baseball?”  As you get to know them, tailor these questions to fit their interests.

Using Empathy When Things Go South

One of the first things you learn after you get married is that your family and your husband’s family are your in-laws.  Both of them.  That’s right, the family that you grew up with, your own mom and dad, become your in-laws.  Because they are your husband’s in-laws, and you see them through his eyes now.  And you feel the stress that he feels as they try to exert control on your marriage.

I constantly reminded myself that my husband was in the same boat.  Any time I felt uncomfortable or angry around my in-laws, I had to think of a time that my family had made my husband uncomfortable.  They say you marry your in-laws, but the truth is, you marry your spouse.  The bond you have with your spouse is the most important relationship you have, but to keep that relationship strong you need to be kind to your in-laws.

Ideas for Dealing with Toxic In-Laws

  • Control your words.  Tell your spouse if your feelings are being hurt.  But don’t spend all day complaining about your in-laws.  Honor your spouse by not complaining about them to other people either.
  • If a hurt has been done, ask your spouse to bridge the gap.  Where are your in-laws coming from – can he explain?  My husband explained to me that his mom was obsessed with grandkids because she had spent her life being a mom.  It was all she knew.  When I considered her side of things, it helped me not be so angry at her.
  • But make sure that you take your spouse’s side.  If the gap is not able to be bridged, then your responsibility is to your spouse.  If your family is causing your husband grief, it is your job to stand up for him and tell them his side.
  • At the same time, honor your spouse by not putting him in the middle.  Love your spouse enough to not make him choose between you and his family.  Even if it takes baby steps, continue to work toward understanding on both sides.
  • Of course, remember to pray.  Pray for your in-laws, if possible, pray with your in-laws.  Pray as a family asking God to bless each member of your extended family.  Pray in thanksgiving for your in-laws.

Fake It Till You Make It

Despite my best efforts, I continued to be anxious and annoyed by the in-laws until Bugaboo was born.  Even then, I had a hard time letting them into our lives.  I resented their overflowing words of advice on how to raise my daughter.

However, it was imperative to hold my tongue – not out of any special connection with them, but because I had become acutely aware that the people who had made my life miserable for so long were now the only people capable of giving me much needed respite.  That’s right.  With my family far away, the in-laws were my only hope for babysitters.

In the hierarchy of how you treat people, being nice to get a favor isn’t exactly the most ideal way to bond.  It sort of falls right below icy working relationships and right above outright rudeness.  I tried to tell myself I would fake it until I made it.  The truth is, if you get in a habit of practicing civility and positive thinking, eventually you will internalize those thoughts!

Tips to Rebuild the Relationship

  • Invite your in-laws to important events in your life.  Just the act of being together can help you feel like a family unit.
  • Teach your child about her family – incorporate their names into bedtime prayers or look through photo books.  Finding positive ways to describe your in-laws to your baby will help you think positive thoughts about them.
  • If possible, have one of your in-laws be a godparent to your child.
  • Ask your mother-in-law for advice about your baby.  Even if you don’t use it, this will make her feel wanted and useful.
  • Ask your in-laws for stories about your husband from his childhood.  You can pass these stories on to your baby, and your in-laws will love telling them.
  • Better yet, ask your in-laws for stories about their childhood.  Pass these stories on to your baby along with stories from your own family.
  • Be bold about getting your child face time with the in-laws.  Send photos and videos on your phone.  Make Christmas and birthday gifts out of the baby’s handprints and footprints.
  • And, of course, have the in-laws babysit.  In addition to getting you a much needed break, this will help bring you all closer.

 

Finally, something important to me would be important to them.

Finding Common Ground as a New Mom

All this faking it gave me an epiphany.  Bugaboo offered the perfect opportunity for me to bond with my in-laws in a way we had lost since our wedding.  It wasn’t just about being nice to get a reliable babysitter.  It was about sharing a common interest: Bugaboo.  In little ways, even superficial ways, I could build a rapport with my mother-in-law by asking her to watch Bugaboo.  I would have an excuse to talk about all the little things going on in her life: how she eats, what tricks she does, the way she likes to be held, what her favorite book is.  Finally, something important to me would be important to my in-laws.

When I decided to share Bugaboo with my in-laws, our relationship picked up almost instantly.  I found myself taking Bugaboo over to my mother-in-law’s house various afternoons just for a little play date.  And even when I got stuck in an hour long conversation with her, waiting for Bugaboo to wake from a nap, I realized it had been a sort of pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Babies are miracle workers that way.  They bring family and people together.  It would be hard to enjoy these good old days without family, even the in-laws!

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