Drawing Boundaries with Difficult In-laws Don’t let you marriage suffer at the hands of your in-laws. BY JENNA D. BARRY
When dealing with in-laws, there's a way you can set boundries while being tactful.
Can you relate to the following statement?
"My in-laws call constantly, drop by unexpectedly, criticize the way we raise our kids, and manipulate us with guilt if we don’t do exactly what they think we should. They often put my husband in a position to choose between being a great spouse and an obedient son."
Most experts agree that the best way to handle destructive in-laws is to draw boundaries with them. The question is who should be the one to draw those boundaries? Some say that if the husband’s parents are the problem, then he—rather than his wife—should confront them so they are less likely to get their feelings hurt. Likewise, if the wife’s parents are the problem, then she should deal with them directly. That’s terrific advice in a perfect world. The problem is—yes, you guessed it—we don’t live in a perfect world.
There are few things in life more difficult than being assertive with our own parents, especially if they are controlling and manipulative. In order for your spouse to confront his (or her) parents about their destructive behavior, he must (1) realize their behavior is destructive, and (2) have the courage to confront them about it. Without proper counseling or education, it may be nearly impossible for your partner to realize his parents are controlling, intrusive, and/or manipulative. Why? Because they are his definition of "normal." Even if you are fortunate enough to have a spouse who recognizes that his parents’ behavior is a threat to your marriage, he may not have the courage to confront them.
There are things you can say and do to help your spouse recognize destructive behavior and be courageous enough to draw boundaries with his folks (I cover this in detail in my new book). However, this is not an overnight process. For many years, your partner has learned false beliefs from his parents. For example, he may believe his parents are superior to him when actually he is an adult on an equal level with them. It could take a long time to re-define normal by replacing his faulty thinking with the truth.
So then what should you do while you are waiting for that perfect world in which you are united as a couple to deal with difficult in-laws? Are you doomed to remain in the role of a helpless victim? Should you be silent while your in-laws’ behavior wreaks havoc on your marriage? Certainly not! You can do what is in your power to protect your marriage. In other words, while you are waiting to gain your spouse’s loyalty, you can draw healthy boundaries with his parents.
Here are four important things to remember when drawing boundaries:
1. Treat your in-laws the way you’d want your spouse to treat your own parents. In other words, be respectful, mature and tactful.
2. You can only draw boundaries effectively on issues that affect you. For example, you can control how often you talk to your in-laws on the phone (by screening calls), but you can’t control when your spouse talks to them.
3. In some situations it’s better to gain respect by standing up for yourself rather than expecting your husband to rescue you. For example, if your father-in-law teases you about your weight, you could say, "It’s not okay for you to tease me about my weight."
4. You can’t force your in-laws to change their behavior, but you can change your own behavior. If you start to speak and behave in a different way, then they will likely change their behavior. For example, you can’t force them to stop dropping by unexpectedly, but if you stop answering the door, they probably won’t keep showing up. At first your in-laws will probably be upset by your behavior, but eventually they will learn to expect it, and then you will have re-defined "normal."
While it’s true that you can’t force your partner to draw boundaries with his parents, here’s what you can do:
1. Tactfully help him recognize the difference between healthy and destructive behavior
2. Communicate your feelings and needs to him in a calm, gentle manner
3. Focus on reaching loving compromises
It won’t be easy for your partner to transform from a parent pleaser into a loyal spouse, but I can tell you from personal experience that it is possible. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to draw boundaries with your in-laws. It’s better to speak the truth in love—even if it causes a few hurt feelings—than to stay silent while your marriage suffers.
Jenna D. Barry is the author of "A Wife’s Guide to In-laws: How to Gain Your Husband’s Loyalty Without Killing His Parents." Find more at www.WifeGuide.org.