In-Laws, Am I Right?

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Dear Hoopers,
As the holidays approach my newlywed husband and I have been navigating our priorities with visiting family and making time for ourselves, our health, and the new memories we want to make as a couple. Both of us would agree that one side of our family is consistently level and understanding about our plans, respects our autonomy as a married couple, and is generally supportive and encouraging. This often leads to the richest kind of quality family time whenever that is possible.

The other side of our family deals with a very dysfunctional and demanding personality who often engages in manipulation and argumentative behavior in order to have everyone meet their unending set of unrealistic and overstepping expectations. Because of the outbursts of accusations, demands, and even lies that are imminent when that individual is not accommodated to a T, the other side of the family has historically tended to ameliorate and appease the situation by whatever means possible; which includes trying to meet that person’s unrealistic expectations, not communicate about the blatant immaturity and respect issues at hand, and overall has allowed themselves to be used as doormats or emotional receptacles every time a temper tantrum is thrown.

As a new in-law to this family, being on the receiving end of that family member’s behavior has been jarring at best and damaging at worst; and we’ve only been married three months. My best responses have been to remain non-reactive, disengage and take distance… But this is very hard to do when my better half is at times consumed with how to manage the fallout. How do I respond in love, when everything in me wants to call this person out for their childish behavior and slowly phase them out of my life?

How do I encourage reconciliation while not conceding to a pattern of capitulation that I want nothing to do with? What’s the best way to set healthy boundaries? Is it appropriate for me to shield my husband from destructive encounters with his own family, and even go as far as give this person a dose of reality? Honestly, we have so many more worthwhile things to be engaged with, and this one family member is a major energy suck.
In-laws, Am I Right?

Dear In-Laws,
Exhaustion! I’m sure that is one of the many emotions you feel in this situation, and it certainly overcame me while reading your submission. At three months in, you are newly navigating through married life and the strain your partner’s family can put on your relationship.

Setting healthy boundaries is going to be necessary. Phasing in-laws out of your life? Not easy and probably not necessary if you can establish expectations with your partner about their involvement in your life. If your partner has endured being a “doormat” while continuously putting out fires with his family, this has probably become the rhythm of normalcy for him. Realize that he is in a tough position, as the relationships with his family seems quite complicated. He is going to need your support.

Sit down with your partner to evaluate the circumstances and develop a game plan that’s right for both of you.


At a constructive time, when you are not fueled by the flames of frustration over the situation, sit down with your partner to evaluate the circumstances and develop a game plan that’s right for both of you. That may mean putting a limit on the time you spend with your in-laws, or participating in a well-planned activity where there is less room for argumentative and manipulative behavior. During these times I challenge you to put your most loving self forward. If it’s hard to fathom that for your in-laws, do it for your husband. It won’t be easy, but it may be a challenge of growth for you.

Dear In-Laws,
You are right to be frustrated and confused by this. It’s hard to be the new person to the family, adjusting to family nuances and craziness. My sense is that your mind is on overload about this issue, feeling torn between what you would normally do in a situation like this versus would will work within their family context. It’s probably a good thing not to fully trust your gut here. Family culture is a lot to get used to and takes some time.

I am very lucky to have wonderful in laws, but it still took a little time to figure out how I fit in with the family. This is probably a good idea for you too. Unless this family member is being blatantly hateful, buy yourself some time to see if a less direct approach can work for you. I would start with your spouse. What are his thoughts about this? What has he attempted in the past to set boundaries? You should express your concern and displeasure to your spouse, and talk through some options for him to take to make things better. During this time, you will learn more about your partner’s family and this family member. Perhaps this learning or perhaps your partner’s actions will make things more tolerable.

Buy yourself some time to see if a less direct approach can work for you.

-Dr. Ryan

If all else fails, you may have to take things into your own hands. Remember that your partner’s family is your family too, so approach this person like you would someone in your family. Be specific about the actions they are taking, how they make you feel, and what you would like to be different. If you still feel stymied, your “disengage and distance” approach may be your only option.
-Dr. Ryan