You don’t have to be Greg Focker to understand that family integration can get awkward. Unlike nuclear kin, your partner’s relations haven’t spent decades watching you grow up, learning to appreciate your every
flaw quirk. But suddenly they’re family, so effort has to go into ingratiating them.
In a dream world, you would win every non-blood-relative over without compromising who you are, and everyone would get along without trying too hard. Also, holidays would be divided without contention. Unfortunately, we’re all stuck here in reality.
Opening up to new family is a challenge in itself, even before accounting for cousin Ralph’s body odor, Mom-in-law’s constant conspiracy theorizing, and aunt Judy’s tendency to pop by spontaneously so she can squeeze you for gossip under the guise of bonding. So how are you supposed to deal with the crazies you invite into your life simply by way of partnering up with the person you love? In the name of helping couples tackle the complex process of fusing families, we asked the experts to give us pointers on how to deal with 5 classic types of problem in-laws.
1. The Cheapskate (who arrives at every joint gathering with “alligator arms”)
Four years into marriage, Ellie Perez, 29, is still shocked when she and her husband have to pick up the check after dining out with her husband’s twin sister, whose mate is a successful hedge fund manager. “It’s hard not to resent her while eating together, knowing we’ll have to pay for the whole thing,” says Perez, who has started declining more and more of her penny-pinching sister-in-law’s invitations, even though she enjoys her company.
Solution: Change your own behavior to change the situation
Dr. Harriet Lerner points out that it’s important to have “a profound respect for [human] differences.” What one person calls “cheap,” for instance, another might call “frugal.” And since it’s nearly impossible to change someone, we have to focus on changing our own behavior—by inviting our relatives over for dinner instead of meeting them at a restaurant, for example—to improve certain situations. Rather than focusing on what’s right or wrong, which is entirely subjective, Lerner encourages directing energy toward more creative solutions.
2. The Batshit Crazy (who is batshit crazy)
In a forum dedicated to in-law related horrors, user ladymiseryali says that her gossipmonger of a mother-in-law regularly concocts outlandish stories about her and her husband. “She is constantly eaves dropping” says ladymiseryali, so she can construct lengthy, entirely false narratives based on bits and pieces of conversations. In addition to claiming that her son is physically abusive, the old lady refuses to clean up after herself in the home the three share, leaving puddles of urine on the bathroom floor for others to step in.
Solution: Sometimes, you just have to cut off all contact
Family Services expert Sharon Silver asserts that it takes “tremendous courage” to cut off contact with a hurtful relative. Silver argues that “when someone is rude or uses hurtful words” we are not limited to a nasty confrontation, or to ongoing subjugation. The choice is ours to “stop being around people” who are unkind, “whether they’re family or not.”
3. The Intruder (who just won’t stop sticking their nose in your business)
Hours after 36-year-old Marianna married 39-year-old Stefano, she was shocked to learn that her mother-in-law would be joining the newlyweds on their honeymoon in Paris. Throughout the trip, Marianna realized the extent to which her mother-in-law planned to be involved in the couple’s life.
Solution: Agree to set boundaries—as a couple
Family Counselor Kathy Fountain explains that a third party can negatively impact a relationship by triangulating it. “It can be destructive,” says Fountain, when one partner is influenced heavily by anyone in their family—whether the issue at hand is what car to purchase, or how to raise the kids. To preserve the sanctity of the marital bond, Fountain recommends that couples team up to keep the intrusive party at bay. As a united front, a pair is likely to be taken more seriously when they demand a phone call before visits, or set limits on the frequency of get-togethers.
4. The Underminer (who consistently degrades you and/or your side of the family)
Lisa Litt, 46, the owner of Lili Bridals, says that her ex in-laws treated her and her parents “like second-class citizens” because they weren’t doctors or lawyers. “The little underhanded digs were constant,” says Litt, who grows enraged at the very thought that she ever tolerated such nonsense. “The problem is that in the beginning you don’t want to rock the boat.”
Solution: Respond, but not until you’ve calmed down
According to Dr. Harriet Lerner, the author of Marriage Rules: A Manual For the Married and Coupled Up, although neglecting an issue altogether isn’t productive, it’s wise to avoid addressing an insult when you’re still incensed by it. Anger can be “a vehicle for change,” but only after we calm ourselves down and “get a grip on our own anxiety and reactivity.” So whether you breathe, go for a walk, or pop an anti-anxiety pill, wait a little before telling someone they’re being an absolute jerkface.
5. The Controller (who tries to exert an outrageous amount of authority over your relationship)
In yet another forum dedicated to in-law horror stories, user TwoCityBride tells of her sister-in-law, who distributed “a massive Word document” the day after her wedding outlining “over the top rules” about when and where they could speak to her new husband. When Bridezilla’s first child was born, she forbade her husband’s family from visiting the hospital, but welcomed her own relations and friends.
Solution: Choose your battles—carefully
Judith Orloff, M.D., the author of Emotional Freedom, writes that controllers can be “rigidly preoccupied with details” and are “always looking for a power struggle.” So while Orloff advises confronting a controller about high-priority issues such as being banned from a birth experience, she recommends letting the smaller things slide. And when making your case, be “healthily assertive,” but “never try to control a controller.”