Psychological tips for newlyweds: Dealing with the in-laws

Both husband and wife need to remember that their marital relationship comes first.

Mother in law (illustrative photo) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Mother in law (illustrative photo)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
In-laws mean a lot of things to different people. They can be loved or hated, generous or stingy, supportive or critical, available or unavailable, overly intrusive or very distant, demanding or giving, and the list goes on and on. In fact, dealing with in-laws can be confusing, and the cause of many arguments around the dinner table. Learning how to deal with in-laws is crucial for long-term marital stability.
Judith and Sam had been married for three years. They had a one-year-old son. Judith initiated marital therapy, feeling that Sam was overly involved with his parents. Every Friday night, Sam’s parents expected the young couple to come to their home for dinner. This expectation was so strong that Sam shuddered when thinking about not showing up on Friday night.
This pressure became even stronger after their son was born. What made things even more difficult for Judith was that Sam’s parents lived in the same neighborhood, walking distance from their home. Sam felt very obligated to speak to his parents regularly, and Sam’s mother often told Judith how to raise her son and manage the household. It was driving Judith “crazy.” To make things worse, Judith was also very upset with Sam because she did not feel that Sam liked her parents. She frequently complained to him that she wanted to spend more time with her mother and father. Sam was not very responsive to her requests.
According to a University of Michigan study by research psychologist Terri Orbuch published in 2012, Judith and Sam were making some very serious mistakes in how they related to each other concerning their parents. Orbuch began the 26-year longitudinal study in 1986 and followed 373 couples from their first year of marriage. Her findings were that men and women treat in-law relationships very differently. According to the research, men who report having a close relationship with their in-laws are 20 percent less likely to divorce whereas women who report having a close relationship to their in-laws are 20% more likely to divorce.
At first glance, these findings seem counterintuitive.
Explaining her findings, Orbuch told The Wall Street Journal (November 27, 2012 online edition) that “because relationships are so important to women, their identity as a wife and mother is central to their being, ...they interpret what their in-laws say and do as interference into their identity as a spouse and parent.”
What this means is that yes, women may seek closeness with their in-laws, but are more sensitive to gestures that intimate interference in their roles as wife and parent, thereby necessitating better boundaries and distance from their in-laws. Clearly, this was a major source of tension for Judith with Sam’s parents.
Wives were also found to pay close attention to their own parents’ relationships with their husbands, so when a husband makes an effort to get along with his wife’s parents, his wife feels taken care of, too. Undoubtedly, this was missing in Sam’s relationship with Judith’s parents.
The research found that the husband needs to get along with either both or one of his wife’s parents for this to positively affect future marital stability.
Unlike women, who desire that their husbands have good relationships with their parents, Orbuch found that men don’t need their wives to be close to their parents. The man’s identity as a father and a husband is often secondary to his identity as a provider.
My work with Judith and Sam was directed at trying to help them change the balance of their boundaries with their parents in ways that helped each feel more secure with their in-laws and each other. Some central points of advice are listed below for both in-laws and married partners.
• Parents of sons should ensure that their activities aren’t seen as meddling by their daughters- in-law.
• Wives should appropriately, but firmly, establish boundaries with their in-laws to prevent meddling.
• Parents of daughters should spend more quality time with sons-in-law to build a good relationship.
Buying presents at appropriate times like birthdays is always good.
• Fathers-in-law should be very supportive and avoid competition with sons-in-law.
• Husbands, on the other hand, should reach out to their in-laws and make sure they feel included.
• Both husband and wife need to remember that their marital relationship comes first, and if there are difficulties with in-laws, sit down with your partner and tell them what it is. Together, try to think of a way to solve the problem.
• As a rule, let your spouse be a mediator for your feelings with your in-laws.
• Be assertive about your principles when in-laws do interfere and you feel they have crossed a red line. You can do this in an amicable way without compromising your real feelings.
• Limit your time with in-laws. It’s very important to have private time for yourselves as adults as well as private time with your spouse, children, and when desired, friends and community.
It is important to remember that your goal should be to try to get along with your in-laws.
Obviously, there are some in-laws that are better than others, but at the end of the day, it is important to keep this relationship amicable.
In-laws can be a good source of support for your family as long as you keep your expectations realistic and your boundaries clear. When in doubt, seek professional guidance. 
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist, with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana; he also provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy.;