Updated 30 June 2014

In-laws driving you insane?

In-laws can be angels – sweet and nice and helpful and supportive. And then there’s the vast majority. Here is a short guide on dealing with Bonnie and Clyde. Unarmed.

Right, so you didn’t choose them. You chose their son or daughter. But when you get married, it’s often a package deal. Or a Lucky Dip. Or an unlucky one, for that matter.

In-laws can be angels – sweet and nice and helpful and supportive. And then there’s the vast majority.

Do your in-laws make you feel inadequate, unsuccessful, not quite good enough, and just generally down-in-the-dumps? You are not alone. In-law trouble is one of the greatest sources of family and marital stress.

Here is a short guide on dealing with Bonnie and Clyde. Unarmed.

Bite your tongue. If your mother-in-law makes unwanted comments or suggestions (remarks on your weight, your interior decorating, your cooking skills), difficult as it may be, agree with her and ask for advice. Once she’s gone you don’t have to follow it. But she will feel mollified, rather than huffy and aggrieved.

Never criticise their child. You chose your spouse, they brought him/her up. Any direct criticism, even on something like dress sense, will be experienced as an indirect criticism of them. Remember, families close ranks in the face of outside opposition, regardless of the divisions and in-fighting there might be. Never, ever fight with your spouse in front of your in-laws. Also stay out of any sibling rivalry issues there might be – you’ll ultimately get it in the neck.

Pick up the phone. Make it a weekly thing, preferably on the same evening. Five minutes is all it takes. Remember to ask about things that are important to them – health, outings, their other kids. You should know them by this stage. A regular phone call will win you many brownie points.

Ask them for help with your kids. Especially if they are retired, they probably have time on their hands. The occasional babysitting session might cause them great joy (make sure of this first). Generally, grandparents love grandchildren and adore spending some time alone with them. Just don’t overdo it. Someone of sixty can’t handle a two-year-old toddler for days on end.

Don’t openly favour your parents. Everyone knows that your own parents will always come first with you. Don’t make it obvious that you favour your parents by doing things like spending every Christmas with them. Remember, your spouse feels about his/her parents like you feel about yours. Make some effort to be fair, and to be seen to be so.

Try and avoid financial involvement. This cuts both ways. It is better for you not to lend them money and it is better that they don’t lend you money. Sometimes this cannot be avoided, but make sure that there is a clear plan to pay back the money. And stick to it. Also try and avoid going into business ventures together. This is mostly a recipe for disaster and a reason for endless bitterness and recriminations.

Make regular dates with them. If you have a fixed date with them, such as the first Sunday of the month, they probably won’t try to pressurise you constantly into social engagements. They can spend the whole month looking forward to it. In this way, you will get far more mileage out of the event than if you invited them on the day before. And take a bit of trouble with the cooking – and involve your mother-in-law. She is less likely to criticise anything if she had a hand in it.

Don’t compete for attention. You need to get them into ally-mode, not into enemy-mode. If you try and come between them and their child, or try and make your spouse choose between you, you could come horribly short. Be nice, be polite, and above all, don’t openly antagonise them.

Be helpful. This doesn’t mean that you have to become a slave at their beck and call 24 hours of the day. But if you’re going to go to the chemist anyway, it won’t kill you to phone and ask if you can get them something. There is little difference in the effort it takes to pick up one, or two, bags of dog food. And changing the odd light bulb will put you into their good books too. You’ll get a lot for very little.

Hit the road. If you do have the in-laws from hell, and they are interfering in your life, moving away might be the only solution. Just make sure that you have your spouse’s support on this, or you might find yourself being held responsible for the move to the back-of-beyond - not something you’d like on your conscience. See a family counsellor if things are really out of control. You might need to find a way to cut ties or minimise contact.

(Susan Erasmus, Healthy24, updated August 2011)

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