Marriage and Family — 07 September 2005
How to deal with challenging in-laws

Once an adult child makes the choice of a life partner, his/her relationship with the parents changes. The mate captures the central position in terms of love, loyalty, and source of influence.

What newly married couples need most from both sets of parents are: Acceptance, Respect and Validation.

Having one’s parents like and welcome the fiancé is greatly reassuring to the adult child during a confusing and self-doubting time. When parents do not approve of the mate, the adult child may feel alone and frightened and may start his/her life commitment on unsteady footing.

Throughout marriage, most people desire to have their parents appreciate and embrace their spouse. This acceptance allows the partner to feel secure in the connection with the original family and the new one without having his/her allegiance challenged.

When parents in- law are critical, disapproving, or judgmental of their child’s spouse, they create an emotionally conflicted child. Every partner wants to be supportive of his/her mate AND of his/her parents. When the parents complain to their adult child about the ways of the mate, a psychological “triangle” occurs. The Adult child is essentially asked to either side with the parents against his/her spouse or side with the spouse against his/her parents. This is a painful and destructive predicament that should be avoided.

Any issues of concern to parents should be directly and RESPECTFULLY be brought up with the son/daughter in law. Two parties can best handle all conflicts between them. The use of the spouse is ineffectual, hurtful and only serves to create a rift between the pair or with the parents.

Couples want to be viewed by their parents as autonomous adults who are competent to make their own decisions, even if they do not match their parents’ preferences.

This type of respect is hard for some parents to provide. The senior couple may feel more experienced, wiser and clearer about what does and does not work well in life. As “good parents”, they may feel obligated to continue instructing their children to spare them from making mistakes. This behavior discounts adult children and is an insult to their own competency.

Validation is the loving approval parents need to lavish upon their children of any age. Throughout their lives adult children need the positive input of their parents about themselves, their spouses, their children, their ideas, actions and choices for their healthy self-esteem. The absence of it leaves the younger generation insecure about themselves, doubting their worth and forever yearning to please the parents.

Parents who find it difficult to consistently support their children with love and encouragement are often troubled themselves. They may be repeating what they received from their parents. They may be bound by values, attitudes, rules and expectations that are old fashioned or inappropriate. They may have personality traits that limit their capacity for positive energy. They may be depressed, angry, needy, anxious or insecure and use their children to alleviate their discomfort. They may fear losing their child’s loyalty and thus view the spouse as a threat. These among other possibilities often interfere with parents’ efficacy.

Even when the daughter/son in-law is the troubled person, cordial acceptance may facilitate the child’s life.

• Early parental concerns about your mate selection should be voiced and heard. Once the choice is made, parents are wise to accept their adult child’s spouse.
• Healthy parents of married children should be supportive, respectful and validating of their children and their spouses and family.

• If your parents fail to do so, your primary responsibility is to your spouse and secondarily to your parents. Avoid having a separate relationship with the parents to the exclusion of your mate. You and your mate are the new unit, not to be separated. Tell your parents that you love your spouse and refuse to hear their complaints. Advise them to talk directly to your spouse about changeable behaviors that are troublesome to them.

• Avoid complaining to your spouse about his/her parents. Your partner is not responsible for their ways and is not in a position to change their nature. He/she will only feel hurt and estranged from you.
• You and your spouse must stay a united team.
• Reduce contact with parents who are consistently and unchangeably hurtful to you, your partner or your children.

• You have much more power than you imagine in demanding and achieving parental change since the parents have more to lose by a curtailed relationship.
• Continue to cultivate your love relationship with your partner and assure him/her of your undivided loyalty and love.

September 4, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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