Do Your In-Laws Make You Crazy?

Do Your In-laws Make You Crazy ?           

Are you sick and tired of critical, disapproving in-laws?

Do you feel they shouldn’t be your problem?

That you didn’t sign up for them too?

In the thrall of new love’s glow you may have minimized your partner’s expectation for you to have a congenial relationship with your in-laws. In fact, you may not have fully understood that a relationship forms an alliance between two families― each of which has its own cast of quirky, idiosyncratic characters.

Each family has unique rites of initiation for new members to join its clan. Some families are warm and welcoming, while others are closed and rejecting. Generally, unless you are a terrorist or a three-headed monster, how your partner’s parents first responded to you probably has little to do with you and more about the family culture. Nevertheless, you still get stuck with the consequences of the family’s approach with outsiders.

In-laws and Popular Culture. The problematic in-law relationship is not a new phenomenon. In the 1950’s and early 60’s my family watched the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. We particularly liked the comedians, all of whom at times mercilessly skewered mothers-in-law and blamed them for the totality of family angst. A popular song of this era, Mother-in Law portrayed a mother-in Law as “the worst person I know” Most TV family sitcoms had at least one over-bearing mother-in-law. Popular culture’s message has caused people to expect problems with in-laws.

What do I do? By now you are probably asking the question: Besides grinning and bearing it, jaws clenched and eyes popping, what can be done? Well, you start by acknowledging the problem (if there is one) and work your way through the matrix below. Your efforts will be rewarded by your broadened perspective, your realization of your options, and a new found clarity to help you make some decisions. The matrix begins here:

Start with yourself. Try to put aside your frustration, anger, or annoyance. Everyone has different feelings about family. Some love to belong to a big family, others want no part of it. It is up to you to decide for yourself what level of involvement you want. What kind of relationship would you like with your in-laws?   Is it appealing to you to connect with a group larger than you and your partner?

Assess your partner’s relationship with his or her family. Is your partner close, distant, dependent, or enmeshed with family? How much time does your partner want to spend with his or her family? Is your partner emotionally dependent on his or her family for approval? Do you feel that your partner’s family relationship interferes with his or her ability to be in relationship with you?

Put the shoe on the other foot. Identify the obligations or pressures your family puts on your partner. How has your partner responded? Has your partner been accommodating or angry to your family? Does acknowledging your partner’s sacrifice help you to cope with your in-laws?

Do a cost-benefit analysis. Do your in-laws provide support which makes your life easier or better, i.e. financial, emotional, business contacts, child-care? What do you get in return for the sacrifice you make to spend time with your in-laws? What are the trade-offs?

Take the long view. Over time has your relationship with your in-laws changed? Is the trend toward improvement, deterioration, or stability? Compare how the relationship is now with the way it was when you met them. Identify actions you might take to move the relationship in the direction you want it to go.

Divided loyalties. Are you forcing your partner to take your side in family conflict? If the answer is yes, you are asking too much. It is always a bad strategy and will only make your partner miserable to be torn in opposite directions. Understand that no matter how much you’d might like your in-laws to disappear, asking your partner to cut ties with them is not a real option. Do whatever you can to find a mutual solution.

Work for a constructive dialogue. Consider how your partner responds to your complaints about family. Does your partner understand your discomfort, frustration, or anger? Are you able to talk with them constructively about the matter? If not, what changes to you need to make in your communication? Think about how to share with your partner your responses to this matrix. Look forward to the day when you and your partner work cooperatively as a team, having learned to resolve issues together.


Jerry is a patient, warm-hearted therapist dedicated to guiding couples to breakthroughs. He has counseled individuals and couples for over 40 years, in a variety of settings. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology at Saybrook Institute in San Francisco and a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology at Antioch New England University. Jerry co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Mary Ellen Goggin — and they were married by chapter 3. Jerry brings a great depth and breadth of expertise to his work, and distills nuanced theories into actionable simplicity. He loves The New Yorker, dew-laden fairways, and dusty delta blues. His revolution: changing the world, one couple at a time. Read more about the retreats