How to Build Successful In-Law Relationships

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We have all heard them - those obnoxious mother-in-law jokes. Like, two friends were talking and one said to the other, "That mother-in-law of mine is an angel." His friend replies, "You are so lucky. Mine is still alive!"

Candidly, I have been fortunate all my married life to have had an absolutely marvelous mother-in-law. She has been wonderful to all of the sons-in-law and daughters-in-law and sets a pretty high standard for mothers-in-law everywhere.

But clearly, not every in-law relationship is quite as wonderful or else folks would not laugh at the in-law jokes. So, if you are getting married for the first time, or if you are thinking about remarrying, finding a way to create a great in-law relationship with your future wife's parents would be a big plus. And if you have some work to do on a current in-law relationship that is less than perfect, it is a worthwhile endeavor that will pay dividends for years to come.

So, here are a few ideas for building or rebuilding a great in-law relationship.

  • Avoid the negative talk. Often our relationships with in-laws are affected by the opinions of other family members. In some families, complaining about the mothers or fathers-in-law is a blood sport. Try showing respect for the in-laws, even when they are not present, by avoiding the temptation to join in the negative conversations. Building them up in private will help you maintain a good attitude. Look for the positives in their behavior, experiences, and attitudes and share those with others, including family members. Focusing on the positive instead of the negative will help the quality of the relationship.
  • Show gratitude. When your in-laws do something nice for you, your wife or your children, let them know that you appreciate it. A quick phone call, note or email to say thanks will go a long way to helping them see you in a positive light. Even a great dinner or nice evening together is worthy of a thank you.
  • Stay civil, no matter what. Some in-laws can be really difficult. One friend told me that his mother came to visit and went into the guest bathroom and cleaned the sink, the toilet and asked for fresh towels. The bathroom had been cleaned but she was just paranoid about germs. Fortunately, his wife understood this obsession of her mother-in-law and did not take it personally. They just smiled and tried to accommodate her. Throwing a fit about her behavior or calling her on her insensitivity would have done nothing to improve the situation.
  • Don't feel obligated to strain your home relationship to accommodate them. Some friends of ours have in-laws that love big family gatherings that are noisy and usually fun. But our friends have a child that does not do well in large, noisy settings and gets splitting headaches and then rebels. It is just not a workable solution, so they have found a better approach. They drop in on the in-laws at quieter times and then, for the big family events, they either come early and leave before it gets too crazy or they drop in at the end of the event when it is winding down. You can set appropriate boundaries that work for your family and its needs and then work within those boundaries to maintain a good relationship.
  • Deal effectively with advice, but not intrusion. Partly because of their life experiences, parents-in-law often offer advice about marriage, parenting, careers, and even decorating and landscaping. Usually, the advice is well-intentioned and even appreciated. But sometimes, it can offend the younger parents and create friction. If you feel comfortable with their advice, you can even ask them what they think or how they would handle a given situation. But when the advice is unwanted and unwelcome, you can just thank them for their input but indicate that your family has to do what works for your own situation. Don't let them divide you from your partner or become an obstacle in your relationship. Your family has to come first, but try to be civil and respectful when you need them to back off.
  • Overlook the little irritants. Relationships are clearly built on hundreds of little things, positive or negative. it is not usually one big thing that disrupts or damages a relationship. When there are little habits or things that they say that irritate you or create times when you might want to roll your eyes, try to let them go. After all, there are probably things you do that seem unusual or irritating to them too. Trying to let the little things slide can bring a little "lubrication" to a tough relationship.
  • Focus on yourself, not on them. Wondering "If she would only do ________, our relationship could be so much better" is not very helpful. You have no control over your mother-in-law or father-in-law, but only over your own attitudes and behavior. Think about what you could do differently that might make a positive difference in the relationship rather than wishing that "he or she" would get the message.
  • Do not tolerate abuse. If a father-in-law or mother-in-law engages in physical or emotional abuse, recognize that you have an obligation to protect yourself, your partner and your children. If the problem is serious, you need to be prepared to sever relationships in the name of personal and family protection. You can talk to the abuser and give them an opportunity to change early in the cycle, but know that you might have to be prepared to step in if needed and make a final decision.

I count my relationship with my in-laws as one of the most important in my life. We know that we have been blessed by that high-quality relationship and that not all others are as fortunate. But working on the quality of the relationship and helping make it more positive and rewarding can result in a benefit to your family that is worth the investment of time and energy.