“My in-laws want to see my kids constantly. They drop by the house unexpectedly and stay for long visits. They offer unwanted advice about everything from breast pumps to hemorrhoids.”
Can you relate to those statements? If so, then how do you usually respond when your in-laws say or do something you don’t like? Do you gossip about them to your spouse, parents, siblings, and friends? Do you hold grudges against them? Do you demand that your mate tell his or her parents to jump off a cliff? If so, then it’s time to tweak your behavior a bit so you can start getting your needs met.
Rather than gossiping about your in-laws, why not communicate directly with them to resolve differences? Instead of holding grudges against them, why not set boundaries so their behavior doesn’t have such a negative impact on you? Rather than insisting that your spouse handle every disagreement, why not earn their respect by standing up for yourself in an assertive manner? (Sure, there are times when your spouse should confront his own parents, but there are also times when it’s appropriate for you to address the problem.)
It’s quite possible that you have in-laws from hell, but don’t assume that until you’ve communicated your needs and given them a chance to respond appropriately. They may not realize you feel smothered when they invite themselves over constantly or show up unannounced. They may have no idea that you’d like their visits to be a bit shorter. They may honestly think they are being helpful when they give you advice about how to flatten your tummy.
It’s usually not necessary to have a big serious confrontation to communicate your needs. Just be respectfully assertive whenever a problem situation comes up, and set boundaries if necessary. Here are some examples of what I mean:
1) The next time your in-laws call to invite themselves over, you could say, “Tomorrow won’t work for me, but next Wednesday would be great if you’re free then.”
2) If your in-laws show up unexpectedly, feel free to say, “This isn’t a good time for me, but you’re welcome to come over Saturday evening. From now on, give us a call before you come over– I’d hate for you to waste a trip if we aren’t available.” (This approach won’t work if your spouse is home and invites his parents in. You don’t have control over your spouse’s behavior, just your own.)
3) The next time you invite your in-laws for a visit, be specific about what length of time they are welcome to stay. You could say, “We would love for you to come visit us December 23rd through December 26th if you’re available then” or “I’m available from noon until 2pm on Friday if you’d like to come over to the house.”
4) If your in-laws tend to offer unwanted advice about things like breastfeeding or spanking, you could say, “Thanks for your input, but I’ve decided to do it this way instead.”
In-laws with healthy behavior will respond appropriately when you communicate your needs and draw boundaries. However, in-laws with destructive behavior will choose to be offended and try to make you feel guilty for having needs that conflict with theirs. It’s important to stand your ground with controlling, manipulative in-laws. Behave as an adult on an equal level to them. Here are some things you can say if they react negatively when you state your needs and draw boundaries:
1) “You’re entitled to your opinion, [Helen], but this isn’t up for negotiation.” (Make sure you call her by first name because calling her “Mrs. [Smith]” or “Mom” may encourage her to dominate you.)
2) “I’m sorry you’re upset, [Harry], but I still need for you to [call first before coming over].” (That lets him know you are aware that he isn’t happy about the situation, but that you still expect him to respect your needs.)
3) “[Helen], I’m not willing to discuss this anymore. Is there something you’d like to talk about instead?”
You can’t control your in-laws’ behavior, but you can control the way their behavior affects you.