Boundary-Setting With Your In-Laws
“Dear, could you please help me set the table when you finish up?” your husband’s Mom asks sweetly. You’re at her house early pending a weekly family dinner, and there’s nothing wrong with her polite request…except that she’s talking to you through the bathroom door while you’re on the toilet, despite your repeated reminders to please not talk to you while you’re in the bathroom!
Your husband’s family is loving, supportive of your relationship, and close. VERY close. They’re practically up each other’s butts all the time! Last Friday at dinner his mother was nonchalantly giving you unsolicited sex advice as she passed you the chicken soup, and the week before, her father was telling a rather personal story about one of his marital conflicts. They ask you inappropriate questions, disclose information you don’t want to know, and talk to you while you’re on the shitter.
Your personal idea of boundaries happens to be a lot different than theirs, but you have no idea how to get the message across without offending them. Getting quiet when they share an uncomfortable amount of detail has not worked. Changing the subject when they try to ask you things you don’t want to answer has not gotten the message across. Small, polite comments like “oh haha that’s a lot of personal information!” have gone unnoticed.
You may feel like you need to choose between a confrontation that risks damaging the relationship, and putting up with that yucky feeling of having your boundaries transgressed for the rest of your life. Situations like this often seem to necessitate making a fool’s choice–a choice between two bad options. Fortunately, this is not actually the case. You can set boundaries effectively and skillfully while still maintaining a good relationship with your in-laws.
Step 1. Decide together as a couple what the boundaries are
You and your other half are the sole partners in charge of getting to decide what the boundaries are for you and your marriage. Not your parents, not their parents, not your best friend. So, the first step is to talk about these things, talk out differences, and agree on boundaries. When it comes to in-laws, can they just drop by unannounced, or do they need to call with a 30-minute or even one-week warning? With kids, are you and your partner the sole disciplinarians, or are in-laws welcome to step in to help with this role, and to what extent? Can either of your Moms call 5 times daily even if she interrupts date nights and together time? The two of you together, and no one else, get to determine which boundaries are healthy for your own marriage (Wooten, 2020).
Remember that before setting boundaries, it’s essential that you are in agreement as a couple about what those boundaries are, so take the time and energy needed to thoughtfully make those decisions together upfront. Do not compare yourselves to other couples–they are not you. You two, with your unique circumstances, personalities, values, and history as a couple, can decide better than anyone else what constitutes healthy boundaries for your relationship.
In-Laws and Prenups
It’s also becoming increasingly common for in-laws to want to get involved in a couple’s prenuptial agreements. One reason is because many millennial couples require infusions of cash from their parents in order to put a downpayment on a house, and in-laws want to make sure that in the event the relationship goes sour, their ex son or daughter in-law does not walk off with their money (The Guardian, 2015). While this is a reasonable wish, it can open the door to more in-law involvement in something that should really only be about you and your partner.
These financially-minded parents are also partially responsible for driving an increased push for prenuptial agreements, period (The Guardian, 2015). While a prenup is always a wise decision, it should be your decision as a couple rather than something into which you are pressured by in-laws. Ideally, it is also not something in-laws should have much of a say in beyond protecting any money they intend to give…but that won’t stop some in-laws from also trying to issue heavy-handed advice and guidance around other parts of your prenup, as well. So, make sure to discuss questions of whether and to what extent parents can be involved in the process of drawing up your prenup.
Step 2: Clearly communicate your expectations to your in-laws
This part can go awry if you’re not skillful. This is the step where it’s normal to feel some tension between your desire to nurture the relationship with your in-laws and your need to have your boundaries respected. Remember, this is not a choice you should have to make, and there are some ways in which you can lay down the law in as kind, understandable, and non-alienating a way as possible.
First, let’s look at the actual meat of the discussion before turning to strategies for setting boundaries without causing damage to the relationship. The part of the conversation about boundaries should go something like this: Here are the behaviors we expect. Here are our boundaries, and here are examples of behaviors that are ok and not ok with us with regards to your role in our marriage.
As you can see, you’ll need to be very direct. This may feel confronting, but it’s an investment in the future of your relationship because it makes things very clear. For example…
-We invite you to stay in our home when you visit for the holidays.
-We love seeing you over the holidays, and we will need you to get a hotel.
-We are happy to receive your valuable relationship advice, though never when it’s about sex or reproduction.
-If we want to discuss our marital conflicts with you, we will initiate that discussion.
-We need you to not give the kids sugar without checking with us first.
And, when you’re talking about the in-laws’ involvement in your prenup..
-We are grateful for the chance to hear the wisdom you gleaned from writing your own prenup, and ultimately we will need you to leave the decision-making part to us.
-We need you not to ask us questions about what’s included in our prenup. We may share some things if we decide together that we would like to do that.
-We plus our prenuptial counselor are the only three people we are comfortable involving in the discussion and writing of our prenup.
You need to clearly communicate these things to them because we humans are absolutely dreadful at reading minds. We often fail to pick up on cues, we interpret information that isn’t there, and we miss or forget important information if it isn’t highlighted. We all have different values, expectations and life stories, so it’s natural that what seems obvious to you regarding boundaries might not be as obvious to your in-laws. Therefore, it’s not fair to them if you expect them to behave in particular ways, but they don’t know what those expectations are. So, dropping the pretense and letting them in on what you’re thinking is very much a blessing, because it prevents future conflicts and saves them from the guesswork and discomfort of uncertainty.
How to Set Boundaries While Continuing to Nurture the Relationship
STEP 1: Cultivate an empathic mindset before starting the discussion. Remember that your in-laws have known your partner far longer than you have, and letting that person go and be taken care of by/start a life with another person is not an easy task. Remember that your wonderful partner, whom you love and admire so much, was molded and sculpted by the upbringing they received from your in-laws. Call to mind all the positive qualities of your in-laws, and the love they have for your partner. Recall what you know of the struggles they’ve faced in life and how they’ve overcome and grown from them.
It’s crucial that you make sure your in-laws know they’re loved and and you’re not a threat. You want them to see you as someone who just wants to love their kid the best you know how (Ihe-Okuneye, 2015). You need to set boundaries, but coming at it from this viewpoint will help you do it empathically. And when you go into the discussion coming from a place of love, understanding and empathy, your goodwill will come through in your tone of voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms.
STEP 2: Start with what you appreciate about your relationship. In the case of the overbearing parents-in-law mentioned at the beginning of this article, you might start by telling them “Hey, most of the time we really appreciate how close this family is. We can feel the warmth and love flowing in high volume through this family.” You can keep telling them things you appreciate about them whenever else you can during the discussion, too.
STEP 3: Take some shared responsibility for your common goal and invite them to get on board. Your common goal is to maintain a good relationship. If one party is doing something that makes the other uncomfortable, that will contribute to deterioration of the relationship over time, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to address these things by setting boundaries whenever necessary..
For our overly-close family in question, this part might involve continuing with “since we’re getting married, we’ve been talking about our needs as a couple. There are some needs we have which might be different from what you’re used to. You guys represent one of the most important relationships in our lives, so we thought we should probably communicate with you about what we need from our relationship with you in order to ensure that we nurture this cherished connection more and more over time. Can we count on you to help us make that happen?”
STEP 4: Use the rule of but/and. ‘But’ is a word that sounds like it’s negating whatever you previously said. It is often interpreted roughly as “whatever I just said is not as important as what I am about to say next, and also what I just said isn’t really true. Also, F*** you.” Instead of ‘but’ statements, use ‘and’ statements. For example, compare these pairs of statements:
We love that you have such a strong relationship with our kids, but we don’t want you to discipline them.
We love that you have such a strong relationship with our kids, and we will really appreciate it if you consult with us before disciplining them.
We know you have experience with writing your own prenup, but we need to work out the details of ours by ourselves.
We appreciate your well-intentioned offer to help us with our prenup, and we have determined that it will be really good for us as a couple to do this one on our own.
STEP 5: Remember the 5:1 ratio. Psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman found that happy couples have a ratio of at least 5:1 positive to negative interactions, especially in conflict. That means that For every negative interaction that occurs, 5 positive interactions are needed to make up for it. We can also extend this rule to other human relationships. No matter how kind and empathic you are, your in-laws may still feel hurt by your asking them to alter some of their behavior. That is just a part of humans reacting to each other; it happens sometimes and it cannot always be avoided.
However, we can do damage control by creating lots and lots of positive interactions in the wake of a difficult discussion. Throughout the discussion itself, you can remind your in-laws that you’re doing this in order to nurture your relationship by preventing misunderstandings and tension in the future. After the discussion, you can make an effort to create plenty of separate positive interactions with your in-laws, too. Invite them for a home-cooked meal, get them a thoughtful gift, call them to say hi. Do little things that communicate “even though we had to have a difficult conversation, we love you and you’re important to us.”
By using the 5:1 ratio to build up the relationship during and after a difficult discussion, you can offset any negative effects while investing in your future as a family.
Feel free to use the quotes given here for inspiration, and keep in mind that ultimately you’ll need to personalize them in order to make them feel natural. Just remember to be on the same page as a couple before you set boundaries, start the discussion with empathy, be clear and direct, show love and appreciation at every step, highlight your common goal, use ‘and’ statements over ‘but’ statements, and employ the 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.
Wooten, Eric. (2020). How to Manage Boundaries with In-Laws. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tE4K5XDbUmc
Ihe-Okuneye, ZeeZee. (2015). Marriage Advice: How to Handle a Meddling Mother-in-Law. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eO3a9dRK0Y