Horror stories about monstrous mother-in-laws, bigoted father-in-laws and clueless sister or brother-in-laws abound in pop culture. You can see in-laws at their worst in The In-Laws (1979 and 2003), Hush (1998), Monster-in-Law (2005), Mother Knows Best (1997) and The Governor’s Wife (2008). Plus, nearly every week, someone is writing to a newspaper advice columnist about in-law trouble.
With all this evidence that in-laws are bad news, it might seem impossible to have a healthy relationship with yours. But there is hope! Try these eight steps toward a beneficial and rewarding connection with your in-laws.
Love them. Seems simplistic, but we sometimes forget that we’re called to love our in-laws, no matter what. That doesn’t mean we ignore bad behavior (see the caution note at the end of this article), but it does mean that our first thought of them should be love. We should strive to practice being a loving in-law ourselves too.
Pray for them. Whether or not your in-laws are believers, we are called to pray for our family. But watch out that you don’t pray like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11 (“Thank God I’m not like that sinner!”). “If you find yourself only praying that God would cure them of XYZ faults, you should also pray that God would work in your heart to help you see them like He does,” said Carolyn Erickson of Fairfax, Virginia. “Remember that you need grace too—and that sometimes, you’re part of the problem!”
Have a thankful heart. These are the people who love your spouse or who love your son or daughter as much as you do. Be grateful for that and “look for other traits for which to be thankful versus looking for traits that you think could benefit from a change,” said Ginny Hamlin of Riverside, California.
Respect them for who they are. They are not perfect--but neither are you. Everyone has faults, but everyone also has been made in God’s image. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them on everything, but you should treat them as you would want to be treated. The Golden Rule isn’t just for kids.
It’s not always personal. You should keep in mind that comments expressed by an in-law might not be directed at you. We can develop very prickly skin when it comes to interactions with our in-laws, and filter everything they say as a critique of us. “Sometimes you have to decide ahead of time that nothing they say is a direct attack on you,” said Erickson.
Give them the benefit of the doubt. At times, we’re much too quick to assume the worst or assign the wrong motive to something said or done by in-laws. Make it a habit to look at each interaction from the best possible angle, and overlook as much of the little stuff—those annoying habits or expressions—as you can (and hope that they will do the same for you).
Enjoy their traditions. You may have married into a family very different from your own or your child may be united to someone who comes from another background. Rather than dismiss those differences, inquire about them. Invite them to incorporate one or two into your own family’s traditions. Ask questions about their heritage, not to be nosy but to show you care. Knowing some of their background stories can provide new insight into the person they are today and could bring fresh understanding to your relationship.
There’s no right way. This is especially important to keep in mind when tackling holidays and other things that have always been done a certain way in your family. Some people insist that their way is the only way, but a healthy relationship with your in-laws depends in large part on you being able to appreciate various points of view when it comes to celebrations and traditions.
For example, when we started having children, my mother graciously told me that she was fine with our spending Christmas morning in our own home by ourselves, rather than at my childhood home with my parents. That gift of understanding how important it was for a new family to establish our own holiday traditions was very precious to us, and one I plan to pass on when my children marry.
For mother and father-in-laws, keep in mind that your child married this person, so that should be all you need to know to extend love and good wishes. You might have chosen differently, but it wasn’t your choice to make. By making the effort to be gracious and loving, you will pave the way to a future of mutual love and affection. Besides, he or she will be--or might already be--the father or mother of your grandchildren.
For son and daughter-in-laws, remember that your spouse’s parents are the ones who raised the woman or man that you love. You might not agree with everything they did or do, but you should be appreciative of the fact that they had a large part in the person you married.
One final note of caution: Sometimes, a relationship isn’t possible because of an unsafe environment or abuse. In that case, limiting or eliminating contact might be your only option. Seek the counsel of a pastor or therapist to help you and your spouse navigate that path to ensure you are not contributing to the problem and that you will be open to future exchanges with the in-laws should the situation change.
Having a healthy relationship with your in-laws takes effort, but the payoff is worth it. After all, these are the grandparents of your kids—or the parents of your grandchildren.
A certified Leadership Parenting Coach,™ Sarah Hamaker has written Ending Sibling Rivalry: Moving Your Kids From War to Peace. Her blogs on parenting have appeared in The Washington Post’s On Parenting, and she’s a frequent contributor to Crosswalk.com. Sarah lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her online at www.parentcoachnova.com and follow her on Twitter @parentcoachnova.