Dear Therapist: I Had a Great Relationship With My In-Laws. Then Everything Changed.

illustration of a house with a crack in its shadow
BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I have been together for seven years and married for three. We have a 1-year-old daughter together.

It took me a long time to get into a relationship; I wanted to find someone I could get along with, but also in-laws I could get along with, because I grew up watching my parents fight about their parents all the time. When my husband and I first met, his family was very kind to me. In fact, his family and I often joke that I married him because his family was so awesome.

After I gave birth to our daughter, everything changed. I am suddenly being judged for not being a good mom, for not having a job, for not losing my pregnancy weight fast enough. My husband does not want to be stuck in the middle, and even though he’ll speak to his parents about this, nothing gets resolved, because he doesn’t push them for any kind of resolution. He basically tells them something they did wasn’t nice, they acknowledge it and sometimes apologize, and then they make more unnecessary comments.

My in-laws purchased a home for us after the birth of our baby. I realize now that this purchase came with a lot of strings attached. They want to see their granddaughter whenever it is convenient for them—not for us or when it’s best for our daughter. They don’t practice social distancing. When I bring this up to my husband, he tells me that we need to be accommodating to his parents because they purchased the home for us and we’d be considered ungrateful. I tell him that I’d be happy to move and rent if I would have more control over my life and my daughter’s. He says his parents would view this as a “slap in the face.”

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As much as I love my husband, I feel like the relationship I have with my in-laws is making this marriage difficult, because at the end of the day, he’ll choose his parents’ feelings over mine.

I don’t want my daughter growing up to see us fighting about her grandparents, as I did with my parents. Many times I’ve found myself holding my tongue to keep the peace. I want to set clear boundaries with my in-laws but also have a great relationship with them.

Do you have any insight for me?

Anonymous
Toronto


Dear Anonymous,

Many people experience differences with their in-laws over issues like control or perceived criticism, but I imagine that for you, these differences take on greater significance because of your childhood.

You say that it took you a while to find a partner, because you wanted to be with someone whose parents you got along with well. Vetting a potential partner not just for who he is but also for who his parents are might have felt safe to you—a way of protecting yourself from the kind of conflict that hurt you so much as a child—but it actually put you in a more precarious position, for two reasons. First, having a good relationship with your in-laws is nice, but it won’t heal your childhood wound; only you can heal that (for example, through therapy). And second, coming into a marriage with the fantasy that things will always go smoothly with your in-laws set up that relationship—like any relationship with such high expectations—for failure. Few close relationships of long duration escape the reality that the people in it come into conflict from time to time. The important question in any relationship isn’t Will there be disagreements? It’s How good are we at repairing them?

If you can separate your need to heal something from your childhood with what’s happening now, you’ll be able to approach the problem in a way that feels better not just for you, but also for your husband and his parents.

You can start by considering that people don’t tend to behave in a vacuum. A question I encourage people to ask whenever they feel hurt by someone’s behavior is What would cause this person to act in this way? Understanding what the emotional stakes are for them might make their comments sting less personally, and will also help you to handle the situation more effectively.

So: Why might your in-laws be making these comments? To me, that the troubles began right after you had the baby is notable, because you might be seeing an aspect of your in-laws that’s related to how they feel about being grandparents. One possibility is that they don’t realize they’re being offensive. They might think they’re being helpful, even if they come across as critical. For instance, I doubt that they say the words “You’re a bad mom,” but according to your letter, that’s what you hear. Perhaps in their minds, they’re offering opinions (which, admittedly, when unsolicited, can be annoying) because they believe that, having already raised a child, they have information that’s useful to you. They might also believe that because they are so close with you, they have carte blanche to share their opinions. Perhaps they feel that the closer people are, the less they need to stand on ceremony and hold back. Of course, healthy relationships are built on healthy boundaries, but some people mistakenly conflate love with not needing to have boundaries.

Other common reasons that in-laws interfere include difficulty with impulse control (they blurt out whatever comes to mind), feeling a sense of loss with age and finding purpose in offering their “expertise,” wanting to assuage loneliness by becoming overinvolved in a grandchild’s life, and trying to reclaim their power by not having others tell them what to do (see: social distancing).

Whatever the reason, in-law issues are really couple issues, so you need to start by having a different conversation with your husband, one with a tone of compassion, curiosity, respect, and kindness. Instead of framing this as a contest between whose feelings—yours or his parents’—matter more to your husband, consider how anxiety-provoking it must be for him to feel like no matter what he does, somebody he loves will be upset with him. Open the conversation by empathizing with his predicament so that he feels seen and heard in the way you want to feel seen and heard. Then, when talking about the interactions with his parents, make sure not to talk about them negatively, which could make him feel defensive and attacked. Instead, talk about the two of you as a couple. Ask him, “When your parents said X about my not having a job, I wondered where that came from. Do you ever feel that way too, or is this solely their concern?”

It could be that your husband has felt frustrated about your not having a job, and his parents know that this places an extra burden on him. Maybe he’s afraid to bring it up with you, and his parents are trying to support him, albeit in a way that makes things worse. Or maybe his parents have complicated feelings about having bought the house and are glad to see your family living there, but are also ambivalent about the fact that you weren’t able to contribute more because you have just one income. In this conversation, you’ll learn more about which issues belong only to his parents and which might overlap with his. If there is some overlap, this is a great opportunity to reconnect as a couple; many new parents are so busy with their parenting roles that they let a lot of the communication needed for a healthy relationship slide. Meanwhile, you can tell your husband that while you appreciate his parents, genuinely like them, and believe that they mean well, the comments they’ve made recently have been hurting you, and you want to come up with a plan together so that the family can get back on track. This frames the problem in a positive light.

Keep in mind that your husband might have a hard time setting boundaries with his parents or even understanding why he needs to do so if he doesn’t have experience setting boundaries with them already. If, for instance, he compromises the privacy between you by sharing with his parents how he feels about your body or your job or your parenting choices, this is a good time to have a conversation about what information stays within the couple and how he can communicate directly with you instead. When he talks to his parents about comments that have hurt you, instead of making it sound like you’re the only one affected and you’re complaining about them to their son (which is what is sounds like they’ve been hearing), he can say something like “It upsets me when you make these kinds of comments. I’ve mentioned before that they affect my wife, but I want you to know that they also bother me. We appreciate all you’re doing for us, and I know you’ve apologized, but it really has to stop, so the next time you say something hurtful, we’re going to end the visit.” He can do something similar with the frequency of their visits: “We love seeing you and so does our daughter, but she’s on a nap schedule, and we need you to call us to make sure it’s a good time to visit. If it’s not, please understand that sometimes we’re busy or tired and just aren’t up for company, but that’s no reflection of our love for you.”

Remember that neither you nor your husband has control over his parents’ behavior, but you both have agency over the kind of communication you want to establish in your family, both between the two of you and with his parents. You get to choose kindness over accusation, dialogue over arguments, and clear boundaries over vague requests. And if you also take the time to work through lingering pain from your own childhood, you’ll be able to create the version of family for yourself and your daughter that you have long hoped for.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.