Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Dan and Liz were fighting about their families again. Both educated professional thirty-somethings, they do an impressive job juggling work, a thriving social life, and their young brood. They have a lot going for them as a couple; they’re both fun and interesting. They enjoy a broad range of interests, and for the most part, work well as a team. But when it comes to their families, the fights are intense, explosive and unresolved. They describe their dynamic as follows:
Liz: “Sometimes I just don’t get Dan’s parents. The baby is almost a year old and they haven’t invited us, or been over to visit us in almost four months. They just really don’t seem to care about their own grandchildren. My parents are like saints- they would drop everything for us, and are always available for anything we need- babysitting, cooking, errands. They see the kids a few times a week. They’re crazy about them. And my in-laws… I don’t know. It could be that they just don’t like us. I guess maybe they’re self-absorbed, or lazy, or we’re just not important to them.”
Dan: “Liz’s parents have major boundary issues. They come over all the time, unannounced, and uninvited, and always overstay. They buy the kids excessive amounts of candy and gifts; I’m actually embarrassed for people to see all the toys and gadgets we have from them. They’re always pushing their unsolicited advice on us, bringing us random stuff that clutters up the house, and getting in our business, wanting to know everything about our lives. They just don’t respect our privacy. Because they’re so nosy and intrusive, Liz sees my parents as cold and distant, when the truth is, they really just have a life, and don’t feel the need to stalk us. They are normal grandparents- enjoying occasional calls, visits, pictures, and emails, and not tracking on the calendar when they last time they saw us was.”
While this sounds very much like an argument, the reality is that they do seem to agree about what is actually happening. Where they disagree, is with regard to their opinions and feelings about that reality. Liz’s parents want to be very involved in their kids’ lives. They’d like to have a frequent and doting relationship with their grandchildren, and shower them with attention and generosity. In return for, or maybe just in addition to their magnanimity, they assume the privilege of being able to visit on their terms, and give input. Their assumptions and expectations about family togetherness are high and strong.
Dan’s parents seem to have a different model for grandparenting. They seem to feel that they’ve raised their kids to be good people. They now give their grown children the space, trust, and autonomy to build a family life of their own, around their marriage and children. They step back and enjoy their own next stage, filling their days with work, travel, philanthropic work, recreation, social functions, and culture. They surely care about and love their children and grandchildren as well, but their paradigm for a grandparent’s role is more boundaried and peripheral.
Whose way is right? Well, (and I doubt you will be shocked to hear this, but) to a large extent the answer is culturally subjective. In some cultures- world cultures and family cultures, Liz’s parents’ style is the norm. Multi-generational clans often live together under one roof, or if not, there is an understanding of deep reverence for the elders. Even in the US, some ethnic groups still have clannish extended family dynamics, and for many of them it provides a secure sense of belonging, support, love, and connection. It can be very beautiful. It can also be very dysfunctional. It just depends on the players, how they do it, and how they all feel about it.
Among more contemporary, secular communities, Dan’s family attachment style is considered the norm. You raise your children to be mature, educated, law-abiding citizens. You help them acquire life skills so they can be independent and self-sufficient. You then launch them into the big world, where they put down roots with their own families, and see each other on holidays. You don’t criticize or make demands of them, because they are now adults, with their own responsibilities. Many families function quite nicely and respectfully this way. The only reason Liz is disturbed by it, is because it’s so foreign to her and her expectations.
What is interesting to note is that neither set of in-laws is proactively offensive. They do not insult, or berate the couple. They simply interact as family, in the way that comes naturally to them.
They each represent a version of what I think of as a continuum of in-law style:
On one extreme there is what we call “enmeshment”- which means over-involvement to the point of dysfunction, or diminishing returns. On the other extreme there is “estrangement”- a level of distance that could feel like a cut-off. There are varying styles of involvement for extended families. Most families have dynamics that are somewhere along this line. And most young parents crave that perfect, elusive balance: in-laws that love and give, but are appropriately respectful of privacy. The problem is that there is no perfect balance. Everyone’s expectations and preferences are subjective. Interestingly, I find many, many couples who have one set of parents from each side of the spectrum; meaning: one set they wish would be more connected to them, and another they can’t seem to get rid of. I’ve also heard the complaints from both ends: “My in-laws never come by…” and “My in-laws never want to leave…”
So, what’s the solution?
Like with most relationship issues, there isn’t a simple, one size fits all answer. We begin with acknowledging that this is not necessary a question of right or wrong, but one of family cultures, norms, and expectations. We can then express our own preferences, and reflect back to the other, to show that we “get it”. We accept and note that we come from different backgrounds, and that this impacts the way we think. We try to see and appreciate the blessings, and accept the limitations, within each family.
Respectful communication between spouses, empathy, and compromise are all useful ingredients to bring to the table. Every couple has its own sensitivities, factors, and extenuating circumstances to consider. For example, one mother-in-law might be a widow, and need more attention and sensitivity than if she had a husband. Another set of in-laws might live overseas, and so quality time with them would need to be prescheduled. And yet another may have medical issues that either require assistance, or preclude visits.
It is my (subjective) belief that it is inappropriate for any adult to make authoritative relationship demands on another adult, and that adults have the right to assert healthy boundaries, while we are not entitled to demand or expect favors or gifts. This means that even if Liz wishes that Dan’s parents would do more for them, then while it’s certainly ok for them to make a request for more (if Dan is comfortable with that), Dan’s parents don’t owe them anything. And that if they make it clear that the schedule and level of involvement they practice is what works for them, it’s the couple’s job to accept that. Likewise, if Liz’s parents would like to spend a lot of time with their grandchildren, they are welcome to request that, but that Dan and Liz have the right to ask them to call before they visit, to check with them before giving a large gift, and to not correct them in front of their kids. These are just examples, and there are usually other sensitivities to consider. For example, some parents may be very prone to emotionality, and a couple decides that it’s not worth creating drama.
Sometimes the conflict is more serious, such as when there is malice or hostility. If you have the kind of parent(s)-in-law who are overtly belligerent, manipulative, or cruel, then boundaries become even more important. Both personal boundaries, and psychological boundaries will help you to not allow yourself to feel wounded by the offenses, and protect your marriage from collateral damage. If the child of the difficult parent(s) is aware of his/her parents problems, and willing to empathize and validate the spouse, this doesn’t have to harm the marriage. If it becomes a repeated point of contention in the marriage, you might want to seek counsel to help you deal with this issue in a productive way. There are sometimes cases of contentious in-laws that when managed wisely, can become benign.
A common comment I hear about innocuous in-law troubles is: “If I knew my in-laws in any other context, I would probably like them very much; as neighbors, an aunt and uncle, coworkers. It’s just because we end up in these awkward family dynamics and politics that it gets so uncomfortable for us.” If your in-laws are basically good people with good intentions, it helps to keep that in mind when their behavior frustrates you, even while you need to address it. If you have children, you may become in-laws yourselves someday, and you’ll want your children’s spouses to be respectful and kind to you.
The important thing for a couple navigating the landscape of this area to remember, is that you are on the same team. You both would ideally like to have a loving but appropriate relationship with your parents and in-laws. Try as much as possible not to let resentments about in-laws affect your own marital harmony. A sense of humor and perspective can help keep disagreements and frustrations from escalating. And try to honor your own, your spouse’s, and the grandparents’ feelings when making decisions. The challenge will be to find a rhythm and a system that can be beneficial to the most players while hurting the fewest as minimally as possible. This is usually a process, but it can evolve nicely with time, healthy communication, flexibility, sensitivity, and tact.