- More and more unmarried couples are seeking couples therapy to help deal with problems with their in-laws.
- Research suggests that women are more likely than men to experience tension with their in-laws.
- According to relationship coach and consultant Peter Pearson, it’s best to address these problems sooner than later, because they won’t go away on their own.
- Sometimes the solution is harsh: If your parents don’t like your partner, you may have to choose whom to side with.
Generally speaking, if there’s a problem in your relationship, it’s best to address it sooner than later, before you accumulate years of resentments that obscure the original, potentially easily fixable issue.
That’s especially true if the problem has to do with your in-laws.
According to Peter Pearson, a relationship coach and consultant in Menlo Park, California, most couples dealing with in-law issues are “delusionally optimistic”: They believe that after they get married, things will get better, and so they brush the issues under the proverbial rug.
Except that “most of the time,” Pearson said, “it does not get better.” Sometimes (surprise!) the tension gets worse.
These days, about one in five couples who come to see Pearson are there to deal with in-law problems. Most are in committed relationships, but not all are married, Pearson said.
Pearson outlined two types of in-law problems he sees. Either one person is jealous of how much time the other person spends with their family or one person’s parents don’t like the partner they’ve chosen.
In the first instance, Pearson helps the person with the tight-knit family set some boundaries: How much time will they spend visiting their parents or talking with them on the phone? The “marginalized” spouse has to work on being more flexible, Pearson said.
For couples dealing with the second type of in-law problem, Pearson takes a somewhat harsher approach.
The person whose parents don’t like their partner “has to decide which camp they’re in”: Should they stand by their partner or defend their family? “It’s a tough choice to make,” Pearson said, but the third option – sitting in the middle of a “Civil War” – is generally untenable.
If the person chooses their spouse over the family, that doesn’t necessarily mean they no longer show up at family functions. But when they do show up, they stand by their spouse (physically) the whole time to show that they’re a team.
Women may be more likely than men to have problems with their in-laws
Interestingly, research suggests that women are more likely to have a problematic relationship with their in-laws than men are. A study from the University of Cambridge Center for Family Research and the Stand Alone Institute, cited in the New York Post, found that tension between parents and their son’s wife are one of the most common reasons for the dissolution of a relationship.
Meanwhile, a study led by psychologist Terri Orbuch at the University of Michigan, cited in The Wall Street Journal, found that couples in which the husband was close to his wife’s parents were 20% less likely to divorce over the next 16 years than average. When the wife was close to her husband’s parents, the couple’s risk of divorce was 20% higher.
Orbuch told The Journal that she suspects wives who feel close to their in-laws may have a hard time setting boundaries – and eventually, they may perceive the in-laws to be meddling.
Whatever the specific issue with your in-laws, Pearson’s advice is to be realistic and to talk about what’s going on. Couples “postpone the discussion because it creates tension,” he said. But a problem like that rarely disappears without some effort.