July 31, 2021

Shalom Bayit with the In-laws

A Jewish matchmaker shares tips on creating familial peace

Given how challenging it can be to get along with one’s own family, it should be no surprise that many of us struggle with creating harmonious relationships with the family of our spouse. Creating peace with the in-laws?  Is it possible?

You’ve had your entire life to get used to your mom’s criticism, your dad’s emotional distance, Uncle Bob’s crass humor, and Aunt Becky’s intrusive questions and you’re doing pretty well. Sometimes you ignore, sometimes you debate, sometimes you laugh, and sometimes you cringe - but it’s family, right?

Family indeed. And now your family has expanded and you need to create and maintain a comfortable peace with your in-laws…and spousal siblings, aunts, uncles, and a whole bunch of people that you likely don’t really know very well but have suddenly become “family”. It can feel like a herculean task but I’ve got a few pointers that can go far in nurturing peace with the in-laws (and others).

First and foremost, it is important that you honestly communicate your perspective, your feelings, and your preferences. Many adults want to avoid conflict, hurting another’s feelings, or “looking bad”. We want to please, we want to maintain peace - and we mistakenly do this by keeping our mouth shut and not sharing our truth. Honest communication is crucial for healthy and happy relationships. Get in this habit ASAP, because the longer you keep your feelings to yourself, the more difficult it will be to finally reveal them. Share your feelings and opinions in a kind yet direct way. Your perspective and preferences are just as valuable as those of your in-laws and the healthiest relationship is one where everyone can speak honestly and work towards a resolution.

That being said, avoid hot button topics that don’t have any direct impact on your life or your relationships. Keeping peace with the in-laws means knowing what is worth discussing and what isn’t. Some differences of opinion have no relevance to your life or any of the overlapping issues that you will have with your in-laws or in your marriage. If you know it’s going to cause an argument, don’t go there. I’m not saying to sweep issues under the rug, if it’s an issue that needs a resolution, honest communication is the way to go. If it’s just a difference of opinion on a topic that has little relevance in your lives - let it go.

When a disagreement arises, speak your truth calmly and honestly and create the space for others to speak their truth honestly with you. Even though you are in disagreement, honor their perspective. Honor the fact that they are older - and although it doesn’t automatically mean they are wiser - respect their years of experience and respect their right to their own opinion (just as you wish them to respect yours). Put yourself in their shoes and see the situation through their eyes and their prejudices. Don’t patronize or belittle - respect their perspective and show that you want to understand where they are coming from, even if you don’t agree with it.

It is tempting to vent to your spouse when you’re in conflict with your in-laws, but do your best to resist this urge. Again, honest communication and speaking your truth with your partner is a must - but don’t go into a rant about how horrible and close-minded your in-laws are. There’s a fine line between commiseration and bashing. Never bash your in-laws. I know you want some sympathy and validation from your partner, that’s normal. Do your best to find that balance where you can share your frustrations and he can be empathetic, while still respecting your spouse and the position that the in-laws hold in your lives.

One of the most important factors in keeping peace with the in-laws while maintaining your own peace of mind is healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries are crucial to every relationship - including the relationship you have with yourself. Some boundaries restrict your actions and some boundaries restrict others. Knowing which topics not to bring up with a family member and making yourself accountable for not crossing that line is an example of a boundary that restricts you. Insisting that your mother-in-law call before dropping in for a visit is an example of a boundary that restricts others.

The most difficult part of setting boundaries is enforcing them - and this falls on you. If you tell your MIL to call before a visit and she consistently doesn’t call, YOU are the one who needs to hold her accountable. If she doesn’t call to get your consent for a vist, you are not obligated to open the door and welcome her in. You must meet her at the door saying, “Sorry, this isn’t a good time - next time please call before dropping by” and close the door. You are allowed to say “no” - though many people will create a lot of drama when you do. This is not your issue or your responsibility. If you’ve made it known that you require advance notice and your MIL ignores that - it’s on her. Any hurt feelings that she might internalize when you enforce that boundary is also on her. Conversely, it's your responsibility to enforce your boundaries and that is on you. Show others how to respect boundaries by respecting them yourself.

Family disagreements can quickly put a wedge in your relationship if you and your partner don’t present a unified front. You are now a team - every team needs to put the team first and support the team members. It’s crucial that you know and feel that your partner “has your back” and vice versa. Siding with a family member against your spouse (and vice versa) undermines the foundation of your relationship. Even if you disagree on the issue in private, show the world that you support your spouse and his/her decision.

Remember that getting along with your family is likely to be as challenging for your spouse as getting along with his/her family is for you. Keeping peace with the in-laws is not exclusively your struggle. Be understanding and empathetic to all the ways that your family is a challenge and frustration to your partner. If conflicts are handled with kindness, compassion, understanding, respect, self-esteem, and honesty - no one need feel hurt or infringed upon. You can respect family ties and obligations without suppressing personal needs or preferences and without creating divisions that can undermine your relationship.