Meddling in-laws can wreak absolute havoc on an otherwise healthy relationship -- even if they mean well.
"When a couple defers to meddling in-laws, it adds considerable stress to a partnership," said Susan Newman, a psychologist and author of Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father. "To protect and keep your relationship strong, you have to have diligence in setting boundaries with in-laws."
What does that look like in practice? Below, Newman and other relationship experts share their best advice for asking your in-laws to kindly butt out of your marriage.
1. Set firm boundaries.
You may not mind when your father-in-law offers parenting advice from his decades of experience. On the other hand, you might hate it when he shares his very special views on how a wife should treat her husband.
How to address this thorny issue? With your spouse firmly by your side, let your in-laws know what kind of advice is helpful and which isn't, said Deanna Brann, a psychotherapist and the author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets To Getting Along With Your Mother-In-Law Or Daughter-In-Law.
"Be clear, concise, yet kind. No matter how they try to manipulate you, stand your ground," she said. "If they're persistent, you may need to add consequences to whatever boundaries you have set. By letting them know in advance about boundaries and consequences, they'll be making the choice, not you, for what happens next."
2. When your in-laws push their way into your marriage, tell your spouse to push back.
Your spouse may believe she's an innocent party but if she's not speaking up, she's not helping the situation, either. When your in-laws push your buttons, tell your partner to push back a bit, said Greg Cason, a Los Angeles-based psychologist. After all, she knows them a lot better than you do; hopefully, she's figured out how to get through to them.
"By remaining passive to the meddling, your partner is giving a silent thumbs up to your in-laws," he said.
3. That said, try hard not to make your spouse feel like the bad guy.
It's smart to ask your spouse to talk to your in-laws, but remember, you're not entirely off the hook. Work on developing your own relationship with them, built on positive interactions and compliments, said F. Diane Barth, a psychotherapist and the author of the Psychology Today blog Off The Couch.
"When my husband and I stopped ragging on each other’s parents, our own relationship improved," said Barth. "An older couple once offered me this piece of advice, which I have found to be crucial in my work with couples and in my own marriage: 'You can criticize your own parents, but not each other’s!'"
4. When they offer unwanted advice, take a "thanks but no thanks" approach to responding.
Your mother-in-law thinks she's being super helpful with her housekeeping advice but it drives you up the wall. You want to say something, but hold back. It can be especially difficult to interject when your in-laws overdo it with parenting advice, since you probably value their opinion and want their advice to an extent.
Your best approach is to let them know you appreciate their advice but have most things covered, Newman said.
"You might tell your MIL: 'I know you are trying to be helpful, but we want to make our own mistakes,'" she said. "Or delicately suggest that times have changed and 'this is just what our pediatrician recommends on sleeping.'"
5. Change the subject.
When your in-laws start to overwhelm you, do yourself a favor and excuse yourself from the conversation. Your spouse is more than capable of handling the conversation on his own, reminded Stephanie Buehler, a psychologist based in Southern California.
"I am an advocate of learning the art of changing the subject or walking away," she said. "When a conversation is heading toward a toxic waste dump, it’s time to get up, get a glass of water and come back to ask about an upcoming trip or some other light topic."
6. Don't take it personally.
When you married your spouse, you married into a family with deep history. Understanding where some of their problems stem from can be incredibly helpful as you learn how to approach them, Barth said.
"Many problems with in-laws come from parents’ difficulties letting go of their own children," she said. "It can be hard for a parent to make the transition from parenting their child to having an equal relationship with them as an adult. Setting gentle but firm and consistent boundaries can help with this transition. The parents might begin to realize that their children need to live their own lives."
7. Seek out your in-laws' advice.
This one may seem counterintuitive but it works like a charm, said Cason.
"Look around and find a problem in your home or family that you could ask your in-law for advice on -- a cooking or investing question, for instance," Cason said. "Then, go use the advice and report back about how helpful that advice was. Give lots of details. Your in-law will start liking you more because he or she feels respected. As a result, your in-law is less likely to invade."
8. Recognize progress when you see it.
Your MIL isn't a monster. She's a human with faults and a parent struggling to bond with her adult child and her new daughter- or son-in-law. In those times when connecting seems downright impossible, try to be sympathetic toward her. And always be on the lookout for positive changes in behavior, said Amanda Deverich, a marriage and family therapist based in Williamsburg, Virginia.
"No person is 100 percent bad," she said. "The one time your mother-in-law honors your schedule or other requests or compliments your food, say something positive back. You would be surprised how this one small gesture can increase motivation to change."
9. If your spouse continues to say nothing, address the issue with your in-laws as politely as possible.
If your spouse remains silent on the issue, at some point, you may need to voice your concern as tactfully as possible, said Buehler.
"If your passive-but-polite approaches fail to get the point across, there’s only one more thing left: Be direct. Tell them that you appreciate their concern, but that you and your partner will handle things yourselves going forward," she said. "Tell them that when you want their advice, you will certainly ask for it."