What The Experts Say About Dealing With Your In-Laws

In-law relationships, even under the best circumstances, can be challenging. Here’s how to navigate them.

If you have in-laws, you probably have what therapists and pop-psychology talk-show hosts refer to as “issues.” In-law issues are the basis of countless jokes and sitcoms.
Do these easy laughs have some basis in truth? Apparently so, because almost everyone who knew I was writing this article offered to talk to me about their in-law issues—under a pseudonym, of course.

For the moment, I’m “just practicing”—one of my children has a longstanding significant other with whom I enjoy a terrific relationship. But I am eager to find some real advice out there for getting along with my kids’ future spouses beyond one friend’s tongue-in-cheek tip: “Keep your mouth shut and wallet open.”

It’s Complicated

So why are in-law relationships often so tricky? Well, for one thing, when you marry someone, you are also joining families—sometimes with great success, sometimes not.  “It’s all about perceived loyalties and threats to relationships,” says Linda Walter, LCSW, who practices in White Plains. “When people marry, family members often worry that the teams will change. ‘Will your loyalty still be to me? Am I losing my son or daughter?’” 

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Richard Catanzaro, MD, chief of Psychiatry at Northern Westchester Hospital, explains that “parents may worry that the new son- or daughter-in-law isn’t good enough for entrusting their child to. They may feel, ‘Did my daughter or son marry well enough? Who are these new people?’” After all, parents generally want their kids to live a better life than they did. “You want your child to marry someone superlative and not just okay,” he says. “It can be a lot to graduate as a person, to say ‘my child is in loving or capable hands.’”

From the perspective of the newly married couple, the relationship can be equally fraught, suggests Rye Brook psychologist Teri Friedman, PhD. Usually, “the spouse does not love the parents-in-law the way their own adult child does,” she says. “The child may see certain parental behaviors as normal or benign that the spouse may find irritating, strange, or even intolerable.” For example, if a son was treated “like a prince” by his parents, says Friedman, “he may be used to this, but his wife may see this behavior as infantilizing and refuse to act accordingly.” This may, in turn, aggravate the parents, who may see her as not being a good wife.

Adding grandchildren to the mix, says Dr. Catanzaro, can often exacerbate tensions. “Every generation has different philosophies on child-rearing, which can bring out friction between them.” Jamie Kelly of Dobbs Ferry (not her real name) had experienced this first-hand with the mother of her first husband. “She was someone who felt her wonderful boy could do no wrong and put her two cents into everything, especially when we had kids.” Kelly, who divorced and remarried when her kids were young, says she hit the jackpot with her current mother-in-law. “From day one, she couldn’t have been more loving to all of us,” she recalls. “Another person might have seen me as someone ‘with baggage,’ but she just wanted her son to be happy.” Kelly uses her own experiences to inform her relationship with her new daughter-in-law. “I adore her and have always embraced her while being careful not to overstep my bounds.”

Lisa DiNardo (not her real name) of Yorktown has a more challenging relationship with her daughter-in-law, one she likens to “walking on a tightrope—you never know when she’ll have an outburst.” A heavy drinker who exhibits marked mood swings, her daughter-in-law tries to isolate DiNardo’s son—she encouraged them to move to a Southern state where they didn’t know anyone or have jobs—and often does not accompany him back to visit family. DiNardo and her husband sought out family counseling and were advised to try to step back and accept the situation, give their son unconditional love, and not speak negatively about his wife to him. “As a result,” she says, “we have an excellent relationship with our son and hope that if things ever come to a head, he will want to confide in us and accept our help.”

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Holly O’Neill-Melville, LMSW, of Rye, who speaks as both a therapist and from personal experience with two sets of in-laws, was widowed when pregnant with her first child and went on to remarry and have another child with her new husband. “I currently have a wonderful relationship with both,” she says. “To make this happen, we all worked extremely hard—for years—through a series of frank discussions that reflected a true respect for one another.”

What’s an In-Law to Do?

Though rocky in-law relationships may be fodder for TV skits and rom-coms, there’s often a grain of truth in the stereotypes, starting with the standoffish daughter-in-law. When your daughter-in-law was just dating your son, she was a darling. Now she doesn’t call, insists your son spends all the holidays with her family, and is grumpy on the rare times you spend together. You’d like a better relationship with her but don’t know where to begin.

“Having a desire for a closer relationship is a good beginning,” says Lorraine Chastant, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in White Plains. “Start by reaching out on a regular basis and ask about her life. And let go of the idea that she needs to be calling you.”

Sometimes, however, neither side is interested in having a close relationship. Often, personalities clash and pushing for a “harmonious” relationship is akin to mixing oil and water. In those cases, courtesy and respect may be the best you can hope for.

We’ve all known versions of the meathead son-in-law, too, like the guy who’s been looking for work for years, regularly asks for “small loans” that don’t get repaid, and never picks up a check. If your daughter is married to one of these and gets defensive when you broach the subject, says O’Neill-Melville, “she may be ashamed, embarrassed, and not want to acknowledge the extent of the problem. When you speak to her, think about how you are presenting the problem. A little sensitivity and support goes a very long way. Validate her feelings.”

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And what about your father-in-law’s new gold-digging arm candy? Is there anything you can do? “Discuss it with your spouse,” says Dr. Friedman.  “If you’re in agreement, act in whatever way you both see fit. If you are not in agreement, then disengage. You don’t have to be overly friendly, but do be civil.”

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