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Ask Team Practical: In-Laws

Well, what a week it’s been here at APW. On Monday, I told David that there was nothing too exciting on the docket for the week, and then we had huge conversations about planning and gender, body image, money, and not loving your wedding. That’ll teach me to say not that much is going on around here, ever. But today it’s glorious Friday, and we have Alyssa here discussing In-Laws, and blending families—which is just flat out hard, y’all. Hard, and perpetually surprising, and sometimes isolating. So today, let’s talk about it, and at least feel a little less alone.

Oh, in-laws. They’re like siblings; you didn’t ask for them, you may not even have wanted them, but suddenly they’re there and they’re not going anywhere and they are quite possibly touching your stuff. Ask Team Practical has gotten so many questions on in-laws that we thought it best to approach this as a conversation rather than a straight up answer to any particular question. Hopefully, we’ll be able to cover everything that may come up within the “How the hell do I handle my in-laws?” realm. And if we don’t, we know readers will tell us in the comments. (God love ya, you opinionated little unique snowflakes!)

OMG, my ______-in-law is driving me crazy!

Okay, honey, what are they doing?

[Long explanation with lots of details, elaboration and possibly rude hand gestures. And maybe some tears.] So what should I do?

Well, have you talked to your partner about this?

…no.

Why?

Because it’s their _______! I can’t talk to them about their ________!

That’s a problem right there. You are going to be combining families, whether you like it or not. Before you talk to your partner, figure out why you feel the way you do about your in-law. Is it a logistical issue with the wedding that they are insistent upon? Have they been less than respectful to you? Is it an issue with their beliefs and how they express them? Is this a pattern of behavior, or just a one-time super annoying situation? Pin-pointing the issue may help you realize that it’s not truly that your mother-in-law wants daffodils all over the place at the reception, it’s that this is the fourth time this month she has ignored your wishes in regards to your wedding.

One of the things that the two of you need to do is be able to discuss issues with each other’s family without argument (Or you know, with minimal argument. Anyway, this part might take practice, but time to start trying). Try to approach it at a time where you aren’t seriously emotional. The more calm you are, the more you will be able to explain all the issues without anger or tears. (I can’t be the only one who gets so mad that they cry. Please tell me I’m not…)  It’s completely normal and valid to be frustrated with a family member or future family member. The real issue is how you deal with that anger. Blowing up at your partner about how pig-headed his sister is may feel great, but it won’t solve anything. Discussing with your partner about the way that your sister-in-law treats you is a better way to start on the path of solving the issue.

But my partner said that it’s not a big deal!

Try to discuss with your partner why they think it’s not an issue worth worrying about. Remind them that while they’ve had their whole lives to learn how to deal with Misty’s bad behavior, you’ve only had X amount of time. Your problem may be indicative of an on-going problem that your partner’s family is well aware of, and they’ve dealt with it in a particular way. This may be your first rodeo in dealing with Misty’s crappy attitude, but they may be well-versed in her shenanigans and accustomed to ignoring them. And always remember when talking about it, this is your partner’s FAMILY. Yes, their brother might be a racist twat for making the stupid jokes he does, but it’s still your partner’s brother. Talk about the actions that bother you, not the person. Separate behavior from personality.

But IS it a big deal? Not “does it feel like a big deal?” but is it really and truly a big deal? Some hills ain’t worth dyin’ on, so pick your battles. Don’t let emotion sway you in creating lasting conflict over a more trivial matter.

No, my partner seriously thinks it’s not a big deal and doesn’t want anything to do with it.

That blows. And it’s something that will have to be worked on, because warring opinions regarding family will only cause future conflict. You can have differing views on your in-laws, but you have to be a united front in front of others. That’s part of being a family, backing up your husband or wife at the family rodeo (especially your new husband or wife). Your partner cannot chalk it up to “your problem,” because it’s “our problem.”

You know that you need to set boundaries when you create your new family with your partner, yes? Think of your boundaries not as something that keeps others out, but strengthens what is being contained WITHIN. Big issues, like family problems, need to be solved together. Even if only one of you does the talking to the family, the decision on what to say has to be a joint decision. And a united front does not mean that you make your partner choose between them and their family. Work to find that common ground.

Fine. We talked. We agree, _______’s _______ is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Great, so then what do I do?

Then it’s time to find a middle ground. You two are creating a baby family, and with that family comes new rules. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to play by the rules established for your in-laws’ family. If Uncle Howard is a loud old drunk, and the family blissfully ignores it while you can’t, then it’s perfectly acceptable for you and your partner to say, “There will be no booze in our house when Uncle Howard visits. And he is not allowed over when he is drunk.” However, you can’t make that rule for events that are not held in your house. You can refuse to be a party to it, such as cutting your stay short if Howie starts getting deep in his cups, but insisting that Granny hide all the schnapps at Thanksgiving is just going to cause further conflict. Even if she knows it’s right, no one likes it when someone comes into their house and tells them how to clean it up. Establish boundaries within your own new family, but respect the ones that are already there in your partner’s family.

Note that this does NOT count in situations that are illegal or dangerous. How much Uncle Howie drinks is his business. When Uncle Howie starts trying to sneak brandy to underage cousins or tries to drive home soused, then it’s no longer just his business and it NEEDS to be stopped and addressed.

Okay, Dear Abby, what about when the problem is not what they are doing, but how they treat me?

This is tough. It’s always best for you to fight your own battles. It’s tempting to ask your partner to talk to their sister about how she treats you, but you’ll do better if you talk to her on your own. Unless your partner sees the disrespect and decides to bring it up, it needs to be your discussion.

There is a misconception that problems need to be solved before you get married, and hopefully APW does its part in making sure that everyone realizes that your wedding is just one of many major events on the journey in your marriage. That being said, an in-law being really and truly disrespectful or awful to you is something that you’ll want to at least attempt to clear up before your wedding. It’s uncomfortable, but you are making your own little branch on the family tree and you’re a part of something bigger. Your branch needs to be the priority, but you are still connected to others and they need to respect you.

And make sure that you’re respecting your in-laws also. The road goes both ways, cookie.

What if the problem is how they treat my PARTNER?

That’s a situation that your partner will have to address. Yes, you could sit your mother-in-law down and tell her that every time she makes a comment about your fiancée’s weight, she ends up crying for days. But that conversation needs to start with your partner. You can be there to stand up for your partner if needed, but they also need to stand up for themselves.

But our problems are only wedding-related! Otherwise, we get along fine.

Remember that a wedding is not just about you. There are a whole lot of feelings, emotions, complications tied up in your wedding day and they are not just coming from you. If your mother-in-law is trying to make you change up your decorations, it might be because she’s only had boys and has dreamed of helping a daughter with their wedding. If your partner’s aunt by marriage is causing a stink about the guest list, it’s probably because she’s recently divorced and this wedding will be a difficult experience for her. All this emotion will be flying leading up to your wedding and probably a lot of it won’t be about you. Unfortunately, it might affect you and that’s where things get sticky. But recognizing the reasons behind your in-laws crazy behavior might help you deal with them. Maybe you can allow your mother-in-law to handle a certain aspect of the reception that you don’t have strong feelings about, that way she can get the experience she wants and that’s one less thing for you to think about. Maybe you’ll have to sit your aunt down (together) and let her know how important it is to you and your partner that both sides of the family are there and how much you’ll appreciate her setting her feelings aside for a day.

And remember, it’s hard on your partner’s family when they realize that their first priority is now making sure you are cared for and supported, even if they are still a really really close second priority. Their mamma gave birth to them, so forgive her if this makes her a little bit weepy. So, just keep remembering that your in-law’s are people too. You’re family because your partner loves the both of you, but to be friends you’ll have to find some common ground (and it’s ok if this takes time).

Team Practical, how do you deal with your in-laws? What major conflicts have you weathered?

*If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Alyssa a askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though we prefer if you make up a totally ridiculous sign-off like conflicted and rageful but deeply in love in Detroit (CARBDILID, duh). Seriously. We love sign-offs. Make your editors happy.

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