Names of clients are changed to protect anonymity
Marriage is, at its core, the merging of two families. Since no two families are alike, there may be surprises, unexpected misunderstandings, and tensions that arise. Most of the time these tensions are resolved as the families become more familiar with the differences in expectations. One tension that can create ongoing struggle, however, is an atmosphere of criticism by the in-laws. In fact, I have worked with couples who would identify this dynamic as one of the major issues of conflict in their marriage.
In my experience, there are two common scenarios where in-law criticism can lead to prolonged stress in a marriage: either criticism directed at the adult child or that directed at the partner. In both cases, while it may appear the problem is between the in-laws and one of the partners, the solution lies between the partners themselves.
When in-laws are critical of their son-in-law or daughter-in-law
The most typical scenario I hear from couples is criticism directed toward the new family member. The daughter-in-law feels the in-laws’ disapproval either of her, personally, and/or in her role of wife, mother, or housekeeper, or the son-in-law stereotypically feels challenged about his career, his parenting, and/or his contributions as husband.
For example, Anabelle, who works in advertising, and Charlie, a small business owner, have been married for seven years. When they first were married, Anabelle and her mother-in-law, D’Arcy, were close. When the two women spent time together, they enjoyed each other’s company and Anabelle appreciated the caring, motherly way D’Arcy related to her new daughter-in-law.
Things began to change when Anabelle became pregnant. Charlie and Anabelle both value their careers and also want children. They have thoughtfully discussed together various options of the best ways to prioritize parenting their much-wanted children, while still maintaining their professional lives.
When they spoke to Charlie’s parents about their plans one evening, it was clear D’Arcy had a very different view. She urged Anabelle to stop working entirely and focus full time on raising their children. Dinner was served and the subject was dropped.
Throughout the pregnancy, D’Arcy brought her views up to Anabelle repeatedly, emailing her articles supporting her view, and their relationship became strained. Anabelle, at first, tried to explain her point of view to her mother-in-law, reassuring her that she could be an attentive and loving mother, while still maintaining her career. D’Arcy insisted Anabelle listen to mother-in-law, who “knows better.” They have had tense words several times, and Anabelle began avoiding her phone calls and visits.
Each time Anabelle tried to talked to Charlie about this, he felt overwhelmed and conflicted. Though his view was the same as his wife’s, and it was a mutual decision, he felt caught in a conflict of loyalties and felt he could not win. He listened to his wife when she complained but left the problem to her. When his mother brought the subject up to him, he listened to her but would not state a position. He simply withdrew from the situation and avoided the topic, even walking into another room at family functions when he saw his mother and wife near each other.
Anabelle feels betrayed and abandoned by Charlie, and most of all, wants his support. As you can see, the tension between Anabelle and D’Arcy isn’t really the problem. The heart of the problem is actually between Charlie and Anabelle and within Charlie himself.
When Anabelle and Charlie came to therapy, they also believed that the problem was between D’Arcy and Anabelle. The real conflict began, however, when Anabelle told Charlie how abandoned she felt by his indifference. Charlie, for his part, had trouble admitting that he felt torn between his mother and wife.
Over the course of our sessions, both Anabelle and Charlie became more aware of the other’s position and more confident in their partnership. Eventually, the conflict with D’Arcy had less of an impact on the couple, which helped to dissuade D’Arcy from intervening. The conflict eventually faded, but Anabelle and Charlie were made stronger because of them.
When parents are critical of their adult child, and the partner doesn’t like it
Scott and Monica met in Chicago, where Monica was working as an account executive at a pharmaceutical company. Scott was a successful financial planner, and because of their busy working schedules, the couple rarely got together with their families, since both families lived more than 6 hours away.
When Monica’s mother became ill, Monica, Scott, and their two children moved back to New York to help care for her. This was when Scott realized that Monica’s mother was regularly critical of his wife. Scott, who had only known Monica to be passionate, fiery, and opinionated, was appalled to see his wife shrink under her mother’s critical gaze.
Scott urged Monica to tell her mother how she felt. He argued that she should stand up for herself, ask her mother to apologize, and refuse to help when her mother was treating her badly. Monica felt trapped. She loved and wanted to help her mother, and she knew her mother was never going to change.
Monica had no plan to try to force these 30-year-old issues to a resolution, a position Scott did not understand. When Scott was at her mother’s house, he was defensive and protective of Monica, frequently intervening, creating tension between all three of them. When Monica tried to smooth the issues over, both Scott and her mother became more upset at each other.
Every visit to her mother resulted in a new argument at home and Monica was getting fed up.
In this case, while it may seem like the problem is between Monica and her mother (and as it turned out, Monica did find new ways of interacting with her mother that made everyone more comfortable), the source of the conflict in the marriage is between Scott and Monica.
During therapy, Scott realized that he needed to stop intervening and allow Monica to manage her relationship with her own mother. Monica came to understand that she did want to create more boundaries with her mother but on her own terms. Scott became more supportive of Monica, letting go of his involvement between his wife and her mother.
The solution lies between you and your partner
In both of these scenarios described, the solution is largely similar: learn how to stand with your partner as a unit, promote clear communication between your partner unit and the in-laws, and accept that no relationship is perfect (including relationships with in-laws!) and when boundaries and communication are clear, a perfect relationship is not required.
If you and your partner struggle with critical in-laws, therapy is a great choice. Reach out and let’s discuss working together to strengthen your relationship.