Setting Boundaries With In-laws
“But what’s the harm in taking some advice?” my sister asks when I bring up the subject of setting boundaries with in-laws. “If I didn’t ask, is it really advice? Or overstepping?” I shoot back. She answers with a knowing grin.
They say that you don’t just marry a person. For better or worse, your spouse’s family becomes a part of your life as soon as you say ‘I do’. While you gain a whole new family and a support system with it, dealing with in-laws in marriage can be tricky.
Whether they stem from a clash of personalities or outlooks, unspoken hurts, or dysfunction, in-law problems can breed much stress and resentment. Studies have shown that a difficult relationship with in-laws can take a toll on your marriage, too. So how can we get along better with in-laws and navigate the ups and downs of in-law relationships? Well, one good way is to set healthy boundaries.
How To Set Boundaries With In-laws
We are not going to tell you that a relationship with in-laws is easy. Or that your equation with them can be exactly like the one you enjoy with your biological family. They didn’t have the benefit of watching you grow up. So, they simply can’t replace the sentimental foundation of your childhood family. Added to that, your in-laws may have completely different values, beliefs, habits, and customs. And there may be plenty of stuff on which you don’t see eye-to-eye, leading you to butt heads with your new extended family.
Boundaries can help you manage any friction with in-laws and forge a healthy relationship with them. And they can help control how much impact in-law problems have on you and your marital life. Just like marital boundaries, setting boundaries with in-laws is essential for your well-being and for protecting your own desires, needs, and beliefs. Here are some tips on how to draw healthy boundaries with your in-laws:
1. Make a note of your triggers
Perhaps your mother-in-law comes over too much and tries to micromanage everything you do. Or she’s downright manipulative and scheming. Perhaps your father-in-law goes overboard with gifts and money for your two-year-old. Or you’re tired of dealing with family drama with your interfering sister-in-law and trying to get along with her.
Maybe you just got engaged and are wondering how to deal with a controlling mother-in-law during wedding planning. Or you’re newly married, and you are dealing with a full-blown invasion of your personal space and a near-constant stream of advice on everything.
If you don’t want to spend much of your life brimming with resentment or hiding in the bathroom to avoid your in-laws, you will need to set some ground rules. For that, you will have to decide what you are comfortable with and what bothers you. And then? Talk to your partner about setting healthy boundaries.
2. Get your partner on board
Interactions with in-laws are a common source of complaint for couples. That’s why a candid conversation with your partner about setting boundaries with in-laws is important. Finding common ground will help you both deal with any in-law issues in a better way so you can build a healthy relationship and get along better with them. When talking about healthy boundaries, consider discussing:
- The time you want to spend with in-laws. That may even include deciding how to say no to a vacation with the in-laws if needed
- The amount of say your in-laws have in your decisions, like where you’ll live
- The aspects of your marital and personal life which will stay between you both, like relationship problems
- How to set healthy expectations around roles and responsibilities, especially around money and children (like deciding how to deal with financially dependent in-laws or setting boundaries with in-laws and grandchildren)
- What will count as overstepping
Being on the same page with your spouse will help you put up a united front if a prickly situation arises, even if you both don’t agree on all aspects of the situation.
Related Reading: How To Talk To Your Husband When The Other Woman Is His Mother
3. Employ some tact
You can’t just draw up a list of boundaries for the mother-in-law or father-in-law and expect the boundaries to be respected immediately. So how to talk to your mother-in-law about boundaries? How to say no to the over-gifting father-in-law or shut down constant criticism from him without coming across as disrespectful? How to go about setting boundaries with ex in-laws? Or discuss setting boundaries with a brother-in-law who is difficult to be around due to his language? Or deal with a sister-in-law overstepping boundaries every chance she gets?
Setting healthy boundaries with your current or former extended family, and enforcing them, will require tactful handling:
- Asking your father-in-law to not give money to their grandchild will lead to some ruffled feelings and awkward conversations. Try to remain polite but firm
- If you’re springing a “first call, then visit” rule after 7 years of your partner’s family walking in and out of your house as they please, be prepared for pushback
- When setting boundaries during separation or after divorce, give your soon-to-be ex or former family time to adjust and get used to new schedules and changes in interactions
8 No-Fail Tips For Setting Boundaries With Your In-Laws
Setting boundaries for interfering in-laws is important because issues with in-laws are inexhaustible fodder for stories and tropes, both on the internet and off it. Some of the common issues are:
- Living with in-laws or living too close to in-laws
- Dealing with a nice but annoying mother-in-law
- Having a controlling father-in-law
- Dealing with family drama all the time
- Family interference in marriage and intimacy
- Problems in setting boundaries with in-laws after a baby
- Fighting with husband over his mother
- Separating from husband because of in-laws
- Or even, dealing with toxic in-laws after the death of a spouse
You may not be able to avoid conflict altogether and head off every single problem with your partner’s family. But there are ways for setting boundaries with parents after marriage. Dealing with in-laws in marriage is possible without losing your peace of mind or throwing down the gauntlet, or perhaps the spatula. Remember, not setting healthy boundaries early on doesn’t mean that you cannot start defining or redefining the limits later to protect your mental health and well-being. But how? We’ve prepared some tips and examples of boundaries with in-laws to help you with that:
Related Reading: My Toxic In-Laws Won’t Let Go Even After We Have Shifted Cities
1. Limit or change how you spend time together
From picnics and family dinners to holidays and special days, you can count on spending a lot of time with your extended family. But what if your interactions aren’t all that pleasant? What if your spouse’s family is overstepping boundaries all the time? Or meeting the in-laws is becoming a constant source of conflict or irritation?
Let’s say your sister-in-law or MIL keeps pushing your buttons at family dinners with unsolicited and nosey advice. Then try limiting meet-ups, or change how you spend time together:
- Go catch a movie instead of grabbing dinner at home
- Stay as long as the interaction is pleasant or neutral
- Once the unhelpful comments and advice start from your difficult in-laws, excuse yourself politely
This is one way to deal with an MIL or sister-in-law overstepping boundaries without letting it get to you. If setting boundaries with toxic in-laws is what you are working on, know that sometimes going low-contact or distancing yourself from in-laws may become necessary. Remember, needing boundaries or healthy distance for your well-being is nothing to feel guilty about.
2. Take the broader view of your in-laws
Preconceived notions and biases don’t make for healthy relationships. Contrary to tropes, not all in-laws are pure evil or plain toxic. Assigning them negative intentions or motives all the time will not do you or your relationship with them any good. At the same time, expecting your mother-in-law to be affectionate and supportive but refraining from any and all advice is hardly realistic. So before deciding your in-laws are a certain way or declaring “My husband’s family has no boundaries” or “I can’t stand my in-laws”, it is wise to check whether your own perceptions or expectations are coloring your judgment.
Say, your MIL has offered you some advice on managing finances. Instead of feeling she is hinting at your financial incompetence and figuring out how to set boundaries with mother-in-law, step back and re-evaluate the situation. Perhaps she really did mean well. Taking the broader view also means picking your battles and learning to let some things go for the sake of an otherwise good relationship.
3. Ditch the competitiveness
Try not to make the exercise in setting boundaries with in-laws a contest for:
- Or control over who gets your spouse’s undivided attention
This will only put you in unhealthy competition with your husband’s or partner’s family — and that can never end well. It could also leave your spouse or partner feeling torn and conflicted.
All parents have a soft spot for their kids. If your wife is close to her parents and wants to spend some quality time with them or do something nice for them, it’s only natural for her to feel that way. And just like a husband’s love is different from a father’s love, the romantic love that your spouse has for you and the love he harbors for his parents are entirely different. When drawing up a list of boundaries for mother-in-law or anyone else, try to keep any jealousy or insecurity over your spouse’s close bond with their parents at bay.
4. Don’t direct your anger at your spouse in a bid to set boundaries with in-laws
You’re back from yet another family vacation thinking, “I hate that my in-laws don’t treat me like family.” Or “I just can’t understand why my mother-in-law expects us to pay for everything and never picks up the tab.” Or perhaps your brother-in-law has been crashing at your place lately and not bothering to pick up after himself.
As triggering as some in-law situations can be, if you lash out at your significant other every time you’re nursing a grouse or complaint, you will have another fight on your hands. Here’s what you could try instead:
- Talk to your partner. Avoid critical or blaming language and focus on communicating what you’re feeling (like “I am not comfortable with…” or “It upsets me when…”). Chances are once they understand the situation, they may help mediate it
- What to do when your husband is too attached to his family and has a hard time confronting them? Then you will need to step up and figure out how to talk to your mother-in-law about boundaries around spending money. Or think of setting boundaries with the brother-in-law to limit unannounced visits
Related Reading: 12 Things To Do When Your Husband Chooses His Family Over You
5. Stick to your plans
Maybe it was decided months ago that your entire extended family will gather at your place for Thanksgiving. But now, your MIL is trying to change the plan at the last minute. Perhaps your former in-laws are upset you did not invite them to your son’s school play. Or your ex’s mom drops by unannounced several times a week wanting to take the grandkids out for ice cream. Even though she knows that means they’ll miss hockey practice or piano lessons. In such situations, it’s best to stick to your plans and schedules. Don’t let others overrule or guilt-trip you into doing what they want or something you aren’t comfortable with.
This is important if you are working on setting boundaries with ex in-laws/soon-to-be ex in-laws. And especially when you’re setting boundaries with toxic in-laws. State your limits gently, but clearly. Stand your ground so they know you will hold your own if anyone tries to walk all over your plans or pressure you into changing them.
6. Get to know your in-laws better
Here are two in-law situations. What would you do?
- Your partner’s parents love to help out with the grandkids, but are too controlling and critical
- They are mostly easy-going, but hell-bent on getting you to switch from the brand of milk you use or the mutual fund you invest in
There are no simple answers here. After all, there is no rulebook on the laws of relationships. Striking a balance or keeping cool in some situations can be mighty hard. But it won’t be impossible if you understand where your in-laws are coming from. So take the time to get to know them. Listen to what they say with an open mind. This could make it easier to find common ground, even if you hold different values. It could also help you build a good relationship and get along with them. And if it doesn’t? You can at least say you tried.
Related Reading: How To Have A Good Relationship With Mother-in-Law
7. Don’t try to control their interactions with the grandchildren
The arrival of a new baby can shift family dynamics. And setting boundaries with in-laws after a baby can be hard. From one set of grandparents feeling they aren’t getting enough time with the new baby to endless baby advice – you will have new situations to tackle and limits to revisit. When thinking of setting boundaries with in-laws and grandchildren, understand that your partner’s parents are going to dote on the kids and spoil them with undivided attention. Spending quality time and having a healthy relationship with grandparents will only do the kids good.
As much as you would like to keep the kids under a tight schedule, try not to sweat it if:
- Your husband’s dad wants to take the kids to the amusement park or the movies four days in a row during summer break
- Your partner’s brother hands them a little extra allowance on their birthdays
- Your MIL indulgently allows them some extra TV time occasionally
8. When setting boundaries with family, remember, it’s not about you
So how to go about setting boundaries for interfering in-laws? How to handle in-laws that don’t like you? The ones who keep commenting on your kids’ noses, their grades, your hair, or your cooking every chance they get? To the point that it makes you wonder, “Do I have to have a relationship with my in-laws at all?”
In such situations, it’s best to try not to take any comments or advice to heart. For the sake of your well-being, try to keep an impersonal spin on things said and done. That being said, forcing yourself to get along with someone can never work. If distancing yourself from in-laws helps reduce animosity, then so be it. Know that you’re not selfish if you don’t want to live with your in-laws. It’s okay to say, “I don’t want to see my in-laws every week.” Or “I don’t want to see my in-laws anymore.”
- In-law relationships can be fraught with drama and complications
- Setting boundaries with them and putting your spouse first can help the situation a lot
- To set boundaries, identify the issues, speak to your partner about setting limits, and then use tact to enforce them
- Setting boundaries could require you to limit or change how you interact with in-laws and enforce schedules and plans, even if they ruffle family feathers
- Here, ditching competition, learning to let some things go, not making it about you, and not directing your anger at your partner is important
- It is also wiser to take a broader perspective, get to know the in-laws, and not control their interactions with grandchildren
Hopefully, our tips and examples of boundaries with in-laws have helped you understand how to get a better handle on in-law issues. Remember, healthy boundaries make healthy relationships. When you take a call on how to set boundaries with mother-in-law and father-in-law, do consult your spouse. Remember that your in-laws are a part of your life. And building resentment over parents will only hurt relationships in the long run. So, when it comes to family vs. spouse, it is always advisable to put your spouse first, find common ground, get on the same page with them, and put up a united front.
This article was updated in August 2023.