Q Dear Therapist, I wanted to present a question related to a struggle I’ve been facing for over a decade. I’m (mostly) happily married to a decent husband who is a wonderful father to our 3 children. However, when it gets to his father, it’s a whole different ball game. Although his mother is sweet and dependable, his father is critical of me and overly possessive of my husband. He’s extremely giving on a financial and emotional level, until he feels that I’m not providing my husband with the most blissful life. To give you a little more background, let me explain my husband’s upbringing. My husband grew up in a home where he never had to face any struggles or responsibilities. His needs were always met and he was never asked to help around the house. Until this day, his father buys him suits and shirts and takes his clothing to the tailor. However, when things don’t go my husband’s way, somehow they are always my fault. For example, my husband recently got a cold and my father-in-law blamed me that my husband is run-down. I wanted to mention that my husband has a more timid nature, so although he validates me, he has a hard time standing up to his father. There are many more examples to help you understand my father-in-law’s behavior, but for now, I guess my question is, how do I create boundaries with him and continue to be a respectful daughter-in-law?
A Dear reader, thanks for presenting a question I believe many individuals in your position can relate to. After reading your question carefully, I noticed that you possess an incredible strength of character. You’re expressing a struggle that has been accompanying you for over a decade, yet you’re presenting your question in a respectful and impartial manner. I believe that many individuals in your position would express a tremendous level of resentment towards their in-laws and perhaps even their spouse.
That being said, let’s address your question. Although I have little information about how you currently respond to your father-in-law, I’d like to address some universal themes that can be helpful when addressing intruding in-laws. According to Christenen, in his article about setting boundaries with in-laws (2018), being in sync with your spouse is key to dealing with overbearing in-laws. In your situation, I believe it’s important to elicit your spouse’s support so the two of you can present a united front to your in-laws. Notify your spouse that he is number one and ask him to show you the same support. Once that’s set in place, ask your spouse to gently present this united front to his parents. This will help solidify a marriage based on commitment and trust, but most important, it will remind your father-in-law to take a step back.
Second, shift your thinking. Try to eliminate viewing your father-in-law as a threat, rather as the father of your spouse. Thinking about how one day you will become an in-law as well, might support your shift in thinking.
Moreover, eliminate feelings of competition. The love between spouses and parental love are very different. In order to “assist” your father-in-law in not confusing the two, encourage your spouse to spend some quality time with his parents.
Another technique that might help you enhance your relationship with your father-in-law while maintaining boundaries, is inviting him to spend time with your children. Perhaps you can think of a day on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, when your father-in-law can pick your children up from school and spend quality time with them. This will provide you with a much-needed break while modeling an appropriate relationship with him.
While all of the skills mentioned above are essential in building a healthy relationship with your in-laws, it’s essential to remember that your relationship with your spouse is of utmost importance.
In her article about How Health Couples Deal with Their In-Laws, Tartakovsky (2018) highlights that healthy couples differentiate their own relationship from their in-laws. Therefore, in your specific situation, it’s essential that you continue to focus on how kind your spouse is and how his behavior does not reflect his father’s behaviors.
Moreover, don’t take you father-in-laws behavior personally. Remember that he is a human being, despite that fact that he is flawed in more areas than one.
Last but not least, continuously communicate with your spouse. Try to sympathize with each other as you process the difficulties related to your relationship. Remember, your father-in-law is coming from a position of love. Therefore, take down the resentment a notch and hopefully you’ll be able to build a loving relationship with much needed boundaries.