Do these scenarios sound familiar?

  • Your in-laws are cold to you.
  • Your husband or partner can't stand up to his mother or father.
  • When it comes to the holidays, it's your in-laws' way-or the highway.
  • Your in-laws are critical and judgmental of you.
  • Your in-laws don't abide by the rules or guidelines you set for your children. 

In-laws are a package deal who come along with your partner.  As you can probably see from the most common situations above, the core issues are mutual acceptance and respect. When these qualities are low--or even absent, getting along or just being civil becomes very difficult. 

Usually, one of you feels as though your relationship with your in-laws consists of a mix of biting your tongue, speaking your mind too much or running interference for your partner. 

Every family is different, but here are some techniques that have worked for my clients. Let's follow the problems and solutions of an imaginary couple, Allison and Nate, who experience the most frequently nagging in-law problems.

1. Choose. Pick your battles. Dealing with in-laws can often resemble dealing with teenagers. You'd exhaust yourself--and your relationship--if you addressed everything that bothered you. Make a list with your partner of what is most important. 

At the top of Allison's list was the holidays.  Her in-laws insisted that they celebrate every holiday at their home. Allison missed the coziness of celebrating in her own home. Her family was angry that they were slighted. Allison did not have the warm fuzzy feelings for her own family, so she didn't mind as much adjusting her holiday time with her parents. Nate said that he wanted to honor his family's wishes. 

2. Solve. Don't just talk out, complain or go nuts over your unhappiness. Some chronically unresolved and unpleasant problems can be solved. Brainstorm with your partner some solutions. Don't give up after discussing only a few ideas. The best choices usually don't pop up until you've gone through around seven ideas. Get bold, creative, daring and even outrageous. See what you uncover. Somewhere in your solutions there will be a few solid ideas.

Allison and Nate's initial ideas were to:

  • Run away ("We've decided to start our own tradition and go to Disney World")
  • Lie ("We can't come this year because so and so is coming/we have to go to Nate's new boss's house, etc.")
  • Go along with the old plan
  • Have a pow-wow ("Just tell them how much we hate going there every year").

None of these felt right enough. Then, Allison and Nate outlined a more specific plan of  dividing up the holiday into do-able segments.  For example, for Christmas, they established Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, afternoon, evening or the next day.  They also added a flexible rotation  of the homes--theirs and each of their parents.

The key word was flexibility. Perhaps one year they rotate the whole holiday with Thanksgiving or even Mother's Day and Father's Day. They spoke with each family separately and developed a negotiable plan that they could all adjust yearly. 

The secret is to distribute the unhappiness as equally as possible. A saying of many divorce lawyers is that the best settlement is when each party is roughly equally as happy and unhappy. Great advice for families and holidays!

3. Speak for yourself, support the other.  Fight your own battles. Recruit your partner as your "wing-person" when the going gets tough.  One of the most common problems is that many men unknowingly choose a woman who can run interference for them between one or both parents.  Too often the man has a hot-headed and difficult relationship with his mother.  He can't stand up to her, and he likes that his wife or partner can take on his mother. 

It's scary standing up to these over-involved parents.  The adult child often has a complicated history of over-respecting, over-revering and eventually resenting the parent.  Soon the adult child feels caught between a rock and a hard place.

The best solution for all, however, is for the partner to take responsibility for speaking up for the problem that has landed in his or her lap.  The other partner serves as a sounding board and advisor.  This new role will feel very uncomfortable for the outspoken spouse.  Resisting the temptation to rescue or take over is necessary, however.

The partner with the difficult parents can start with either a small or big issue.  Practice with your partner.  Consider writing a letter instead of having to "be on your toes" in person.

4. Empathize.  Aim to understand the how and why of the in-laws' behavior.  Take turns explaining to each other your analysis of the other's family.  Now apply this new understanding to answering the following question:  What does my mother-in-law/father-in-law need emotionally. Once you have gained this knowledge, you are in a better position to craft an approach.

Allison realized that Nate's mother was very unhappily married and put all her "happiness eggs" in Nat's basket.  She lived through and for her son.  Allison and Nate decided that Nate would have lunch or dinner one or two times a month with just his mother. 

5. Reframe responses with a positive and kind approach.  Bite your tongue, swallow your pride and be positive and kind.  Treat others the way you wish to be treated.  Sound simple?  It is--and isn't.  I do not mean you should take abuse.  But now that you've grasped what your in-law needs, you are in a better position to strategize.  The following techniques have been effective--over time--with my clients. 

Get a sense of humor and a sense of proportion. You don't have to respond to every single comment  You might need to leave some remarks alone.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and lic.clinical social worker, specializing in relationships.  For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at