What to Do When Your Partner Will Not Stand Up to His Parents

Posted by on Mar 15, 2017 in Couples Counseling For One | Comments Off on What to Do When Your Partner Will Not Stand Up to His Parents

In her research at the University of Cambridge, noted writer and psychologist Terri Apter found that 3 out of 4 couples have problems with their in-laws.

Over 60 percent of women and 15 percent of men report having a negative relationship with their significant other’s mother. Far and away, the most common challenges occur between a daughter and her mother-in-law.

There are many reasons this is the case. But, generally, there are three primary reasons for problems in this relationship: control, criticism, and conflict.

Most women in this situation find that their mother-in-laws are overly intrusive. The older woman may express controlling opinions about finances, child bearing or rearing, or even express doubt about her daughter-in-law’s character or whether she is the right partner for her child. This is where critical and insulting behavior can come into play. Conflict may arise from a difference in values, goals, and general personality clashes.

Regardless, the daughter-in-law can experience long term stress and start to dread interaction with her spouse’s parents due to the negativity. Her poor relationship with her mother-in-law can escalate quickly and become very toxic. It is important to address the issue to keep things from getting out of control.

So, what’s a couple to do?

Ideally, when one spouse has a problem, the couple has a problem. Together, they would talk about the problem and identify the changes they want to make as a unit. The spouse would then take responsibility for presenting the issue to his parents, ensuring the relationship boundaries are maintained.

Unfortunately, too, this is often not the way things work in reality. Many times he may be reluctant at best and unwilling at worst to stand up for himself or his spouse to his own family members.

What do you do in that situation?

1. Avoid asking your spouse to address his family’s bad behavior.

Often times, women say they want their husbands to stand up for them. This tends to mean that they actually want their husbands to confront the offending family members.

However, if you can, consider the position your spouse is in. His family’s behavior probably seems quite normal to him. That’s how he was raised…it’s what he knows. What seems abnormal, or even offensive to you, is commonplace to him. He may not experience the same amount of concern regarding his family’s behavior as you do.

Also, he loves you and he loves his family. He may very likely feel caught in the middle. Obviously, his connection to his family of origin is very different than yours as an in-law. Thus, asking your partner to confront his family can put him in an extremely uncomfortable and difficult position. This may lead to resentment on his part or even blaming you for the situation.

Truthfully, some people are simply incapable of effectively confronting their loved ones, even when they know that they are wrong. If he is reluctant to confront his family that is not necessarily a reflection of his loyalty or how he feels about you.

Does this mean that there are never times when confrontation is necessary? Of course not. In extreme circumstances, confrontation can and should occur. It isn’t unreasonable to expect your partner to have your back in those situations. If this does happen, it’s important to remember that your spouse is not responsible for his family’s response or behavior following the confrontation. In other words, he can not control their behavior afterward one way or the other. They may or may not behave.

2. Focus on setting boundaries.

The reality is there are a number of ways your spouse can stand up for you. Directly confronting the family isn’t the only way. Spouses are often more willing to do this than have a direct confrontation.

When you ask for your spouse’s help setting boundaries, you want to stay focused on your own feelings and the situation from your perspective, rather than what is wrong or problematic with his family. Otherwise, your unfavorable assessment of his family could feel like an attack, which might lead to defensiveness on his part. You won’t get anywhere that way. So keep the sole focus on what you feel is the issue and why it’s a problem.

Also, talk about the kinds of boundaries you want to set. Consider the following examples:

  • Agree to refrain from sharing your financial situation if his parents are overly involved in your financial life.
  • Decide to limit the number of visits you have with the family as a couple in an effort to reduce the amount of stress on you.

When proposing these types of boundaries, remember that you are simply asking, not demanding, that your spouse helps make the family situation more manageable for you. Furthermore, give your partner time to consider your request as opposed to demanding a response right away. Putting him on the spot for an immediate answer reduces the likelihood of his support or cooperation.

In addition, be sure to share and discuss why you feel the proposed boundaries are better options than the way things currently are.

3. Take the initiative to set boundaries yourself, if necessary.

Again, the only things you can control are your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions.

While you would love to see your spouse take the lead, if he or she won’t set limits with their family, it is definitely okay to do so yourself.

Keep in mind that your boundaries will be new for the people involved. At times, you may need to gently and firmly prompt or remind them of your limits. To make this easier, think about how you might handle these situations in other relationships. Consider how you would enforce boundaries with a coworker or acquaintance. You may need to be more direct or assertive if gentle reminders aren’t effective.

For example, parenting is a common point of contention for daughters and mothers-in-law. You may need to begin by politely thanking your in-laws for their input, but gently let them know that you have a handle on your childrearing. If that doesn’t work, more directly ask them to keep those kinds of comments or criticisms to themselves.

In the worst case scenario, your in-laws may not choose to respect your boundaries. If this happens and you experience a lot of intolerable stress, you may need to consider cutting off contact with your in-laws temporarily, or even permanently, depending on the severity of the disrespect. You are certainly not obligated to engage with extreme or abusive in-laws. While not ideal, separation may be required for your peace of mind.