Setting boundaries with your in laws should be a topic of conversation well before you get to the altar on your wedding day. When we first married we lived almost 800 miles away from my family but across town from his. I wanted to make sure we had clear lines of communication with each other regarding expectations and which boundaries were important to each of us. When you marry a person you marry their family but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to set limits and expectations for yourself.
One of the earliest conversations we had was about setting boundaries with your in laws. We wanted to establish healthy limits early and be on the same page about handling any oversteps. We had conversations about favoritism, holidays, family vacations, relatives visiting us, what topics were off-limits for discussion, and intrusive behavior. It helped us prioritize our marriage because we didn’t have to have conversations every time something up came up with family.
When having conversations about setting boundaries with your in laws, here are topics to consider:
Showing favoritism or not treating you as a partnership
It’s normal for parents to be closer to us than our spouses. It’s still disappointing when our parents show favoritism toward us over spouses when it comes to birthdays, holidays, or visits. It creeps up in the smallest ways – showing more interest in our activities or careers or gifts are more expensive. If left unchecked those behaviors make your spouse feel left out or less valued as a member of the family.
How to Handle It – Have a clear conversation with family how those behaviors can be perceived by your spouse. Set spending limits on gifts and encourage conversation between your parents and your spouse.
How you’ll be spending the holidays
Our first year together we lived in the same town as my in-laws so we spent the holidays with them. The second and third year we lived in the same town as my parents so we spent the holidays there. More recently we moved away from both families. That’s when the conversations started to get serious. Unfortunately, we had a falling out with his family so the topic became a moot point for us but if you’re in a situation that requires compromise over the holidays read on for how to handle it.
How to Handle It – Before discussing the issue, evaluate how each family celebrates the holidays and which traditions are important. For example, my hometown has an large 4th of July celebration and we celebrate big every year. My parents also own a hunting farm and hunting season opens during Thanksgiving so Thanksgiving is a bigger holiday than Christmas because extended family is visiting to go hunting. If your family has traditions that favor one holiday over another use that for compromise. Also, evaluate a rotating schedule (his family this year, her family next year, and so on) but don’t default to that automatically. If you see one family more than another during the year then that family should give a little on the holidays.
What you’ll do for family vacations
I grew up in Florida and spent family vacations visiting my Dad’s parents in West Virginia. I loved it because it meant seeing my grandparents, playing on the farm, and making smores. I remember moments of my mom saying she wished we could take a vacation that didn’t involve WV. She wanted to travel more but we never did, we always went to WV. It was a compromise because my parents wanted us to have memories with my Dad’s family.
Before we married, we talked about trips we wanted to take together. We have destinations all over the world on our bucket lists. We don’t want to spend every vacation with family. We try to take a weekend trip at least 3 times a year and one of those allowed to be with family.
How to Handle It – We started this conversation by sharing 3 places on our travel bucket list. We found we had a few places in common so we ended up with 4 places on our final list. We then made a travel calendar and scheduled a visit to each place. That helped us visualize how much family time we could include in our trips. What is your dream vacation and is it reasonable to expect it to become a trip with in laws? Also, remember that this is separate from holidays.
How long can in laws stay when they visit
I called my mom while on the way to the store to check in and she mentioned road tripping down to Atlanta with a friend and visiting. When I asked when and for how long she said, “Oh, I don’t know, by the end of the summer and maybe a week? Maybe a month?” I knew my husband would say he loves my mom and she could stay for as long as she wanted but I would never offer my home to a visitor without checking first (same goes for him). On average, we’ve agreed to a 3-5 day rule with the opportunity for exceptions.
How to Handle It – Have a clear discussion about your own limits but three days is a good general rule. Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Fish and visitors smell after three days.” implying that three days is long enough for a visit. We also set boundaries regarding how much of the visit must be spent doing activities together versus alone time and what other expectations we have for each other.
Identify any off-limits topics
This is a much bigger deal to me than my husband because although I’m an open book on most things there are things that I consider “off-limits” topics for discussion. When I brought it up he admitted he had a few too. Money details and details about fights are off-limits topics for me. Everyone has one or two things they’d rather not discuss with others.
How to Handle It – This takes compromise because it’s likely you won’t agree on topics. This is not the time to argue. If your spouse isn’t comfortable with a topic being discussed then respect their preferences. I don’t like discussing money with family (like exactly what we paid for our car, how much we have in investments, or how much we donate to charity). It’s the same reason I have decided not to do income reports on my blog. If a topic makes your spouse uncomfortable, don’t share it.
What is intrusive behavior
I remember my grandmother used to come over and clean. It drove my mom crazy and was a joke in our family. Is it intrusive? Depends on who you ask. What about disciplining your kids? Offering cooking advice? Telling you how to manage your money? Providing decorating tips? Giving “constructive criticism” on your life? Stopping by unannounced? Changing plans that have already been made?
How to Handle It – You have to respect and submit to each other here. If someone feels as though behavior is intrusive, that behavior is intrusive. No one should be forced into a situation that is uncomfortable. Say, “Mom, I know you feel like your helping when you clean but it makes me uncomfortable. Would you like a cup of tea or coffee instead so we can just visit?” In other cases, it requires standing up for yourself but you’re not a child and it’s ok to tell parents they have to respect your boundaries.
***Special Note*** – None of the above-mentioned tips or suggestions should be followed in the case of an abusive or controlling relationship. If your voice is not being heard, opinions are not being respected, and your boundaries are not being acknowledged I encourage you seek help if needed.
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