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Setting Boundaries with the In-Laws: 11 Ways to Say ‘No’ While Loving Well

If you’re married or plan on getting married one day, chances are you’ll have at least a couple tense moments with your in-laws.

Rachel Zoffness, assistant clinical professor at the UCSF School of Medicine and author of The Pain Management Workbook, shared an interesting anecdote concerning in-laws and mental health during her Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program. During this program, Zoffness did a rotation at an inpatient facility, treating individuals struggling with suicidality and homicidality. Unsurprisingly, this facility was never more full than it was during the holiday season.

By the end of the rotation, Zoffness deduced that people endured one of two situations during the holidays. Either they had no family, which caused them to feel lonely and depressed and therefore lead to suicidal ideation, or they had spent too much time with their families, which led them to feel homicidal. While this deduction may be a bit on the nose, it does hold some merit, as homicide rates do indeed rise during the holiday season.

Whether you’re feeling homicidal toward your in-laws or just having a hard time spending so much time with them, the season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s may be a trying one for many. 

The presence of family members can be upsetting even on average days, and it can be even tougher to set your own boundaries with them without sounding rude. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of 11 ways to set boundaries with your in-laws to keep you peaceful and mentally well, all while being respectful and kind.

Let’s Talk About Boundaries

When you get married, having a strong network of loving in-laws may seem like a huge blessing. Although a spouse’s family members are usually cordial enough and willing to help out, not everyone is so lucky. When it comes down to it, your in-laws are people, and people are likely to have different opinions than you. Guess what? That’s totally fine! Just because you don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean you can’t get along.

You might not feel at ease adopting their particular worldview or have the power to influence their thinking, but setting limits with the in-laws might help both spouses establish common ground and work toward strengthening their relationship. However, before you can do that, you must first understand the notion of setting appropriate boundaries with your in-laws.

By setting healthy and appropriate boundaries with your in-laws, you may be able to control how much of an impact they have on your life. In some cases, getting their input could be entirely unnecessary. Your in-laws don’t need to know every thought that pops into your head. If you’d rather keep your distance, that’s fine, too. In fact, keeping a healthy distance from your in-laws might be one of the best things you can do if you don’t see eye-to-eye.

Some examples of boundaries you can set with your in-laws might look like the following:

  • Respecting others’ beliefs and ensuring that other people also respect your values and beliefs
  • Being able to communicate emotional needs and wants
  • Respecting the needs of others but not disturbing your own needs
  • Saying “No” when needed, even when your spouse is unable to
  • Ensuring you do not compromise your mental health while interacting with others
  • Offering flexible access to your family members in your personal life

There are also different kinds of boundaries, including physical, mental, emotional, and financial. Healthy mental boundaries protect your ideas, beliefs, values about life, child upbringing, etc., while emotional boundaries are boundaries where you do not disclose your personal information or feelings in front of in-laws because they can have different values and may not agree with you. It’s important to explore these different kinds of boundaries and understand what may be necessary for you and your family.

1. Accept That Your Needs Are Valid

Setting limits with your parents, siblings, or other family members requires you first to accept and value your own needs. It’s normal to be fearful of upsetting a loved one in your family by setting healthy limits, but you must realize that your needs are as vital as those of everyone else. Setting appropriate boundaries does not imply you have to be cruel. In actuality, the inverse holds true. Setting healthy limits with loved ones can lead to deeper connections with relatives and friends based on mutual respect and understanding.

2. Find New Ways to Interact

A family rarely agrees on all issues. However, tension frequently emerges when people are too close and spend too much time together, and it is magnified when opinions differ. Changing interaction patterns is one of the simplest ways to establish boundaries with in-laws. You may restrict your interactions to family dinners, family events, and the occasional phone call. It is more than acceptable to keep your distance from your in-laws if you need to.

It’s important to recognize that not all fathers-in-law are authoritative and invasive, and a family might occasionally have disagreements. To ensure your comfort with your in-laws, however, it may be preferable to alter your mode of communication.

3. Don’t Compete

Your spouse may hold their parents or siblings in a different place in their life than you do, and it’s important that you understand that’s okay. It may feel obtrusive to you, but to them, it may be natural. Therefore, you should never compete for your spouse’s affection. You are the partner and will occupy a unique place in the life of your spouse. 
On the flip side, it’s important to reassure your in-laws that you’re not out to steal their spotlight. Assure them that you value their opinion and that they are not in competition with you for their kid’s attention. If it doesn’t work, you may want to explore therapy with your in-laws to address this problem.

4. Don’t Blame Your Spouse

At the end of the day, if you and your in-laws just don’t get along, it’s not your partner’s fault. They may have been raised by their family, but they are not responsible for the individuals they turned out to be. If you have a conflict with a member of your spouse’s family, don’t take that conflict directly to your spouse. Blaming them for the behavior of one of their family members will not improve your relationship. Instead, open up a discussion with your spouse about setting boundaries with their family.

5. Try to See Their Point of View

Miscommunication is a common cause of tension when setting limits with in-laws, so it may serve you to see if their concerns are warranted. You might have adopted a stance that was too firm and dismissed their suggestions. Therefore, at least consider where they’re coming from. Perhaps it will cause you to reconsider your approach to setting limits with your in-laws.

6. Find Common Ground

It’s possible you won’t see eye-to-eye in many ways with your in-laws, such as their vacation habits or holiday traditions. You may even feel that they are overstepping their bounds if they have asked you your opinion on them. What you should do is experiment with what it is that they enjoy doing.

They may have a fun and interesting way of doing things that you might also enjoy if you try it out. If that doesn’t work, just say you’re into something else. When rejecting someone, keep things on a pleasant note so they don’t take it personally.

7. Avoid Unnecessary Arguments 

Every disagreement doesn’t have to turn into a strong conflict. Your in-laws remain distinct individuals with unique characteristics whose ideologies and standards may differ from yours. There’s no use arguing with them over the things they’re doing differently. It could lead to a break in the relationship that you won’t be able to mend.

Instead, do your best to avert your attention and growing anger. You can do anything from sitting in front of the TV to walking around the block to working on a current workplace assignment. You and your in-laws will be able to establish appropriate boundaries now that you’re fighting less over inconsequential things.

8. Do Not Limit Their Access to Your Children

You may not appreciate your mother-in-law’s controlling behavior, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid her entirely. According to studies, children’s personalities change as a result of parental relationship instability. Instead, send your kids to their grandparents or aunts and uncles for some one-on-one time when you can’t be there. If your children enjoy spending the night away from home, consider hosting sleepovers at their grandparents’ or other relatives’ homes.

Your in-laws could also benefit from occasional video conversations with your kids, and you might even encourage it. This will assist you in setting limits that do not interfere with your children’s relationships. Additionally, it may be a good idea to have a conversation with your own children about boundaries with in-laws.

9. Let Them Know Their Advice Isn’t Always Applicable to You

It’s possible that after giving birth, you’ll find that you and your in-laws have been at odds more often than before. How do you effectively establish limits with your in-laws once the baby arrives? It’s okay to be upfront and tell your in-laws that their experience may be different from your own. Since they existed in separate eras, it’s possible that they led very different lives. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and what you think is best for your child.

In light of this, you should be aware that not all of their suggestions will be helpful. So, calmly explain to them that not all of their suggestions are applicable to you.

10. Walk Away When You Need To

You never have to stay in a situation that feels harmful or toxic. There is always an exit if someone isn’t respecting your personal space.You can try to talk through things if you believe that’s the best route to go, but at a certain point, especially if it’s been stressful for any period of time, you can always simply walk away — no explanation or apology is necessary. If your boundaries aren’t being respected, you should walk away from the situation without feeling bad about it.

11. Consult Your Partner

You should always speak with your partner before setting boundaries with your in-laws. After all, they hold a special role in your life. Therefore, you should always voice your concerns. Discuss in detail your views on what constitutes a healthy lifestyle and what does not. Talk to them about their thoughts on establishing boundaries. They could advise you on how to set up boundaries that allow for healthy communication on both sides.

Healthy Boundaries Cultivate Healthy Relationships

Setting boundaries can be a difficult task to accomplish, but the reality is that you and your spouse are in this together. You are a team who supports one another no matter what and approaching healthy boundaries with family should be no exception. Of course, sometimes there are people in the world who just aren’t nice. If your in-laws clearly don’t harbor any sort of respect for you or the boundaries you‘ve tried to set, don’t waste any more of your time. 

Hopefully, that is not the case in your situation, and you are able to calmly discuss your concerns with respect to one another. Never force yourself to endure a situation where you feel disrespected or uneasy, and always stand up for yourself in the case that you are not treated as such. By following the tips provided in this article, and with enough patience and understanding, you’ll be on your way to setting healthy boundaries and thriving in your relationships with your in-laws in no time!

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