Universal truth: We can pick our partners, but we can’t pick our partner’s family—which means we get the good, the bad, and the awkward when it comes to dealing with them. Managing how your S.O.’s parents get involved in your relationship can be tricky, especially if your partner is the ultimate mama’s boy or daddy’s girl.
Family members who don’t have a healthy understanding of boundaries may stop by your place at unwanted times, call to check in every night, or stick their nose in your personal business way too much. If it feels like they’re wreaking havoc on your relationship, it’s time to set some serious boundaries. Here’s how to properly draw the line between your partner’s family and you two as a couple.
Know Your Own Boundaries First
Once you take the time to understand what works and doesn’t work for you, you’ll be in a better position to be flexible yet strong, explains psychologist Dr. Carla Manly, who specializes in relationships. “The ‘I’ messages technique can be very powerful in setting boundaries,” she says. “For example, if family members are exerting pressure for a person to get married and have children, a helpful, positive response might be, ‘I feel stressed when you bring up wanting me/us to get married and have children. I promise I’ll be the first to break the news, though!’”
Decide What’s Not OK to Share
This is something you and your partner have to settle on ahead of time, and may be more of an issue between you two than with the family. Translation: You may need to help him/her learn to keep certain things between the two of you. Their family doesn’t need to know everything. As a couple, you can—and, in fact, should—have some secrets. Things like your salaries, debt, or decision to freeze your eggs are your business, not theirs.
Avoid Insulting Their Family
When setting boundaries, make the conversation less about what your partner’s family is doing (or not doing) and more about what you need. “Don’t attack or make blanket statements,” says relationship coach Lesli Doares. “Make it about what will support your relationship. Talk about what you enjoy about their family first, and then address any annoyances or concerns. Be willing to open up about your own family and be open to their views/perceptions, as well.” For example, you could say, “I love spending time with your family during the holidays, but I’d love for us to have some alone time to celebrate, too.” Then suggest only spending one night of holiday cheer together, rather than three or four days.
Be Clear Yet Flexible
Some people use “boundaries” as an excuse to disguise highly rigid or stubborn attitudes (i.e., having the mindset that it has to be your way all the time), says Manly. “This type of attitude is destructive to relationships with family and otherwise over time.” Not to mention that it could make you sound like these issue are all about you, rather than you and your partner, as it should be.
Be Ready to Follow Through
Once you’ve reflected and settled on what you think is an appropriate boundary to establish with your partner’s family (e.g. not talking about your personal finances with them) it’s important to be firm. We’re not talking about being rigid and not open to discussion—we’re talking about holding your ground. It’s important to demonstrate that you’re committed to a boundary, says life coach Karen Anderson. “In other words, make sure it’s something you’re willing to follow through on.” For example, say you agree—just this once—to go to church together, even though you’re not religious, your partner’s family may continue to pressure you in the future, knowing they were able to convince you once.
Have a Plan if Boundaries are Crossed
Setting a healthy boundary is a two-part proposition, says Anderson. “Number one is making a request of someone else to not infringe on your physical/emotional space and number two is to know what you’ll do if the other person does not want to comply—which you can let them know or no.” For example, if you’d prefer not to talk about politics, but your partner’s family loves it, you could decide to go for a walk or join another conversation.
Meet in the Middle
We mean this both figuratively and literally. It’s OK to set boundaries as to how and when you spend time with your partner’s family and privacy around your relationship, but this doesn’t mean writing off their parents altogether, says Doares. If you meet in the middle—meaning instead of driving an hour to their house for dinner, you meet at a restaurant 20 minutes away—or you write the parents a weekly email to catch them up on your life instead of having them call every night, these little things give you more control over the situation, and can keep their behavior in check.
Let Your Partner Take the Lead
While you can set the boundaries that make you feel more comfortable, at the end of the day this is your partner’s family, so giving him/her the space to figure out how best to manage their family can be productive. “The two of you need to talk about what boundaries you want to set, but they have to take the lead,” says Doares. “If they aren’t on board, it won’t happen. Having them talk to their family conveys this as his/her position and not something being driven solely by you.”
Keep Your Distance
A recent study of married people found that more than half blame their in-laws for relationship problems and around one in five would divorce their partner’s parents if they could! These are extreme circumstances—but if you’ve tried setting boundaries with no luck and you start feeling like your partner’s family has your relationship teetering on the edge, you may need to physically move further away from them.