Everyone knows the cliche of the awful, overbearing in-laws—and everyone thinks they’re definitely going to dodge that bullet. Especially if you’re just dating and think you’re a long way from getting married, the concept of dealing with a significant other’s family might seem like a vague, unimportant issue. But as nearly everyone in a committed relationship will tell you, you’ll have to deal with them one day, and things will go so much better if you’re prepared.
A study following married heterosexual couples over 16 years showed that women who reported having close relationships with their in-laws early in their relationship were more likely to get divorced, while men who reported close relationships with their in-laws were less likely to get divorced. That’s confusing! But what we think it means is that establishing a good but un-suffocating rapport with bae’s family of origin right away is important.
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How do you do that? You could follow your own parents’ mistakes (e.g., my mother’s advice: “Marry an orphan!”) or imagine yourself in Constance Wu’s or Ben Stiller’s shoes. To be slightly more helpful, we reached out to several therapists and dating experts for some sage tips you can use, even before you meet the parents for the first time.
1. Start with just the two of you.
Before that first meeting, most of the experts said to have a little sit-down with your partner. It’s essential to figure out just how close the other person is to their family compared to you and yours, and also how close they intend to remain.
“Discuss both of your families and the boundaries that may need to be set across the board,” says Sarah Epstein, a marriage and family therapist who practices at the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. “Families have different thresholds for how involved they are in adult children’s lives and what sort of information gets shared (about jobs, relationships, money, etc.).”
2. Ask each other the tough questions.
“Cultural variances can affect how we look at family—Western norms tend to be more individualistic, whereas Eastern values tend to be more centered on the family—so these conversations can be tense but fruitful,” says Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., Astroglide’s resident sexologist. She suggests asking about what role your partner’s parents and siblings play in their life, how happy they are with those relationships, how they deal with conflict in their family, whether they want to live close to them in the future, and what financial ties they might have to each other.
“It’s always best to talk about intense issues before conflict arises,” O’Reilly adds, “as you’ll be more rational and empathetic if you’re not physiologically flooded (your heart, breath, and blood pressure rates increase when you’re upset).”
3. Figure out the rules of the game.
While your partner’s family won’t come with a user manual, you do want to get a briefing on what would hypothetically be included in one.
“The most important thing to remember is that every family has their own unwritten norms and rules,” says family and marriage therapist Abigail Thompson. “Even if you get along fine with your partner, those rules come into play when their families enter the picture. They won’t tell you, and they aren’t thinking about it consciously, but they expect you to communicate in a certain way and bring up grievances (or not) in a certain way. So when you’re trying to get along with them the way you know how to with your parents, it’s not going to work with your in-laws.”
4. Plan short and sweet early meetings.
“If possible, those first few visits with your partner’s family should fall within an hour to two hours in maximum length,” says dating and relationship columnist and author Kevin Darne. “Your mate should set expectations ahead of the visit with their family by casually mentioning you two have another obligation afterward. It’s always a good idea during those first few visits to leave them wanting more.” Your partner should also plan to stay by your side during that meeting, so you feel well supported throughout, Darne says.
5. Be yourself—with limits.
“In the early stages, it’s important to let your authentic self shine through while being courteous, kind, and thoughtful,” says clinical psychologist Jeff Nalin, Psy.D. “As this is an adjustment period for everyone, it’s helpful to show appreciation for their hospitality and to let them get to know you without putting pressure on yourself.”
When you get home, Nalin says, you shouldn’t give in to the temptation to unload all your first impression on your partner. “If your significant other rants or complains about his or her family, stay neutral while being understanding,” Nalin says. “Listen but don’t judge or talk negatively about them.”
6. Set those boundaries.
No matter how well those first meetings go, you’re going to need to establish your own limits before others do it for you. Remember that stat at the beginning about women’s closeness to their in-laws actually being a predictor of divorce?
“Soft or highly permeable boundaries often set the stage for situations that become disadvantageous,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. “Women often strive to be highly accepting and willing, in general. This can become more pronounced when meeting a significant other’s family. However, it’s important to steer away from this behavior and set clear, respectful boundaries from the onset. This will allow the new relationships to grow based on strong footing.”
You’ve got to turn back to your partner for this step too. It’s up to both of you to determine how much time you plan to spend with each other’s families (particularly around the holidays), for instance, and how much information about your relationship you want to share with them. You may decide to try to avoid discussing politics or other sensitive issues. You don’t have to have the same rules for both families, as long as you both agree to that scenario.
7. Have each other’s back.
“The most important thing to establish is that the responsibility of managing this dynamic is the partner whose family it is,” says marriage and relationship coach Lesli Doares. “It is this person’s job to define and enforce the boundaries the two of you decide on. The formality of marriage can make this easier, but establishing clear boundaries should begin as soon as you are a defined couple. The needs of your partner and of your relationship should take priority over the desires of your family in most cases.”
That last bit tends to be a sticking point with many couples, particularly if one partner hasn’t established their independence from their parents, says family and relationship psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent.
“Reasonable separation from family of origin means you, the adult child, no longer allow your mental thinking space to be occupied (or cluttered) with thoughts and worries about what your parents will think,” Walfish says. “Your mind is vacated and free to make room for a new intimate partner.”
8. Rise above the judgment.
Despite all your homework on boundaries, you can’t control the fact that some people, even your beloved’s parents, are going to be rude and judgmental. All you can control is how you react to it.
“Ignore the topic they’re talking about and say something about feeling judged,” Tara Vossenkemper, a marriage counselor, suggests. “Simple, but not easy. If an in-law makes a quip (or blatant dig) about your political stance, your degree or lack thereof, the money you make or don’t, your animals, or anything else, you can literally just say, ‘Dang, I feel pretty judged right now. Hoping this isn’t the norm. Ha!'”
That accomplishes three things at once. You’re putting an end to the tricky topic of conversation, eliminating your need to defend yourself. You’re also showing that you’re not too shy to speak up about the fact that they’ve put you in an uncomfortable situation, but you’re diffusing it at the same time. “Say it with a light tone so that you’re not coming across as attacking, which would then justify them attacking you back (and we want to avoid that),” Vossenkemper says.
9. Tell your partner how you feel.
Though you don’t necessarily want to fight back, you should definitely let your partner know how you feel about what was said to you. “Your communication with your partner does not need to be accusatory or angry, but share your feelings openly and honestly,” says psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., relationship expert at Tone Networks.
“It may mean keeping the conversation terse and focused. Don’t raise topics that inflame their judgment, and if that doesn’t work, then you can appropriately and directly communicate with your in-laws. These things can fester if they are not addressed. They may or may not change, but at least you are not complicit in offering silent approval.”
10. Be the grown-up.
“If in-laws are difficult, learn to treat them as members of someone else’s family whose obnoxious actions aren’t worth reacting to. Just politely ignore what they’re doing or saying, and maintain a pleasant demeanor,” says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. “Be a grown-up, whether or not they are. If you have to treat them like misbehaving children, so be it. Just don’t let them drag you into bad behavior of your own.”
11. Don’t call them mom and dad if you don’t want to.
At the other end of the spectrum are the families who seem very eager to bring you into their fold. Maybe you’re just as happy to call them “mom” and “dad,” or maybe you’re not. That’s when you need to talk to your partner again.
“You may feel overwhelmed with their family’s behavior toward you, but your partner may feel very happy about it,” says Ana Jovanovic, clinical psychologist and writer at ParentingPod.com. “Instead of focusing on the behavior of your in-laws, start by focusing on your needs—both your individual needs and your needs as a couple. This is because the actions that aim to satisfy those needs are more likely to be within your control.”
12. Meet them on your terms.
Ideally, this control means you can satisfy your needs while making some space for your partner’s family in your life too. “Create a meaningful family ritual,” Walfish says, such as a monthly dinner or scheduled phone calls and visits, if they’re not local. “Implement gathering together on a regular basis with continuity. Keeping it regular gives each family member something to look forward to and anticipate. Make it frequent enough to feel good and not so often that you feel smothered.”
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by her fellow freelance writers and competitive stroller-pushers. Her work has appeared on Refinery29, Yahoo, MTV News, and Glamour.com. The views expressed herein are her own and are meant to be taken with a grain of salt. Follow her on Twitter @shalapitcher.