There are some red lines in a relationship—topics or issues that can be difficult, maybe nearly impossible, to talk about or take on. No matter how well we know each other, how intimate or entwined our lives become, there are still some sticky spots. And more often than not, one of those tricky areas is dealing with each other's families.
Struggling with your in-laws is one of the oldest problems in the marriage book, mainly because so few of us can be objective about our families. Even when you know that your family is difficult, unreasonable, or just a bit confusing, it’s totally natural to get defensive and overprotective of them, which is why if you’re struggling with your partner’s family, it can be really hard to talk about.
“Difficult family can be a very big problem in a relationship,” says relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein. “It’s actually a litmus test of sorts.” Once the problem has arisen, figuring out what to do next can be challenging. Sometimes it can be best just to leave it alone. If you don’t love your partner’s family, but you only see them a few times a year and it’s slightly awkward, there’s no real reason to pick a fight or make your partner feel uncomfortable. But if their family is really difficult or toxic, and you feel like it’s having an impact on you, your partner, or your relationship, then you may need to say something.
Meet the Expert
Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, is a therapist who has been working at a private practice for over 20 years, helping her patients with depression, anxiety, parenting difficulties, body image, relationship struggles, infidelity, and work problems.
Choose Your Words Carefully
When talking to your partner about their family, be sure to be considerate about the language you use. You don’t need to go on the attack and start using language like “ridiculous,” “crazy,” or “nasty.” Instead, make sure to focus on the interactions you’ve had, things you’ve noticed, and how it makes you feel. Talking about how you’ve been affected, rather than listing things they’ve done wrong, will keep you from sounding like you're in attack mode and will help create a foundation for a more constructive conversation.
Spell Things Out
Although you want to be careful how you choose your words, you also can’t beat around the bush. You may hope that dropping a few hints will do the trick but that's rarely the case. "It’s very important to address these issues directly,” Hartstein says. “If you feel like your partner’s family is treating you poorly or causing trouble in your relationship, you should have some clear examples and let your partner know immediately. If they are there in the moment, bring it up when you are alone.”
There’s a good chance that your partner is going to be resistant to hearing or seeing things that are wrong with their family—even if it’s incredibly obvious to you. You will need to use concrete examples and explain why it's not OK (again, focusing on language about how it makes you feel).
“They might or might not see the things that are upsetting to you, but you should spell them out clearly,” Hartstein explains. “If it’s made clear to them, the next step is to let them know that some of the behavior is not OK. The family members need to know that you are an important person in their life and that they need to be polite and respectful.” Of course, you need to make sure that your actions are aboveboard— and accept criticism if you’ve been behaving less than appropriately—but it's important to get it all out there without merely dropping hints or being passive-aggressive.
Approach It as a Team
Finally, try to stay on the same team as your partner. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to try and be on the same page as your partner about this,” Hartstein says. “Family is an issue that can easily divide couples if not addressed clearly and quickly. However, you also may need to realize that respect and kindness works both ways!”
Ultimately, remember that this is about your relationship with your partner—and that has to come first. Make sure you reiterate to your partner that this is about the two of you being strong and keeping your relationship healthy. And ask what you can do to help improve the relationship with their family as well. “You might not love all of your partner’s family, but you do need to respect and honor the relationship that existed before you came on the scene.”
Knowing how to handle issues with your partner's family can be sensitive, and we all have to accept a little awkwardness and ruffled feathers from time to time. But sometimes if it’s having an impact on you or your relationship, you need to say something. Be respectful, but be direct—the sooner you and your partner start to deal with the problem, the easier it will be. Just be sure you’re staying on the same team.