Yikes. What a topic. I don’t think many counsellors want to stare the death star of difficult in-laws in the face when considering pre-marital counselling, yet, the questions of roles of in-laws and especially dealing with difficult in-laws tend to surface ever so often in my consultation room.  The irony of the situation is that this normally occurs not during the pre-marital counselling phase (when couples are head over heels in love), but usually about a year after a couple’s marriage.

Ones the official “I do’s” have been exchanged meddling difficult in-laws usually start poking away at newlyweds. How then can you bullet proof your marriage against such difficult in-laws without compromising relationships and still respect your partner’s mother or father? Here are some tips to get you through the first of many happily married years when dealing with difficult in-laws:

Difficult in laws

  1. Leaving and cleaving

One of the biggest obstacles facing newlywed couples is the concept of “leaving and cleaving” It is usually when one of the partners fail to or is emotionally unable to “leave and cleave” when the other partner feels his/her her parents are too involved in their marriage.


What exactly do we mean with “leaving and cleaving”? It simply means that the person getting married must do some form of “separation” from his or her parents and “cleave” to his or her new spouse.


“Leaving and cleaving” happens on a physical and an emotional level. As an example, the person getting married physically moves out of his or her parent’s home and moves in with his or her new spouse.  This can off course apply to sharing accommodation with friends or any other family members, but the physical move happens.


Emotionally this means detaching yourself from the influence of parents and moving into an adult state of self-decision making while considering your partner in these decisions. No, this does not mean forgetting about parents or siblings or any other family members, but it simply means putting your partner’s wants, needs, emotions and decisions ahead of your family’s.


  1. Be on the same page.

It is extremely important for you and your partner to be on the same page in regards with how you view each other’s in laws.  How you define the roles of the mother and father in law and how far and much you feel they should be involved in your lives as a married couple. That being said it is also important to understand exactly how far the in-law’s roles should reach for a healthy marriage. For instance, you and your partner may feel that it is ok for your in-laws to visit every day. But long term this is not healthy as you and your partner may end up spending more time with them instead of with each other.  This flows into the second point of dealing with difficult in-laws: Healthy boundaries.


  1. Healthy boundaries

Once you and your partner are on the same page both of you can stand together in asserting healthy boundaries with in-laws. For some guidance here is a list of some healthy boundaries you may want to ascertain. It will be difficult in the beginning but stick with your guns on this one. It is better to assert the boundaries earlier than later (especially ones grandchildren arrive)

  • In-laws have no right to determine how your household should be run.
  • In-laws should not visit every day
  • In-laws should not criticize you or your partner (if they continue even after being assertive look at point 7 below)
  • In-laws should not visit unannounced
  • In-laws must never have a key to your house
  • In-laws must not control or sway your decisions with gifts or money
  • In-laws have no say over your finances
  • In –laws should not do daily tasks for your partner. E.g pack his/her lunch, do his/her washing

meddling in laws, difficult in-laws

  1. Assertive without being rude

Once you and your partner are on the same page and know which boundaries you would like in-laws to respect it is important to stick to your guns and be assertive with meddling or difficult in-laws without being disrespectful. Make sure your tone of voice and language used is not offensive or disrespectful,l but be firm and assertive in your decisions. An example of this is perhaps an in-law that critizises the cleanliness of your home. Be assertive in stating that you and your partner are more than ok with the way in which your home is being cleaned as both of you have come to an understanding of how the house should be managed. If the in-law continues then just ignore them. They did hear you the first time, but might want to manipulate you or the situation to have control over you and your partner.


  1. Consider your partner


Do bear in mind though that this remains your partner’s parents so when discussing boundaries or a conflict situation try to be gentle in the way you discuss and approach the situation. Instead of using aggressive attacking language just explain calmly why his/her in-laws have upset you. I can promise you that if you do it attackingly your partner’s immediate reaction will be defensive. And you will immediately feel he/she is choosing his/her parents above you. If you calmly explain why something bothered or upset you he or she will definitely be more open to listen, discuss and address the situation in an adult manner instead of in an emotional reaction.


  1. Choose your battles – wisely

As mentioned in point 4 sometimes it is best to just ignore continues criticism from an in-law, especially if he or she has been answered on a certain topic. Some in-laws want to provoke a fight, others want to ascertain control over your spouse again, others are manipulative and some are just out right mean. Whatever your situation with your in-law some topics are worth discussing further and others are not. If it is something you and your partner feel is harming you, your partner or your children in a serious manner this is something worth discussing more intensely with an in-law. If an in law keeps on critizing how you dress or your looks is it worth a fight or getting upset about? Also strongly consider point number 7 if you have persistent in law troubles.



  1. Sometimes don’t take it so personal


If you have excessively criticising in-laws this might be the most challenging thing for you to work on: don’t take it personal. Some in-laws don’t have a problem with you, per se, they just have a problem with the idea that their child is all of a sudden married.  So sometimes when you feel overwhelmed by criticism (and they normally do this when your partner is not around) is to not take it so personal. Don’t feel the need to perform to get their approval. Even if your partner married royalty they would have found something to complain about. The problem lies not with you, but with them. They are unable to let go and accept that their son or daughter is no longer theirs and that they are now a grown adult. It is a difficult life stage for them to move into and the one way in which to keep focus without taking it too personal is to consider that one day you will also be in their shoes and will also have to let go of your baby boy or girl.


We hope that here at Life Counsel that this article has helped you with some difficult in-law troubles. If you do however feel overwhelmed or have excessively difficult in-laws please do not hesitate to contact our counsellor Gerrie Pretorius to assist and help you cope with your difficult in-laws.