Princess Eugenie’s engagement announcement on 22 Jan was swiftly met by a gushing mum tweet from Sarah Ferguson, who not only proclaimed her love for soon-to-be son-in-law Jack Brooksbank, but also described him (rather bizarrely) as “a son, a brother and a best friend”.
Whether over-familiar or downright difficult, relationships with the in-laws can be a real rollercoaster. And they don’t necessarily get easier to deal with as time passes, either.
Relationships psychologist, author and Relate ambassador Anjula Mutanda describes the in-law dynamic as “a tug of love and a power struggle”. She tells HuffPost UK: “What often gets in the way is that, with in-laws, the parents see their child as a child and continue to treat them that way even when they’re in a relationship. They see it as: you follow in line with us, these are the rules.”
But it doesn’t - and shouldn’t - have to be this way. To help you navigate life with ‘the in-laws’, we spoke to family relationship experts and compiled a survival guide of dos and don’ts. You’re welcome.
Do chat about your family dynamic before meeting them
Mutanda says one of the most important things for avoiding family feuds is giving your partner a heads up about what your family members are like before they even meet them. Address the simple things such as: are they huggers or handshakers?
It’s important to give your family a full run-down on your partner too, letting them know about what they are comfortable and uncomfortable with.
“Those kind of things really set the scene and build the boundaries,” she explains. “Steer clear of hot button issues - like Trump - and determine beforehand whether you want to talk about things like politics.”
Do put on a ‘united front’ when broaching difficult topics
One of the biggest - and most explosive - issues that Mutanda comes across is when couples don’t stand by one another while dealing with the in-laws. “If, for instance, you have pushy in-laws and you’ve decided that you and your partner don’t want to go to their house at Christmas, you need to both address it together,” she says. “You have to agree what you’re going to say and stick to it.”
What you shouldn’t do, however, is turn up to your parents house and rely on your partner to do the talking. Similarly, don’t backtrack and end up agreeing with your parents over your partner. Remember: you’re in this together.
Do stick up for your partner
Couples therapist Michael Kallenbach says you should always back your spouse in any dispute with the in-laws. “You don’t have to curry favour with the in-laws, impress them or make them like you,” he adds.
Don’t criticise the in-laws
It’s one thing siding with your partner, it’s another berating their family members in front of them. Mutanda recommends avoiding criticising them altogether. She says that instead you could ask your partner about the things you don’t quite understand about their parents (your in-laws). It’s certainly a more diplomatic approach.
Don’t get hammered in their presence
At family gatherings it can be tempting to drink excessively in order to handle the situation. But Mutanda says, in her experience, it’s best to avoid getting drunk as alcohol will inevitably loosen the tongue and you’re 98% certain to say something you’ll regret.
Don’t take your in-laws for granted
Yes, your spouse’s parents will likely want to be involved with your children, but that doesn’t mean you can assume they’re going to drop everything and babysit whenever you need them to.
Mutanda says it’s super important to forward plan so parents and family members “feel included and that their feelings are being taken into consideration”.
“Don’t leave communicating plans to the last minute, it’s best to plan three months in advance,” she advises. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a fight on your hands.
Relate counsellor Rachel Davies adds that it’s good to show appreciation to your in-laws when they offer advice about how to care for the children. “You can always do your own thing when they’re not there,” she says.
Do remember special dates
It’s a small thing but remembering your in-laws’ anniversaries and birthdays can prove crucial. Kallenbach says it’s also good to instil this tradition in the kids throughout their childhood. “As the children get older it will be easier for you to remind them to remember the occasion with flowers and cards,” he says. “Remember, your relationship with the in-laws will not be the same as the relationship your kids have with their grandparents.”
Do put boundaries in place when it comes to your kids
If both sets of grandparents want to be involved with your child’s upbringing, that’s perfectly fine. But equally, don’t be afraid to put your foot down.
Firstly, when it comes to babysitting, you need to lay down some golden rules. Katharine Hill, UK Director of Care for the Family, offers her advice: “Do accept all the help you can get, particularly if it’s your first child. But don’t be afraid to put down some boundaries – for instance, it’s ok to suggest times when you’d most appreciate help and to explain that, as new parents, you’d also like to have some space to get to know your little one by yourselves.”
When it comes to raising your kids, you should also be firm but fair. Kallenbach advises: “Remember you have a certain set of rules and regulations as to how you bring up your children. Your in-laws might be from a different generation and have their own views on these subjects. Be polite and hold your ground, but don’t be pushed around.”
Hill says you should talk about any points of friction with your partner first, so that you are in full agreement with one other, before broaching the subject with your in-laws.
Do limit the time you spend with them (if needed)
If things are particularly strained with yours and the in-laws’ relationship, don’t be afraid to speak to your partner about it and negotiate the amount of time you spend in their company.
“Be very clear with your partner that it’s a difficult relationship,” says Mutanda. “Limit the amount of time you spend together. Sometimes your partner can visit their parents on their own. If you do go to visit them, make sure it’s only for a couple of hours and agree this beforehand. Be respectful of that time.”
To smooth things over, she recommends sending a message after the visit letting them know it was nice to see them.
Don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t bond straight away
You might want to develop a strong bond with your partner’s mum, but you can’t rush these relationships. “It will most likely take time to get to know their family and build a strong connection,” says Davies.
Don’t view them as being responsible for your partner’s ways
Davies adds that sometimes you might see your in-laws as responsible for things that need improvement in your relationship. But while your partner was once a child being parented by them, that is no longer the case - and they cannot be held to blame for their offspring’s actions.
In a similar vein, comparison is never a good idea - especially when reflected in a negative light. “Don’t say things like ‘you’re just like your [mum/dad]’,” says Davies. “Comparisons generally speaking don’t make others feel good.”
Don’t see them as ‘the in-laws’
It might go against every grain in your body but Relate counsellor Rachel Davies says sometimes it’s good to focus on your spouse’s parents as individuals who have strengths and weaknesses, rather than just “the in-laws”.
“Take an interest in each of them as humans in their own right,” she adds.
“Do make an effort to be kind, respectful and generous as it’s in everyone’s interests if you can get on.”