One of the relationships in a couple’s world that is often taut and stressful, is that between one member of the couple and one (or both) of their in-laws – in particular, with the mother-in-law.
You thought you were marrying your spouse, not your spouse and their parents!
Fortunately, while you cannot change the behaviour of your mother-in-law, you can set boundaries to help improve the relationship and reduce the stress.
What are Boundaries?
But first, what are boundaries in a relationship?
Boundaries are the limits you are willing to reach or let others reach in any relationship with you.
An example with your mother-in-law might be setting a boundary regarding what she needs to do to come over. Some couple’s boundaries might allow the in-laws to come over unannounced, others with a few days’ warning.
Boundaries for Better Relationships
Why are boundaries so important?
Boundaries are what help us to keep ourselves and our relationships healthy. They stop us from becoming drained because we are pushing ourselves beyond our limits. An example would be someone being stressed by their in-laws coming over unannounced, changing their boundaries to needing a day’s notice – and suddenly feeling less stressed.
Here are five stages to help you with building boundaries with your mother-in-law/in-laws:
- Become aware there is a need for boundaries.
- I suspect you have already reached this stage if you are reading this article. If not, take some time to consider your relationship with your mother-in-law. Is it what you want it to be? Does it cause conflict with your spouse? Have you wished it was different? Write down your answers so you have a clearer picture of how you are finding the relationship.
- Know what your boundaries are.
- Here you need to choose your boundaries and phrase them in a way which makes them easy for you to say. Some areas you might want to consider boundaries for are when they visit, activities done with grandchildren, and potential financial situations. With regard to phrasing, stating a boundary as ‘I would like them to tell me two days in advance that they plan to come over’ is better than ‘I want them to tell me they want to come’.
- Keep in mind other individuals when choosing boundaries. You might only want to see your mother-in-law once a year, but you need to take into consideration the desires and needs of other individuals (such as your spouse, children and in-laws).
- Communicate your boundaries.
- You need to then communicate your boundaries to those involved – first your spouse and then your mother-in-law.
- This would also be the step where you would have a discussion with your spouse to decide if the boundaries are suitable for both of you. If not, then complete stage two as a couple.
- After communicating them to your spouse, then communicate them to your in-laws. Again, here you (and your spouse) might discuss boundaries with your in-laws and make any changes which are suitable to make.
- Stick to your boundaries.
- This is the hardest stage at first but is also the one which will make the other stages pay off. There must be consequences when a boundary is breached. I am not referring to punishments (though this might be appropriate with children), but rather not bending the boundaries (unless in case of an emergency). If you have discussed with mother-in-law that she must give you two days’ notice before coming over and she doesn’t, then go through your day as planned.
- Review your boundaries.
- Check your boundaries are working when an appropriate amount of time has passed and then make any necessary adjustments. Perhaps you only needed one day’s notice instead of two, if yes then change the boundaries to suit.
As you take the first step towards building a better relationship with your mother-in-law, here are a few last points to consider:
- While you should not intentionally harm your in-laws, it is possible they will get upset. You are not responsible for making them feel better. Boundaries work only when you remember that you can only control your actions, not the other persons’. The same is true for someone else’s thoughts and feelings.
- You might need to compromise in some areas. Know what is and is not negotiable for you, so what truly matters is not compromised. Also remember different family values might mean this is different for you, your spouse, and your in-laws.
- Sometimes boundary setting is more difficult than expected due to your spouse and in-laws being too enmeshed emotionally. If this is the case, professional support is recommended.
If you would like further support in boundary setting with you mother-in-law (or in general), you are more than welcome to make an appointment with me so I can help you with your journey.
Hannah Jensen-Fielding is a Brisbane therapist working from a strengths-based integrative approach, as she believes more momentum is gained by looking forward at the future and who we can become. She has a keen interest in providing relationship counselling, for example to people with mother-in-law problems.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.