By Dr. Jeff St. John
So your in-laws are coming to town ... and you're not exactly thrilled, or are having anxiety about it. In-law visits don't have to be unpleasant when you're armed with a few tricks to manage some of those sticky situations. Here is some helpful advice to help your next visit be a manageable one.
When in-laws come for a visit, it is important that you and your spouse schedule their visit when it is the most convenient for you and your family. Do not permit family members to tell you when they are going to be staying at your house. It is up to you and your spouse to decide when they can come and how long they can stay in your home. Avoid scheduling a visit around times of the year that are the most hectic for you at work or the most chaotic for you at home. If you do invite your in-laws around a busy time of year, such as the holidays, try to plan ahead and get as many things done in advance as you can so their visit will be less stressful for you. If your in-laws live locally, agree with your spouse to set a time limit to your visit (spend just a few hours together) to avoid any painfully long or uncomfortable visits.
Where your in-laws stay (if they are coming for a long visit) can make all the difference between a pleasant and an unpleasant visit. If your in-laws are coming from out of town and need a place to sleep, your spouse can suggest they may be more comfortable in a nearby hotel for more room and privacy. (You and your spouse can even offer to pay for some of or all of the extra cost, depending on your budget.) If you and your spouse do not feel comfortable making this suggestion and you expect them to stay with you, be sure that the bedroom they sleep in is the farthest away from your bedroom. This will allow for you and your spouse to have as much privacy as possible during their visit.
Spouses usually feel torn when their parents come for a visit. They do not know whether to be a son or daughter, or a husband or wife. During family visits, they feel torn between being a loyal child to their parents and being a loyal spouse to the one they married. Very often they feel like they are "put in the middle" of disagreements between their parents and their spouse and don't know how to handle conflict. There is a simple solution to this problem! Be a spouse first and a child second. In a healthy marriage, each partner puts their relationship with their spouse above any other relationship, including the ones with their parents. Make an agreement that whenever either set of parents comes for a visit both of you will be each other's spouse first, and your parents' child second. Remember, you have to live with each other after your parents leave!
Before your in-laws arrive, sit down with your spouse and make a list of the top-ten problems you can foresee happening during their visit. Brainstorm for ways to remedy the situation. Agree on a solution and decide together that your spouse will be the one to talk with his or her parents about the problem if or when it arises. This will usually prevent in-laws from blaming their son-in-law or daughter-in-law for the solution that has been chosen. This also lets them know that their son or daughter is responsible for the decision that has been made and that his or her mind cannot be changed.
When your in-laws come to visit you, remember that it's your show! It's your house, it's your relationship, and it's your rules. If your spouse does not say anything or forgets to speak up, do not be afraid to gently remind your in-laws of the way you and your spouse have agreed to do things in your own home. It is best to say this in front of your spouse and for your spouse to explain to his or her parents that the rules have been established for the sake of your family's peace of mind. Agree to do this before your in-laws arrive. Also, keep in mind that you do not have to be your in-laws' parents. Allow your in-laws to do the things that they naturally do as much as possible unless it is disruptive to your marriage or family.
Most couples think that their lives have to stop when either set of parents arrives. This does not have to be the case all of the time. It is important for people, and especially children, to be able to maintain as much of their normal schedule as possible. So, instead of canceling your regular plans, try to maintain as much of your regular schedule as you can and arrange for your in-laws to be included in your plans. Or, you can help your in-laws make other plans for themselves that they would enjoy more. You can suggest that they see the sights of your city and you can direct them to some spots you think they might like. You may even find that your in-laws will want to spend some quality time together away from you and the kids.
Involve your in-laws in your family life as soon as you can. It's never too soon! Show them how you do things in your house and give them opportunities to help. For instance, let your mother-in-law help with dinner. Give her your recipe for one of your family's favorite dishes and show her how to make it. You can also involve your in-laws by letting them baby-sit while you run some of your important errands. This will help you to get the things done you need to do and it will allow your in-laws to spend some quality time with their grandkids. Take full advantage of all the extra support that your in-laws can offer!
Stick to the script that you and your spouse have agreed to when it comes to resolving potential conflicts between you and your in-laws. Say exactly what you and your spouse have agreed to say (or don't say what you've agreed not to say) while your in-laws are visiting. Deviating from your scripts will only confuse each other and give your in-laws an opportunity to over-step their bounds. If you want your in-laws to respect the rules that you and your spouse have established, then you must demonstrate consistency by sticking to your scripts.
Use direct communication. Avoid gossiping about your spouse to your in-laws. Avoid listening to your in-laws gossip or complain about your spouse. And avoid confiding in your in-laws about any and all of your marital or family problems. Instead, direct your complaints about your spouse to your spouse in private. Suggest that your in-laws do the same and refuse to listen to their complaints. You can say something like "I think that you need to talk to him/her about that." Likewise, if you're tempted to confide in your in-laws about your marital or family troubles, know that it will only serve to further miscommunication, perpetuate the problems, and break down the trust between you and your spouse. Always use direct communication.
Use humor every chance you get! It will lighten any awkward moments and will get your point across in a polite way. For instance, your mother-in-law begins to do something that really irritates you. Instead of getting angry, simply laugh and say, "Oh, that's so funny! This is the way we do it in our house!" Making light of a situation whenever possible can sometimes be more effective and require less energy on your part than getting into an argument. Your in-laws will probably appreciate this approach much better, too.
Most people shy away from the idea of having friends over when their in-laws come for a visit. Having other people around at the same time that your in-laws are there is actually a great idea because it can buffer any kind of tension or awkwardness that either of you feel and it encourages everyone to be on their best behavior. It's almost a surefire way to keep resentments in check and hostilities at a minimum. It also gives you extra emotional support during this stressful time.
Every good performance has an intermission. The same is true when you are hosting your in-laws. Be sure to schedule quality time alone with your spouse and do not hesitate to take a timeout if arguments or conflicts arise. Everyone will be able to think and communicate more clearly when they are calm, cool, and collected.
Do not expect your in-laws to like all of the ways that you and your spouse live your lives. They probably will have some complaints about how the house is kept, how the dishes are washed, how the furniture is arranged, how you wear your hair, how your kids are being raised, etc. And anytime your in-laws are not allowed to call the shots, you can expect them to be unhappy. So, anticipate that your in-laws are not going to approve of every single thing you do and allow them to be unhappy. You do not have to trade the rules that work for you and your family for the happiness or support of your in-laws.
Decide for yourselves what worked well and what didn't work well during the visit with your in-laws. Remember, it's your show and whatever rules or ways of doing things the two of you decide to change should only be changed because you both agree that it is in the best interest of your marriage and your family to do things differently.
After you've listened to your in-laws, ask your kids how they thought the visit went and what they thought could be improved, if anything. Listen to what your kids liked and didn't like. Take their opinions into consideration before you decide that any of the rules or ways of doing things around the house need to change. Also, keep in mind that the kids may just agree with their grandparents because they are their grandparents. Their grandparents are the ones who get to spoil them and usually do not discipline them. Then, make the necessary changes.
Once you and your spouse have decided what rules or ways of doing things around the house or within the family need to change, wait 30–60 days before planning another in-law visit. This will give both you and your family time to recuperate from the last visit and give all of you time to prepare for the next one. The 30–60 day waiting period will also give the whole family time to adjust to any new rules. Remind each other and your kids about the rules and the reasons why they've changed whenever it is necessary. Another reminder to your kids would also be helpful right before their grandparents arrive for their next visit.