Married couples often struggle with how to deal with their parents. Disagreements on how much, or how little, influence to accept from their parents is often a source of conflict, especially for newlyweds and new parents. Sometimes parental advice feels like meddling, especially when it involves grandchildren. Other times it’s not the parents’ advice that’s the problem, but their behavior.
TV sitcoms often make fun of parents who are too involved in their adult children’s marriages. The classic “Everybody Loves Raymond” produced nine seasons of laughs on this theme. The show continues to draw laughs in syndicated reruns. But a husband’s mother meddling in his wife’s life, and his father hanging out in his living room all day to offer wisecracks and insults, isn’t very funny for real-life couples.
Researchers in Finland recently surveyed over 1,200 married adults about their relationships with their parents. They found that before couples have children, most conflict occurs between spouses and their own parents. Once children enter the picture, conflicts most often occur between spouses and their in-laws, particularly between the wife and her mother-in-law.
The researchers’ findings won’t come as a surprise to many couples whose parents’ interference in their marriage or parenting is a regular occurrence. While the wisdom and support parents offer may be helpful, it’s not always welcome.
When a couple marries, their relationships with their parents need to change. Many couples find this transition difficult. Using a sports analogy, it’s as if each spouse is coming from a different team to form a new team. Their parents are now like former coaches.
To form a new team, both spouses need to cut some ties to their own parents and bond with each other. They need to form their own team culture, strategies, and plays. If they allow too much involvement from their parents, they’re not going to bond with each other. They’re likely to have frequent disagreements. They’re not going to play well together.
For the sake of guarding their happiness, married couples benefit from setting up some rules or guidelines for how they relate to their parents. Failing to do so is often the basis for a married couple’s conflicts over their parents.
1.) Put your spouse’s wishes first. Disagreements over how to respond to a parent’s meddling are likely in any marriage. Working through disagreements can strengthen a marriage. But when those disagreements break out into heated arguments, it puts a strain on the relationship.
One frequent mistake made by couples who end up fighting each other over their parents is the failure to put each other first. When a couple marries, those marriages that grow into the strongest, most satisfying relationships will develop a sense of “we-ness.” They see themselves as a team of two.
When faced with a choice between doing what a parent wants, and what their spouse wants, couples with a sense of we-ness always choose to stand with their spouse.
2.) Agree on boundaries. Many couples find that putting physical distance between their home and their parents’ homes is the strongest boundary. But how far away or near to their parents a couple chooses to live is not the only boundary a husband and wife need to discuss or agree on.
Often, one spouse feels closer to parents than the other. So while one spouse may enjoy frequent phone conversations and visits from his family, the other may sometimes feel the in-laws are intruding too much.
Take time to talk about each other’s parents from time to time. Listen to each other’s preferences, and be clear on what each other’s non-negotiable boundaries are when it comes to parental involvement.
Resist the tendency to compare your family to others. Each couple’s preferences and limits will be as different as the personalities and circumstances involved. Some couples may give preference to the involvement of one set of parents over the other. Some may be very happy to have their parents involved in many aspects of their lives. Others will be happy to limit contact with their parents to little or no contact.
3.) Both spouses should manage their own parents. Both spouses may get along well with their in-laws. But when it comes to setting boundaries with parents and addressing issues that arise, it’s usually best for each spouse to manage her own parents. This helps eliminate the perception by in-laws that their son- or daughter-in-law is interfering in their relationship with their adult child.
When the message comes directly from their adult child, it also helps put to rest any doubt the parents may have about their child’s wishes.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”