“My boyfriend’s mom doesn’t understand that just because I’m the same age as her kids, I am not her kid,” says Vanessa, a Miami-based yoga instructor. “She has very strong opinions, and unfortunately she cannot keep them to herself. She has no problem making comments about my finances, my struggles with mental health, or what I’m eating. She’ll make fun of me if I turn down a drink, saying I’m obsessed with being thin, when really it’s because alcohol messes with my antidepressants! I find it so intrusive and out of line.”
Vanessa isn’t the only one with a less-than-perfect relationship with her significant other’s family. Julie, a physical therapist in California, has run into cultural differences with her fiancé’s relatives. “On the one hand, they are very caring and generous people. On the other hand, they come from a very different, very traditional religious background, so their worldviews, perspectives, and opinions differ from mine,” she says. “Because I see them infrequently, I haven’t made it a priority to speak up. I normally retreat and act polite, and don’t express myself like I would if I were with friends or my own family, which probably prevents us from being truly close.”
According to Megan Fleming, PhD, a New York City-based relationship therapist, it’s common to have a challenging relationship with your partner’s extended family. “We all have an ideal of what we imagine it should be like to grow our family and we hope that our in-laws will offer support and have our back,” she says. “But for many reasons, that doesn’t always happen.”
Because no one wants to go through life dreading holidays and get-togethers, we asked Fleming to give us advice on the best ways to handle fraught relationships with your partner’s parents (or siblings or cousins or grandparents). Read on for the most common problems people face, plus how to handle each one.
The problem: They’re intrusive
Some family members just don’t respect boundaries. “They may think they can drop by your place unannounced or expect that you two are going to spend your vacation time with them,” says Fleming. “They might even be trying to be generous, but it can feel like an expectation rather than a friendly invitation.”
The solution: First, be sure you and your partner are on the same page when it comes to the amount of time you will spend with each other’s kin. This can help you tackle issues as a united front—rather than you setting and enforcing rules, and then coming off as the bad guy.
When you address the issue, start from a place of appreciation, says Fleming. Tell them that you enjoy their company but that you two would be much better hosts if they scheduled visits or at least called first before coming over. As for joint vacations, Fleming recommends saying, “It means a lot that you want to spend time with us and we really do look forward to seeing you. We also get very limited vacation time and it’s important for our relationship (or family, if you have kids) to get that one-on-one time.”
The problem: They have no filter
“My boyfriend’s mom treats me like I’m part of the family—and not in a good way,” explains Vanessa. “Their family thinks that mean-spirited teasing is funny, but it just hurts my feelings. When I express that it upsets me, she laughs it off. It’s discouraging that she can’t restrain herself from making snide remarks when she knows it upsets me. If she wants to run the family that way, that’s her call. But when I visit I am a guest, and I deserve to be respected as one.”
The solution: “If you don’t see them that often and their comments rub you the wrong way but don’t cross the line and become offensive, it might be easier to let it go and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel,” suggests Fleming.
But if a comment or conversation feels downright egregious, consider proactively addressing it by getting your SO involved. “In this context, you really want your partner to go to bat for you because they’ve got the leverage with their family,” says Fleming. “So maybe they privately say to their family, ‘When you treat my partner this way, it really makes me feel like you’re not respecting my choices.’”
The problem: They’re hyper-critical
So you think you’re doing the right thing by inviting your in-laws over for dinner—and then all they do is criticize the way you keep the house and let your kids watch TV before bed.
The solution: Gently give them a little perspective by saying something like, “I know it may not be the way you do it, but we work full time, are trying to look after the kids, and don’t really have the money for a housekeeper.” Says Fleming: “Sometimes it just helps to give them a sense of what your days look like and have them realize that you are picking your battles and prioritizing.”
The problem: You have nothing in common
Let’s face it: You’re not always going to find common ground with your partner’s extended family. You might even feel so different from them, you think you’d never have crossed paths if you weren’t bound by the one person you all love.
That’s exactly how Rachel, an Ohio-based lawyer, feels. “I get along great with my boyfriend’s mother, but I feel like I need to come up with conversation starters before I spend time with his father,” she says. “Though he’s perfectly nice, we share none of the same interests (his: sports, mine: definitely not sports), which makes chatting one on one feel like pulling teeth. I hate to say it, but I secretly hope my boyfriend won’t need to go the bathroom whenever we go out to dinner with his dad!”
The solution: Establish a ritual or activity you can all do together, like cooking a special meal, attending a play, or going bowling, says Fleming. “Find something everyone can enjoy that has a sense of structure, so you’re not just sitting at the dinner table trying to figure out what to say.” That way when your BF heads to the restroom, you can turn your attention to the recipe or scoreboard at hand.