“Your mother really killed the mood again last night, ” he says.
“Oh yeah? Well, your father’s crude jokes were even cringe-worthier than usual, ” she retorts.
Your love for your partner doesn’t automatically include his or her parents. But like them or not, they’re part of the package when you enter into a serious relationship.
About one in three couples have differences with parents-in-law, according to Peter Kaiser, a professor of psychology who studies the dynamics of in-law relationships. They can be very tricky because the people involved are often unaware of the reasons for their actions – and hence for the conflicts.
“Your parents have been attachment figures in your life far longer than your partner and his or her family, ” notes Kaiser.
The parent-child bond is very powerful and informed by unwritten rules and norms that family members strongly identify with, often without fully realising it. Ways of behaving that you regard as perfectly normal may take your partner, whose upbringing was different, by surprise.
Say, for example, your family always exchange embraces when greeting, whereas your partner’s is more reserved and simply shake hands. “You’ll quickly feel rejected, although that wasn’t intended, ” says psychologist Felicitas Heyne.
Your hurt feelings will get no sympathy from your partner, though, who doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
“Our birth families shape us, ” Heyne emphasizes. “We carry things around with us that are passed on like silver cutlery.”
Even if you think your partner’s criticism of your parents is justified, it’s hard for you to admit it. “You feel your partner has no right to criticise things that you’re arduously working through yourself, ” Heyne says.
Focusing more on commonalities than on differences can help, suggests Angela Leierseder, who has worked as a family therapist for more than 30 years.
A classic source of inter-generational conflict, she says, is when grandparents stick their noses into their grandchildren’s upbringing.
“It’s important to find the right balance, ” advises Leierseder, who says grandparents shouldn’t encroach on the young couple’s parenting techniques, and should learn to handle their criticism and not see it as a rebuke or rejection.
The stronger a couple’s relationship is, the easier it will be for them to deal with family friction. Ideally, both will have emancipated themselves from their birth families enough “so there’s room for carving out a life with a partner”, Kaiser says.
As Heyne points out, “No mother-in-law can make life difficult for her daughter-in-law if her son stands up to her and says, ‘She’s my wife and I stand by her.’”
Loyalty to your partner also means not constantly finding fault with his or her parents, Leierseder says, but rather jointly seeking a solution – if necessary with professional help. The longer a conflict festers and causes hurt feelings, the greater the risk that one of the partners will emotionally withdraw from the relationship – “and dragged-out conflicts are much harder to solve.” — dpa/Eva Dignos
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