- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

In a perfect world, the holidays would bring out the best in people — even in-laws.

But that’s not always the case.

The holidays can make an already strained in-law relationship even worse, says Susan Forward, a therapist and author of “Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies for Protecting Your Marriage.”

“It often becomes a tug of war,” Ms. Forward says. “There’s expectations, childhood memories, pressure.”

In other words, the adult child can feel pulled between the wishes and expectations of the spouse and those of the parents.

And if the in-laws are toxic — meaning they engage in “chronic, consistent and erosive behavior” — they may not easily back off if their wishes and expectations go unfulfilled, says Ms. Forward, whose book outlines various types of toxic in-laws and explains why they are the way they are.

In fact, the toxic in-laws may use whatever technique it takes — including guilt and manipulation — to get their way, Ms. Forward says.

But if their wishes truly do not match what you and, especially, your spouse want, don’t give in, Ms. Forward advises. Because in the end, painful compromising to please the in-laws will only hurt your marriage, she says.

“Learn to tolerate your guilt, because guilt will go away,” Ms. Forward says. “What won’t go away is the erosion of your marriage.”

Jenna Barry, author of “A Wife’s Guide to In-Laws: How to Gain Your Husband’s Loyalty Without Killing His Parents,” agrees.

“It’s very important for the marriage not to say ‘no’ to your spouse so you can say ‘yes’ to your parents,” says Ms. Barry, who uses a pen name to protect her own marriage. She adds that if you have to make a choice, that choice should be clear.

“Because it’s impossible to please everyone, it’s important to focus on being a great spouse rather than a parent pleaser,” Ms. Barry says.

If the adult child, though, keeps putting the parents’ demands and wishes before the spouse’s, the problem can be much deeper and more troublesome than just pesky in-laws, Ms. Forward says.

“You have to ask yourself, what does it mean if your partner keeps putting their parents first?” She then answers her own troubling question: “It means you don’t have a marriage.”

Let’s hope it won’t come to that.

Instead, counsels Ms. Barry, try to achieve a win-win situation by agreeing to some of the in-laws’ wishes, but on your terms. That means clear boundaries must be set — but always in a courteous, respectful fashion. For example, adult children can offer, “Yes, you can spend Christmas with us, but you can’t stay in our house.”

In the case of toxic in-laws, though, setting these boundaries most likely will result in push-back, Ms. Forward says. And, oftentimes, the in-law spouse is the one who not only takes the hardest hits but also is the one to take the first steps toward healthier communication with his or her in-laws.

Healthier communication includes strategies like making position statements and using non-defensive communication. A position statement defines what you are willing and not willing to accept. For example, “I’m not willing to have your parents interfere with the way we raise our children.”

Non-defensive communication, meanwhile, is a cornerstone of self-respecting and centered behavior, Ms. Forward says. This type of communication — which can be used in the middle of a verbal battle — is disarming and “turns down the heat.” It includes statements such as “And you’re telling me this because … ?” and “I’m sorry you don’t approve” and “I’ll have to think about that.”

In other words, you can express that you heard their concerns, but you don’t play into their manipulation or guilt, Ms. Forward says. You don’t accept blame or shame, and you don’t acquiesce because they said you should.

In the end, she says, the in-laws don’t have to love you, but they have to treat you with respect and courtesy, even though it may take some nudging.

“You’ll have to teach the in-laws that you will not accept being moved around like a pawn on a chessboard,” she says.

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