When You Have Overstepping In-Laws, Boundaries Are Vital

by Alyssa McBryant
Originally Published: 
Mom holding her child while the grandmother talks to her
Stuart Hughs/GettyImages

All in-law relationships can be a little…shall we say, tricky. Grandparents like to spoil their grandkids, and want parents to sit back and smile. But sometimes the spoiling crosses the line and conflicts with your basic parenting philosophies. It starts to dictate your vacations and the precious little time you have off. It begins to impact your life choices, and that’s not okay.

No one should have to deal with their parents — or their spouse’s parents — running their life. We have our own lives to live, dammit, and we need to establish boundaries STAT.

That’s easier said than done when you’re dealing with overstepping in-laws, I know. But it is possible, because somehow my husband and I have been able to deal with it — successfully, for the most part — for the past nine years.

It may require some spousal tantrums (usually on my part), because a person can feel torn between their partner and their parents. Until now, their parents may have been used to being listened to. You’re the one who has to hold firm, and that’s lonely. That’s miserable. Your anger at your in-laws might spread into anger at your spouse. You may find yourself seeing “sides” where there are no sides, only people muddling along and trying to get the best of a situation. Yes, I’m being charitable. But dealing with meddling in-laws requires a great deal of charity, tact, and compromise.

One major sticking point with my in-laws: the kids. I have major issues with screen time, because my children will watch shit like Ninjago and Mickey Mouse Club and Paw Patrol until their eyes roll out of their heads. Then they will throw massive tantrums to turn it back on. So I have to draw limits and say “no.” But dear Mawmaw and Pawpaw think that hours and hours of Paw Patrol is a perfectly acceptable way to occupy our children, who will scream through several days of TV detox after a visit.

I once asked my mother-in-law not to put on the TV for them while I was gone. Her response? “If I’m watching them, they’ll do what I want them to.”

My blood boiled. My teeth clenched. But instead of drawing a line in the sand, I used the best technique possible: compromise. “How about they watch Planet Earth or Walking with Dinosaurs? Here, I’ll cue it up on Amazon.” I offered a face-saving alternative, and I made it simple to implement. The kids watched Planet Earth. Crisis averted. A screaming match would have led not only to no babysitting in the moment, but an abrupt end to our visit and weeks of not speaking, followed by a nothing less than a blubbering apology on my end. Not going to happen, folks. If we want to maintain a relationship, we have to know when to offer alternatives.

But some things you just have to live with — and deal with later. For instance, we’ve asked time and again for them to minimize the number and size of the presents they buy the kids. We’ve offered alternatives (museum and zoo memberships, for example — experiences, not things). Still, my in-laws’ toy deluge continues unabated, often with matching gifts for each child, often for every holiday (Arbor Day, anyone?), and often with cheap plastic stuff they wouldn’t really play with.

But my husband and I have an agreement — after a few days, this stuff disappears. Unless the kids diehard love it, off to the thrift store it goes. What the in-laws don’t know won’t hurt them. If we drew a line in the sand about present-giving, they’d be disappointed, angry, and think we were both ungrateful and depriving the children. Cue another screaming match. So it’s best to just deal quietly.

Sometimes my husband needs to take one for the team. Case in point: vacations. This is where my husband had to deal with his own parents, going toe-to-toe with them while they’re feeling aggrieved. No, we would not stay at the cabin for a full three weeks. No, we would not stay for two weeks; we’d stay for a week and a half tops. They moan. They groan. They throw the “your mother/father will be so disappointed not to see you/the kids and do x, y, and z with them.” But my husband has to stand strong; I can’t do it for him, and it sucks. It makes him miserable for days. They make him miserable for days with emotionally manipulative phone calls trying to change his mind. But he has to stand strong, or he knows he’ll be facing a full-scale familial revolt at home. And I have to remember that he needs support through this, not resentment — it’s really easy to mistake him for the other team sometimes.

Then sometimes, you just have to tell the in-laws to stop being inappropriate. For example, they wouldn’t stop yammering, often, about “when we moved back” to their small town. We live in a big city, and we love it. Finally, my husband had to say, “Look, Dad, I have a wife, too. She has a say in the matter. And she doesn’t want to live here. So let’s not talk about it anymore, because you’re upsetting her and making her feel like she doesn’t count.” His dad never mentioned it again, because my husband pointed out how his dad’s actions were making me feel. And you can’t argue with feelings — a central tenet of psychology.

We do listen to my in-laws at times. Their overstepping has given us good financial advice, and they’ve helped us out more times than I can count. On the whole, we’re very grateful to them, and they’re good, kind people who just want more time with their grandchildren and with us. They’re shackled by the mores of own particular generation: one that said it was okay for kids to watch Howdy Doody all day. One that said kids should have more more more presents, because they themselves were on the poor side of middle class as children. One that values family togetherness because they were brought up to believe that family was the be all and end all of everything.

Once I realized this, and once I realized that my MIL was suffering from an untreated mental illness, I was able to look on their meddling, overstepping, and annoying behavior with compassion rather than rage. That meant I could respond to them in a way that was constructive, but still emphasized our wants and needs.

That doesn’t mean everything is peachy. We have a current battle brewing over when we’re coming to visit again. We’re going to have to break that news at some point that we aren’t coming to visit soon, and it will be ugly. But my husband will stand firm, polite, and kind, as miserable as it makes him, and we’ll get through it. Without meddling. Without being forced to do something we don’t want to do.

After nine years, we’ve finally reached a steady state of compromise. I’m grateful for it. It’s taken a lot of sweat, screams, and tears (mostly mine) to get here. But it’s worked. If you have over-stepping and over-bearing in-laws, take heart. You aren’t alone. But by setting boundaries, picking your battles, and compromising, it is possible to co-exist.

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