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Marital Problems with In-Laws

Updated on June 4, 2013

One Starting Family's Picture

When in-laws, friends and associates become problemmatic can be anytime. However generally not at the beginning of a marriage.
When in-laws, friends and associates become problemmatic can be anytime. However generally not at the beginning of a marriage. | Source

Problems with In-Laws

I am writing this capsule in response to the question "What to do when the Mother-in-Law is a problem?", however my response is more generic. The problem person could be a Father-in-Law, an Uncle-in-law, a friend, a work associate, etc. When you marry, you also marry that person's entire family, plus their friend and associate network.

You also marry the ability or inability of your spouse to deal with his/her problem family members, and any other problem person.

Generally, it is most likely a family member is a problem. Is it not ironic that it is the people one is closest to, become the largest problems? I believe this is because there is more interaction which can lead to significant discord.

I have no Psychiatric qualifications, but write from personal observation. This article addresses my own marital discord, circa 1995-2002.

Marital Problems with Relations Span Time Eternal

Marital problems with in-law relationships and others are nothing new. Pick up the Bible to read any number of them! (I mention the Bible here as historical text. Please, do not assume the religious preference of this author.)

I believe that significant chaffing with in-laws became a contributing factor in my own divorce. However, an undeniable factor is that families are most often raised in different ways, with very different values, different roles and different amounts of enmeshment (focus on the other members), etc.

I was not raised in a highly enmeshed family. My own birth family came from independent farmers. There was not the heavy kind of involvement I encountered when I saw my then-husband interact with his family once we had moved here and came into very close contact.

My Mother long ago had warned me that it is often "inadvisable" to live too close to family, and I certainly take that to be the truth now, in cases of great enmeshment! A heavily "enmeshed" situation means that two or more people focus so intensely on each other that everybody else is left out or viewed and treated as unimportant, at best.

My Mother had experienced enmeshment in her own family. Her response was to ensure that my birth family lived many miles away from her family as well as my father's family.

Yet I, like most people, always seem to ignore keen advise in favor of learning things the hard way!

A Clue of Future Problems with Mother-in-Law

As a young couple in New Mexico, my husband's had a high paying position with a government contractor. I had just completed my bachelor's degree, had a baby and took an entry-level part-time paying job with the University.

This later became full-time and I had my second baby. I resigned my position because I did not get along well with a new boss, but, more importantly I finished up my Master's Orals and thus completed my Master's Degree in Computer Science, a hot field in 1995.

Then, ex-husband heard rumors that a layoff was imminent. I knew I had top grades and could move anywhere. I went to a job fair and got three interviews to the Denver and Colorado Springs area with the desire that his family members could help the infernal two worker parent situation trying to raise kids with little time.

In truth, I had never traveled much and I wanted to live someplace new, away from New Mexico, but near to family who could help. (Or interfere, a thought my bucolic mind overlooked at the time.)

I had three job interviews:

  • Hewlett-Packard in Colorado Springs
  • Qwest in a southern suburb of Denver
  • AT&T in a northern suburb of Denver

The problem with Mother-in-law subtly began with flying into Denver, a "supposidly short" stay with then-husband's parents, then a 1-1/2 hour drive south to Colorado Springs.

I had expanded my waist some with the two pregnancies and knew ex-husband's Mom had sewing skills and supplies. I needed a button moved out a 1/2 inch on the suit skirt. A 10 minute project. The weather predicted was snow.

Mom-in-Law began to help and began ironing, talking, being terribly kindly and completely oblivious to the problem at hand: driving to the Springs in the snow and dark and report for an 8:00am interview!

We finally were able to exit about 10:30pm with practically white out conditions! Indeed, the snow had started well before the start of the drive, search for hotel, check-in, etc in "The Springs".

Being a Southerner, my husband drove in the blinding snow. We arrived in "The Springs" about midnight. We got the hotel's cribs and put the kids down. I hung up my interview clothes and completely blew off getting anything other than makeup and a bit of jewelry out of the car.

To bed, ASAP around 1am.

Ex-hubby started snoring right away, keeping me awake another hour. So I went out to request more pillows. (Too stupid to order a double bed room, but no idea of the late hour.) Set the travel alarm. Then proceeded to....sleep not one iota!

I went to interview looking like a zombie!

A Strong Indication of Trouble Ignored

There was an obvious clue of potential future problems going on here, which I completely ignored: Mom-in-law had no comprehension of how the working world operates. She was the typically ignorant non-working housewife that I now watch occasionally on MeTV (Memory TV--Dennis the Mennis, Father Knows Best, etc).

She refused even to drive, having had a close call with a child on a bicycle once. This is similar to the person who will never get back on a horse again after a fall. Although this was very inconvenient to the entire family, it was bearable while my Father-in-law was alive. He could drive her around to hair appointments, grocery shopping, etc.

Further Problems with Mother-in-Law

I took the offer with AT&T in a North Denver Suburb. I located childcare in an odd environment I may write up in another article and began work. My boss was changed out from a friendly woman to an oriental man whose first question was, "How much overtime do you think you can do?". Ugh!

Once my ex-husband finally got to Denver, he worked one contract position for a year. Then, sadly, his Father died leaving his Mom completely helpless.

Fortunately, all was arranged for the funeral and with his two siblings and myself helping, that stressful event was carried out.

Mother-in-Law then completely became a full-time job for my then husband. She lived 45-50 minutes away by car, so the commute itself was bad. She wished to stay in her own home, but could do none of any kind of typical maintenance:

  • Getting groceries weekly (since she did not drive)
  • Dealing with a wasp's nest
  • Dealing with an elderly incontinent dog that needed to be put down
  • Typical house repair like gutter cleaning

It became such that she called every day and talked to my then-husband for at least one hour. His siblings both worked and had that as reason to leave all senior care to my then-husband (or that was my opinion at the time).

It became a full-time, unpaid, elderly care job for my then ex-husband. The one blessing of it was that she provided day care for my growing children while they were there and he was hunting down parts or whatever.

As the children got older, their school schedules had to be integrated into this madness. I recall that then husband wanted me to pay for daycare for them so he could spend more time caring for Mother-in-Law. I flat out said "no". I refused to shell out money in addition to having a husband unable or unwilling to work even part-time. Where were the other members of the family who certainly could help, even in smaller amounts?

Enter the Breaking Point

In 1992, I was laid off from my highly paid job at a telecom company. At this point, my then-husband had not worked for 5-1/2 years. (Such a working gap is bad for anyone in a technical field.) I was burned out, having survived 5 lay-offs, then got the least package of any group getting laid off, a bare-minimum package.

I became depressed and increasingly unhappy with then-husband for failing to try any home business venture in the 5-1/2 years. He had always spoke of a "retirement career", so failing to set up anything at all, part-time, temporary or whatever, really wrecked me.

The breaking point happened with two particular incidents with my Mother-in-Law, who I increasingly considered an outright pest, at this point.

I lined up several short-term professional contracts, which helped. One from home went just fine.

Another was at a former boss's house, so I took our only cell phone for communication (which then-huspand usually carried). As soon as I got to former boss's house for the contract, my Mother-in-Law called multiple times stating she had a medical problems on my family's one cell phone (her nose would not stop bleeding).

After being unable to reach then-husband, I freaked out, as I could not leave the job site! I called my then-husband's brother at work. I demanded (against great resistance) that he handle the situation, because my future work with former boss was at risk! I became stressed out and did and extremely poor and distracted job providing a fairly simple solution to a familiar problem!

Naturally, former boss never called for support again!

The Moment of Truth

I felt the moment of truth came when my Mother-in-Law called saying a screw fell out of her glasses and then-husband was required to go over and fix them right away.

Why could she not get any of her neighbors to help, who she knew anywhere from 20-50 years, I will never know. Loneliness? Was then-husband to take her husband's place entirely?

To me, the message was that full-time assisted living care was required for her. I was at home, busy writing and then-husband failed to answer the cell phone. She was required to wait one day for the drive to her house and my then-husband to screw in a simple glasses screw.

Handling Any Marital In-Law Issue

Again, I am not a Psychologist or have any credentials this way. But I will make this recommendation, regardless:

Whatever you do, do NOT come between your spouse and the problem Mother in Law (M-i-L) or Dad-in-Law (D-i-L), Brother-in-Law or associate. You must be able to work through your spouse, him/her. This is their relative. Good luck, if spouse is a Mama/Daddy's boy/girl or a person controlled by another for whatever!

Attempting to take action yourself will not be effective. I know from personal experience! This is spouse's problem to handle. Having been shown this, YOU have a choice. His or her failing to handle it effectively is effectively to prioritize you last. The following are appropriate considerations:

  • Determine the degree to which your spouse rates you lower than the problem party
  • Insure that you are being realistic. Short-term problems can be extremely draining, but may end soon. Verify that progress is being made.
  • If the problem goes on too long, and no progress is being made, assert your expectation of the marriage. If other resources (siblings are available, for instance) and Mommy/Daddy's boy/girl refuses to seek reasonable help, recognize that you are prioritized last.
  • You may not want to remain in a relationship with a person easily controlled by others, allows you to be emotionally drained, or could be flat out lying and having an affair or something else entirely!

Please see the following video for ideas about what couples really want from each other:

Conclusion: Marriage is a Process

My wise mother told me a few wrong things ("A man will treal his wife as he treats his mother"--not true in my case!), but mainly accurate observations. The best of her advice was that as people change through the events in their lives, their marriages also change (or die). No couple is newly-wed forever!

Marriage is not a static event, but an evolutionary one. Personal problems will impede. There was a stressful event in my parent's lives which caused them to fight constantly, slam cabinets, yell, etc. They had both had parents with dysfunctional marriages, so a functional marriage had not been modeled for them.

However, they found that together they could resolve the difficult events more successfully. They also took their vows seriously. They were willing to compromise, quit the fighting, and used two complementary perspectives to work things out. They remained married until Mom died.

I have purposefully not given details about my own situation. Before I talk on this, I feel I need more perspective about my marriage which failed. In about the most miserable way imaginable!

Rarely, things that are worth attaining are done so with ease. Including seeing difficult times in a marriage.

If you disagree, please say so in the comments. Also, review your financial affairs to see how much you have lost by being unrealistic, impatient, and not trying hard enough to accomplish a desirable intimate relationship!

How Couples Stay in Love

Conflict Resolution Vital in Marriage

For a marriage to succeed, conflict resolution skills are vital. In-law problems can cause a great amount of conflict in many marriages.

Many movies have been created making fun of this situation, but it is hardly funny when it puts your marriage in the potential position of failing.


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    • Laura in Denver profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Deibel 

      6 years ago from Aurora

      Exactly! (Or we would, wouldn't we?)

    • John  Lakewood profile image

      John Lakewood 

      6 years ago from Lakewood, CO

      Yes. You can choose your friends, but not your relatives (or your spouse's relatives). ;-P

    • Laura in Denver profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Deibel 

      6 years ago from Aurora

      Thanks, John. The close relationship really makes things more touchy, IMHO.

    • John  Lakewood profile image

      John Lakewood 

      6 years ago from Lakewood, CO

      I agree that marriages evolve and often evolve apart.

      When yelling is involved, nothing is solved. (I want points here for poetry, folks!) Certainly no figinting will solve anything when everyone is tired the next day at work.

      I agree a better effort should be made to see if this is a temporary problem or permanant, but not when the children are being jerked apart. That is what separation is for. Soul searching time. Cooling off time.

      If there are obstacles too much, than dissolve without animosity. The animosity only flies back as excrement in the children's faces, but also unnecessary expense.

      I have seen Mamma's boys and Daddy's girls who can't let go. Or infidelity.

      Lot of good ideas. Hard to turn off the anger. Thank you.


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