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In-Laws, Marriage and the Holidays

Senior couple, adult children talking and drinkingDealing with in-laws can be one of the most stressful areas in a marriage — particularly around the holidays. Fortunately, two long-time experts have sound advice to guide you in your decisions this holiday season.

In today’s post, Dr. Adam Fisher shares some tips from the Jedi Masters of marriage on how to protect your marriage when it comes to in-laws.

Master #1 is Dr. John Gottman, a renowned expert in marriage who has studied marital and romantic relationships for over 30 years at his “Love Lab” research center at Washington University. In his book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” Dr. Gottman explores conflicts related to your partner and your parent(s), and suggests there is only one solution to these dilemmas: you must take the side of your spouse against your parent(s).

“Although this may sound harsh, remember that one of the basic tasks of a marriage is to establish a sense of ‘we-ness’ between husband and wife. So the husband must let his mother know that his wife does indeed come first. He is a husband, then a son. This is not a pleasant position to take. His mother’s feelings may be hurt. But eventually she will probably adjust to the reality that her son’s family unit, where he is the husband, takes precedence to him over all others. It is absolutely critical for the marriage that the husband be firm about this, even if he feels unfairly put upon and even if his mother cannot accept the new reality. This is not to suggest that a man do anything that he feels demeans and dishonors his parents or goes against his basic values. He should not compromise who he is. But he has to stand with his wife and not in the middle. He and his wife need to establish their own family rituals, values, and lifestyle and insist that his mother (and father) respect them.”

The second marriage master is Dr. Sam Hamburg, a clinical psychologist and couples therapy expert working in Chicago. In his “Newlyweds Book,” Hamburg offers ten useful suggestions for any marriage — and not just for newlyweds. One section emphasizes the importance of maintaining a “wall of privacy” in your marriage. In other words, your loyalty must shift from your old to your new family. Here are three of the rules he offers for how to do this (see more suggestions in Dr. Hamburg’s ebook).

  • Do not discuss your marital problems or conflicts with your family. This one can be very difficult for couples facing very difficult concerns, but it’s necessary for the health of your marriage. Of course there are exceptions (e.g., physical safety concerns, or alcoholism).
  • Do not pass along negative messages from your family to your spouse. In some families this will be a constant issue. Regardless, the issue won’t ever be solved with you in the middle. Your spouse and your family must talk directly for resolution to be possible, e.g., “I’m really sorry that this has you so upset. As I said, I’m sure that [Jack/ Jill] meant no harm. Why don’t you [call our home phone] tonight and you two can straighten it out?” This won’t be easy to do but Dr. Hamburg suggests it’s better than any of the alternatives.
  • Remember that it’s not your problem if your family and your spouse’s family don’t like each other. This may also sound harsh but it’s true. Don’t listen to your family when they speak poorly of your spouse’s family. Like #2, don’t pass along anything negative between families. Avoid any argument about whose family you and your spouse prefer. Hopefully your families are civil with each other. If not, follow Dr. Hamburg’s advice, and “duck.”

If you haven’t been following advice like this already, work on re-establishing trust and togetherness in your relationship by committing to these tips this holiday season and throughout the new year.


Adam Fisher, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Clinical Fellow at The Family Institute. His areas of expertise is in working with couples. His main approach to treating relationships is Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), an approach shown to be highly effective for rebuilding and enhancing marital relationships. Dr. Fisher works with couples across the relationship lifespan.

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health counseling for families, couples and individuals in Evanston, Chicago, Northbrook and Westchester. To learn more about our therapy and mental health services, please visit our website.

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