The course of true love never runs smoothly, especially if parents are involved (just ask Romeo and Juliet). But even if your parents aren’t quite the Capulets and Montagues, they can stir up plenty of drama in your relationship. Read on for the ways they may be sabotaging your marriage -- even if their actions seem completely innocent -- and get expert tips on how to cope.
They’re too intrusive. Just like on that old sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, your parents may feel a little too welcome in your life. “If you have parents who show up uninvited, or who spend too much time with you, you might have too little time to be alone with your new partner and formulate your life as a couple,” says Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist and author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It -- and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.
How to deal: Set some rules -- and fast. “You need to clearly define your boundaries in regard to visits and time spent with parents,” Newman says. Once you and your mate agree on the rules, tell your parents that you love them, but they need to call before they come by -- or whatever other guidelines you need to set for the sake of your marriage.
They assume that you’re a mini-them. You and your partner may share genes with your respective parents -- but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you plan to follow in their footsteps. “Your parents may make assumptions that you two think the way that they do, and then get angry when you don't,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD (aka "Dr. Romance"), a psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.
How to deal: Tell your parents that you appreciate their viewpoints, but sometimes you need to go your own way. “You need to learn how to communicate clearly with them so they won't bully you or cause you to be at odds with each other,” Tessina says.
Your parents try to do everything for you. Your doting parents may simply want to shower you with everything they can -- from a new car to your next vacation (with them, of course). “This can seem good, especially if they help you with the down payment on your house, take care of your kids or bail you out of financial problems,” Tessina says. But you need to be careful that you don’t become too dependent on Mom’s help or accept gifts that come with strings attached.
How to deal: “Be very aware of the cost of parental help,” Tessina warns. If your parents seem to be engaging in a quid pro quo, where you’re forced to do their bidding in return for their generosity, tell them you won’t be accepting any more gifts -- and stick to it. It may take you longer to save on your own for your house and you may be staycationing instead of heading to Hawaii, but you’ll be able to do it on your own terms.
They treat you like babies. You and your mate may be grown-ups with mortgages and steady jobs -- but your parents may still see you as toddlers who need their constant supervision.
How to deal: Assert your independence. “You need to clearly tell them that you’re not their ‘baby’ anymore,” says Newman. Likely, this goes hand in hand with gift giving (see #3), and you may need to put a stop to handouts from your parents to help assert your responsibility for your own life.
They bad-mouth your partner. You know that saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all?” Well, your parents apparently never heard that.
How to deal: Explain that the snide comments upset you -- and firmly tell them to stop. “Most parents don’t want to alienate their own child, and ‘calling them out’ will usually get them to stop,” Newman says. If they continue, you need to show that you mean business. “When your parent starts, simply say, ‘I’m not going to listen. I married him and I’m happy,’” Newman advises. And if they continue, leave the room.
They critique your lifestyle. Maybe they don’t like that you moved several hours away from home -- or how you spend your money. But either way, their constant criticism (especially if it starts to influence your opinion) can lead to friction in your marriage.
How to deal: Stand by your choices -- and stand by your man. “You must live your life your way,” Tessina says. “Don’t side with your parents against your spouse, and don’t carry their criticisms home to your spouse. If you want to change something, work it out in adult fashion with your spouse.”
They make a mountain out of a molehill. You picked your sister-in-law’s wedding over the annual family reunion -- and now your parents aren’t speaking to you.
How to deal: Gently remind your parents that you now have two families to consider when you’re making plans. “They have to learn that you have a new family now, and you'll be connected, but not joined at the hip,” Tessina says. And hope that your parents realize that it’s not worth losing their son or daughter over something that silly.
Your parents set a bad example for you. Your thrice-divorced mom and his spendthrift parents aren’t exactly giving you much to emulate in the responsible-couple department.
How to deal: You can’t fix your parents or the past -- so don’t try. Simply acknowledge their shortcomings and work hard to follow a less disastrous path. “Be careful that you don't pick up any of the older generation's bad habits,” Tessina says. “Admit that your parents have problems and work together to keep their bad influence from affecting your immediate family.”
They don’t want to share. Your parents have been used to having you there for every birthday or holiday celebration -- and those old traditions may die hard. “They’ve never had to share their child before,” Newman says. “They may expect holidays and family celebrations to remain the same.”
How to deal: Come up with a plan with your mate, and then break it to your family, gently. “Assure your parents that you and your partner want them to be part of your life,” Newman says. “Explain to your parents that you understand how they feel. You might say, ‘I know you’re unhappy that we won’t be spending the holiday with you. Let’s arrange another time to celebrate.’ Your parents realize that you understand how they might be feeling, and that goes so much further than the blatant dismissal: ‘We’re spending the holiday with my in-laws.’”
They take you on a guilt trip. Parents are notoriously good at finding your weak spots -- and making you feel terrible if you don’t give in to their every bidding (which is sure to make your partner feel like their needs aren’t being considered).
How to deal: “Find a way to insulate your marriage from their guilt-producing behavior,” Tessina says. “You’re supposed to be primary to each other now, not to your parents.” Don’t give in to the guilt trips.
They flout your rules for your kids. Remember those parents who wouldn’t let you have sugary cereal or watch TV? They’re the same ones who now load your kids up with gummy worms and let them stay up three hours past their bedtime.
How to deal: Don’t fight with each other if your parents aren’t following the rules -- but lay down the law with your parents. “Limit your parents to short periods of time with your kids if they don’t follow your rules and schedules,” Tessina says. “You are the parents of your children, and you have a right to control how they’re treated.”
They rub you the wrong way. Sometimes, your in-laws (or your parents) can create marital friction by simply existing.
How to deal: Talk it out with your mate to see if you can sort out why your parents are a sore subject -- but if you can’t, it might be time to call in a pro. “If the friction your parents or in-laws cause is subtle, and you don't understand why you're fighting, a marriage counselor can help you sort it out,” Tessina says.
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