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The In-Law Complex

By Doni Joszef
If you happen to have a spouse, and your spouse happens to have parents, then you happen to have in-laws.
You’re not alone. It’s kinda what happens when you get married, and it’s kinda not optional.
Your relationship with your in-laws is, well, complicated. If you’ve ever felt this way—again, you’re not alone. It’s kinda what happens when you have in-laws, and it’s kinda not optional.
But why? Why is the in-law relationship so loaded with sticky sensitivities?
Obviously, each relationship has its own distinct dysfunctions, so a one-size-fits-all assessment of the timeless “in-law issue” is hardly my interest. I’d like, instead, to explore some of the preprogrammed ingredients that serve to manufacture friction and frustration—albeit below the surface—between you and the folks who produced your significant other. Fair enough?
If I had to sum up the toxic ingredients in three words: expectations, resentments, defenses. Let me elaborate on each one.
Like most relationships, this one has certain unspoken expectations built into its fabric. Some of these expectations may be more rational and realistic than others, but we all have ideas about what we rightfully “deserve.”
As the “children,” our needs are often—though not always—financial or physical. We need them to pay our bills, or we need them to watch our kids, or we need them to turn their backyards into kiddy carnivals while we complain about the never-ending stresses of parenthood (many of which we outsource to our own parents).
As the “parents” (or grandparents), their needs are often—though not always—emotional and sentimental. They need us to show our faces (or, more importantly, our kids’ faces) on a regular basis. They need us to love them at least as much as we love “the other side.” And they need us to visit even when they’d secretly rather be watching Seinfeld reruns while wondering out loud why the kids never visit.
When these expectations (and many others) go unnoticed or unfulfilled, they pile up, like dust on a bookshelf, gradually morphing into resentments. As the seeds of such resentments become firmly planted in our consciousness, they gain more and more traction with each passing gesture of reinforcement. Eventually, we hold on to our resentments with an even firmer grip than we did the expectations which bore them. We do this because resentments make us feel justified when we act inappropriately and ungraciously. They give us a warped sense of entitlement. And a sob story. And an annoyed spouse.
Because we have our own natural parents, to whom these new “unnatural parents” are constantly being compared and contrasted, we can’t help but encounter an inner urge to take sides, playing the defense attorney for the very parents we spent our entire adolescence prosecuting. We feel the need to find faults in our in-laws to compensate for some of the faults we’re beginning to see more vividly in our own parents. The best defense is a good offense, so we look for ways to take offense at any opportunity. Our prejudices and biases become self-fulfilling prophecies. We write the script, and, inevitably, they play the roles.
• • •
If any of this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. The relationship is practically preprogrammed for politics. If we’re willing to see our own place in the perpetuation of these patterns, we’ll be much more mature in confronting them.
But don’t expect these patterns to ever culminate in a happily-ever-after conclusion. They’re kinda what happen when you have in-laws, and they’re kinda not optional. v
Doni Joszef, winner of the 2014 Cedarhurst “Best in Mental Health” award, works in private practice with individuals, couples, and families. Trained as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, he is completing his Ph.D. in media psychology. Doni presents innovative workshops at schools and organizations on a variety of psychosocial topics. For more information, visit or e‑mail

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Posted by on September 4, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.