The commitment between two people in a couple relationship brings with it a number of what I like to call ‘sub-commitments’. These ‘sub-commitments’ are all other meaningful things, events and people in your partner’s life that he or she would want you to also have a good relationship with; all things that are part of the package when you chose to commit yourself to your partner. For instance, your partner might want you to show an interest in his or her hobbies, or to possibly show an interest in your partner’s friends. Another major ‘sub-commitment’ for most couples is that of forming a pleasant relationship with the in-laws; the relatives of your partner.
Although sub-commitments are not directly part of the relationship between you and your partner, these may still play an influential role in the quality of your relationship. This means that a pleasant relationship with the in-laws supports a satisfying relationship with your partner. On the other hand, personality clashes and conflicts with the in-laws can be stressors for the couple relationship. Same as all other families, the family of your partner has both strengths as well as problems. It is unrealistic to expect that you will never experience differences in opinions between you, your partner and both of your families.
When we talk of conflicts involving the in-laws, we often think of a scenario where someone is struggling to see eye to eye with their in-laws. However, a very common source of conflict involving in-laws, and one which we do not talk about as much, is your partner’s conflict with his or her own family. Your partner might disagree with his or her family from time to time; and these disagreements may vary from minor clashes to bigger and more complex ones. In such a situation it is natural for you to feel as though you are caught in the middle of things. On the one side you might want to support your partner, on the other side you might fear damaging the relationship with your in-laws. In these situations, it might support your partner to listen to their concerns respectfully and in a caring manner, but encouraging your partner to deal with the problem directly with their family. This does not mean that you always have to agree with your partner, but in such a situation you could support them to see a wider perspective by sharing your own take on the conflict, still without getting involved directly in between your partner and their family. The trap for many is that of choosing to act as a mediator or a problem solver between the partner and their family. However, the larger the number of people involving themselves, the trickier and messier it usually gets to steer out of the problem.
Rebecca Cassar is a Family Therapist practicing the Systemic Approach. She specializes in offering therapy to families, couples and individuals who are experiencing distress in their relationships.