Disrespectful in-laws can make life difficult in marriage.
Unlike your own family, they are harder to confront when they cross the line.
Fortunately, we are not without options.
I recently begun taking reader questions, and not long ago, someone sent in a question about how to deal with disrespectful in-laws.
She wanted to know how to protect her marriage and do life with people she can’t really get away from.
It’s not the first time I have been asked this question, so today I’ll take a stab at it and you can add your thoughts in the comments so we can have a discussion about it!
While meddling in-laws are exhausting, we can still enjoy our marriage and take steps to protect it.
So let’s talk about how we can do that.
Six practical ways to deal with disrespectful in-laws
1. Accept you cannot stop your in-laws from having an opinion about you or your marriage.
We cannot control others. We try, but ultimately, it doesn’t work.
It is essential, right out of the gate, to understand that you do not have as much control over what people say about you, your marriage, or your husband: You cannot control other people’s behavior or attitudes.
That being the case, it doesn’t mean you have to accept negativity or toxicity. On the contrary, it means accepting your limits.
Admitting your limitation is crucial because you’ll want to engage in mental and emotional gymnastics, the moment you learn of a rumor or someone tries to meddle.
But all that agonizing adds up to nothing, in terms of actually protecting your marriage.
A better way to respond to disrespectful in-laws is to accept the fact that you cannot control them. They have full ownership of their lives and choices (yes, even when they act crazy!)
They have to be the ones choosing, or not, to change themselves. You cannot choose better for them.
When you acknowledge this reality, it actually frees up your mind and heart to ultimately do the more helpful things.
2. Understand your marriage is as secure and as safe as you make it even when you have disrespectful in-laws.
Martin Luther said, “You cannot prevent birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from making a nest in your hair.”
As wives, we sometimes help our families; (including our in-laws) build a nest in our marriage when we involve them in our marriage affairs. We cannot blame them, in that case for nesting; we invited them.
Please note, I am saying a married people should be an island and never seek help when they are struggle. However, family is not the best source of unbiased advice.
Further, families do not forgive as quickly. Long after you have made up and moved on, the bad record would still be playing in their heads.
Now, if you feel your in-laws are interfering, I am not saying you are the problem. I am just proposing an evaluation. Examine if you’ve been inviting them, knowingly or unknowingly
Have you allowed or engaged in marginal-disrespectful conversations? Do you let negative comments pass? Do you smile, stay in the room, or supply other non-verbal “permissions” when conversations turn salty?
You might even say, “But I don’t speak!” Your lack of action is taken as permission.
I am not blaming you. However, self-inspection is important. Your marriage is only as strong and as safe as you make it.
Your in-laws must see there is a line as far as your marriage is concerned, and that line is not to be crossed. You do not have to be disrespectful about drawing that line (see boundaries below), but it needs to exist, and they need to see you enforce it.
The early years of marriage can feel a lot like walking on eggshells because you are trying to learn people and settle into a new family.
But you are also laying a foundation for your marriage, even with the settling and learning. Consider that you are training people on how to treat you and your marriage – You want to be teaching them the right things.
3. Let your husband handle his family.
The best person to deal with disrespectful in-laws is your husband. You should do the same thing if it were your family being disrespectful.
Letting the spouse with the familial tie handle issues within their family avoids further aggravations.
Families can speak to each other in a way that non-family cannot. They have permissions and can better navigate that delicate balance of firmness and love.
Basically, it is less messy and more honoring for each spouse to handle their side of family.
It could be that your husband is unwilling to “go there” with his people. Maybe he’s tried to, but you feel like he could do more to protect you and your marriage.
We will talk about how you can handle that situation shortly. For now, understand where that responsibility lies: the person with the familial bond.
PS: If you are close to his family and feel like you have that permission, by all means, go ahead and handle it. But first, make sure to talk with your husband, to ensure you are both on the same page.
4. You might not agree with your disrespectful in-laws but you don’t have to be disrespectful about it
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In his book When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People,Gary Thomas writes,
One of the most vulnerable times for us to sin is when we are first sinned upon.
Respect is hard to give when you are not receiving it. Yet that’s when it’s needed the most because you are training others how to treat you. Don’t ask of others what you are not willing to give yourself.
You can be kind and firm, humble and resolute with your disrespectful in-laws.
Further, your in-laws are still family. Unlike friends who can walk away forever, family are your crew for the long haul. A time might come when they change their ways and you want to be there for the party.
Also, one of the ways you honor your husband is through treating his people right.
It’s helpful to keep those boundary conversations with your husband respectful. It pays not to throw additional gas into the fire by watching how you speak to him about his people.
If it helps, consider how you would want your own family treated when they are on the wrong. Then do likewise.Respect is hard to give when you are not receiving it. Yet that's when it's needed the most because you are training others how to treat you.
5. Sometimes in-law meddling is adjusting to being “left”
I know this is not true for everyone with disrespectful in-laws, but we are generous with giving the benefit of the doubt around here.
Sometimes families intrude without knowing they are intruding. Other times they are not infringing at all. They are just reacting to the “loss”.
I know that first hand, as I shared in my book Blues to Bliss: Creating Your Happily Ever After in the Early Years
I got engaged on Christmas Eve and danced into my mom’s living room. I shared the big news and expected my family to jump up and down with me. Or at least look happy and say congratulations.
Instead of firing up the happy-party, my family looked at me as if I had just sprouted leaves from the back of my head. It took a long time to put the pieces together, but eventually, I figured what had happened. While I was happily skipping out of their lives, my family was going through very different emotions as those being left.
I was announcing an engagement, ten months after the passing of our dad. My family was not ready to part with yet another family member. That plus, I was the first girl out of five (and I am the last born of nine kids) to walk down the aisle.
The excitement of being married makes most of us forget that we are leaving a whole family “behind.” They have their anxieties and uncertainty as they try to understand their place in your new life.
There is a pain to loss. At times, that pain looks like disapproval and nit picking.
Most healthy families adjust over time and the wise couple learns to navigate the season with empathy and kindness.
6. Create and enforce boundaries with disrespectful in-laws
As a marriage coach, one of the areas I see couples struggle the most is boundaries: It is hard to say “no” to people we love.
However, if you want peace and sanity as a couple, you both have to gather some courage and “go there.”
An example of boundaries with a disrespectful in-law
To illustrate boundaries with meddling in-laws, let’s imagine a brother in-law who is spreading falsehoods about your marriage. How do we navigate such a scenario and how do we arrive at a boundary to protect ourselves?
Before we dive into the specifics, as a couple you need to agree on the course of action: You want to be on the same page as far as “how far is too far” and the type of consequences for anyone disrespecting your marriage.
If your husband is unwilling to take the lead, you should still protect yourself and refuse to expose yourself to continued disrespect and interference by in-laws.
Boundaries are not about controlling other people’s behavior. They are about owning your limitations and letting others know what you will and will not tolerate.
When someone spreads rumors about your relationship, you will want to jump in and protect what is yours.
In the case of a rumormongering brother-in-law, you might feel like you have to call everyone who has heard the lie to set the record straight.
While it is wholly natural to want to protect your reputation, may I suggest that you have better things to do with your life than attempting to fix everyone’s view of you.
At this point, the most important person is not your brother in-law. Or other people. It is you and your marriage.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7 ESV
Weigh the rumor
You do not have to chase down every word or deed that an in-law said about you or your marriage because some things are not worth your time or energy.
Let the lie or rumor die a natural death. For example, if your in-law is told someone that your marriage is about to end, then the quality and longevity of your marriage should fix that lie, right? So focus on loving each other well and prove that lie wrong.
Even when people’s words have a bit of truth and your marriage is genuinely struggling, it is still none.of.their.business.
The most respectful thing a family member can do when they learn you are struggling is come to you directly and ask how they can support you.
The one that advertises your struggles and seems to get a kick out of it reveals their real intentions: To harm you, not help you.
Talk to your brother-in-law
When the lies are damaging or persistent then your husband takes that lead and faces his brother. It is fair to give people a chance to share their side of their story.
Therefore this first conversation might be more of a fact-finding mission, even where you feel like you know the truth.
If you find out that your brother in-law is toxic – he blames you, shows no remorse, makes excuses for what he is doing, even seems to enjoy what he’s doing – keep in mind that poisonous people thrive when nothing is done about their toxicity. Stay on course and do not be sidetracked.
Unfortunately, toxic people also thrive on the chaos and negativity they create, so you need a goal ahead of time. While it would be great to change your brother-in-law’s mind about your marriage, it is not terribly important.
At this point, you just want him to stop disrespecting and meddling with your marriage. You want to confront his wrong behavior and draw the line.
Create and enforce the boundary
Many of us are much more comfortable talking and appealing for change than in actually doing something when the change doesn’t happen.
There is nothing wrong with talking and hoping someone changes. In fact, that is exactly what the Bible asks us to do.
If another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path” Galatians 6:1 NLT
However, the truth is that some people do not want to get “back onto the right path.” They are happy in their negativity and disrespect. They care neither for you nor for truth as much as you think they ought to.
Scripture offers insights on how to deal with people who won’t change.
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. Titus 3:10-11
(Also see Matthew 18:15 -17)
If your brother-in-law, after appeals from his brother (or you) does not change, then a boundary and consequences become your next step. That is your “have nothing to do with him.”
While the goal of boundaries is protection, it serves another purpose: It allows the other party to reap the consequences of their sin. Sometimes, people do not change until they taste the fruit of not changing.
If you set no limits and enforce no consequences, you continue to enable his wrong behavior. God does enable sinful willful behavior, neither should we allow it.
An example of a boundary and consequence you might have with your brother in-law is letting him know he will no longer be welcome to your home or he will no longer have access to his young nephews and nieces.
The hope here is that he cares about his brother and his family enough to want reconsider his ways.
Correct the rumor
Finally, in a case where the lies have a profound and damaging effect, you might want to talk to specific people to correct the lies.
For instance, if your brother-in-law told your mother-in-law that your union is on the brink of divorce, you might want to talk to your mother-in-law.
In fact, addressing these rumors with her can provide the opportunity for her to step in and get involved and talk to her son.
You don’t have to speak with all sixty of your in-laws who heard the tale. Just focus on those who need reassurance. If other family members bring it up, then you can talk about it.
We have not discussed praying for disrespectful in-laws because prayer should be a part of our daily life. Indeed, pray for them. Moreover, for yourself too. Ask God for wisdom and insight.
Additionally, if you feel entirely stumped, consider talking to someone wiser and balanced for guidance and insights.
I know there are more steps we can take when dealing with difficult in-laws but I hope my thoughts offer some insights or affirm some of the things you are already doing as a couple.
I would love to hear from you! What can you add? Have you dealt with disrespectful in-laws? What one thing helped you the most? Let’s talk in comments!