As a Couples & Family Therapist in Washington DC, I’ve been contemplating some of the negative messages that portray our sometimes complicated family relationships especially with our in-laws. We have movies titled, “Monster-In-Law” and enjoy hilarious depictions of how “when you marry your partner, you also marry their family.” I want to spin this negativism through a different lens. Specifically, I want to use the model of Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (an emerging form of family therapy that flows from Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy created by Dr. Sue Johnson) to show that we can get ahead of negativity with our in-laws AND improve how we interact in our marriages!
When helping couples as a Couples & Family Therapist using EFT [Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy], I often field stories about troubled relationships between one partner and his or her in-laws, which causes quite a bit of strife for the other partner in the marriage. Recently, I helped a couple work through their emotional blocks during one of these tense moments with her in-laws (his parents), and we discovered something interesting as we moved through that process. Here’s how the process went. First, we identified what “blocks” occurred in that relationship. More specifically, what patterns could be identified in those tense moments when a fight erupted or was suppressed in order “to keep the family peace.” For example, we identified in our couples therapy sessions together that family stress rippled throughout the extended family when the wife’s in-law would over-correct her children. The wife would get “stuck,” or “blocked” in her parenting role and feel isolated from her husband, which often left both partners over-reacting or under-reacting in the moment toward their children and their extended family members. It didn’t occur just once, yet was a repeated pattern that had built up over time. And there, you have a relationship block--a pattern of repeated interactions that coincide with a sense of feeling emotionally stifled or “stuck.”
What’s so interesting about relationship blocks? Blocks can flag other aspects of our relationships and offer us opportunities to change how we interact with those whom we love. By understanding this block better, the wife in the current example realized that she tended to react harshly toward her husband out of feeling hurt and embarrassed, which likely paralleled the way her husband’s father responded to tension and stress. Both of these harsh reactions tended to cause the wife’s husband to get anxious and pull away rather than feel like he could approach the situation competently.
Furthermore, the wife noted that she felt hampered as a partner and mother when her husband avoided necessary conflict with his parents. She then would take her typical default mode of coping, and begin to aggressively try to solve the problem with her husband, which in turn made him withdraw and avoid the issue even more. Thus the pattern repeats and perpetuates the relationship block!
So how do we identify our In-Law Blocks? First, notice what fights occur or don’t occur. Second, decide what your “go to” coping style is when confronted with anxious moments–do you avoid conflict and withdraw emotionally? Or, do you pursue the problem and have the urge to fight over the matter or fix it right away in order to feel better?
Third, reflect on whether this block or pattern that you have with your in-laws in any way occurs with your partner, and if so consider how it plays out? Fourth, discuss your observations with your partner as a means to let him or her know that you understand your role in the situation and allow yourself to feel more compassion toward your spouse. Lastly, consider if you can alter your approach during those tense moments so as to de-escalate the moment rather than perpetuate the pattern. If you tend to pursue, try softening with your partner or your in-law in the moment. If you or your partner tend to withdraw, try staying in the conversation just another 30 to 60 seconds to see if it helps.
Most importantly, don’t let your in-laws style of communicating or coping with stress impact the way you run your marriage or manage your family. Create a brief plan about how you want to respond next time and share it with your spouse. And remember that just like your spouse, your in-laws are “for keeps,” and love them in spite of those moments anyway!