Let’s examine in-laws who can help young couples or derail them on the path to relationship success. The biggest reasons for tension include in-laws giving unwanted opinions, partners taking their parents’ side, and disagreements over how to discipline grandchildren.


Three out of four couples experience significant conflict with their in-laws. In-laws can help young couples or derail them on the path to relationship success. The biggest reasons for tension include in-laws giving unwanted opinions, partners taking their parents’ side, and disagreements over how to discipline grandchildren.

Two thousand married Britons took part in the 2017 study by law firm Slater and Gordon, which said issues with extended family are often cited as a reason for divorce. Almost a third of those surveyed described their partners’ parents as “interfering”, with those who clashed with in-laws exchanging cross words on average once a month. The research found in-laws caused arguments in 60% of marriages, while 22 per cent said they would divorce them if they could.

According to Cambridge University psychologist Terri Apter, in 2013 three out of four couples “experience significant conflict with their in-laws,” with the mother-in-law (MIL)/daughter-in-law (DIL) relationship the trickiest. 60% of DIL report problems in her study. Her book could be helpful: What Do You Want from Me?: Learning to Get Along with In-Laws

A 2020 study of 958 by Porch found nearly 71 percent of people said their poor relationship with their in-laws caused strain on their marriage, followed by 73 percent of couples who received financial support from their in-laws and experienced similar marital pressure.

Dr. Michael Tobin has been a clinical psychologist for forty-six years specializing in marriage and family therapy. He has written extensively on couple and family dynamics and is the founder of the highly acclaimed website, www.wholefamily.com. He was also was a former US Army officer & glacier climber. He is an author, most recently of Riding The Edge A Love Song to Deborah.

In-Laws is such an important topic for relationships. It took me years to understand my problems with my MIL were really about a values collision, she had big beliefs about shoulds, how things are supposed to be that were not in my own belief system. 

I was very lucky that she respected my husband was happy, even if she didn’t understand me. So many in-laws do a lot of damage by consistently forcing their child to choose them over their spouse. So my first question is to ask you about this kind of manipulation & In what other ways can in-laws be harmful to a marriage?

Dr. Michael Tobin: Well, I think that the statistics that you cited are very, very accurate. I think that I have so much anecdotal research over 46 years of working with couples about the problem of in-laws that I don’t know if I would say was the number one problem, but certainly the number two or three problem that has a huge impact on the stability of a marriage. I think the first thing is that the responsibility for managing in-laws belongs to the couple, especially the child of the mother-in-law or the father-in-law. Because when you decide to marry, you leave home & you start a new life, & that new life doesn’t include your parents having a huge influence on how you’re going to live your life, & how you’re going to build your new family. I think the biggest problem is that some people, they just have never cut the apron strings, so they’re attached at the hip to their mother or their father, & that seriously, seriously impacts the relationship with the husband or the wife. 

Rhoda: Yeah, I would totally agree. In the law firm study I mentioned in the introduction, it said that the rising cost of living means many adults borrow money from parents for large purchases, such as buying a house. & 19 percent of those surveyed believed in-laws expected more of a say in their lives in return. Could you use this as an example & tell my audience what can be done about that? 

Dr. Michael Tobin: Again, I think that it’s a real slippery slope. I have four children, I have helped each one of them in purchasing a home, my wife & I, together. But helping a child financially doesn’t give a parent a right to therefore control their lives. & I think that needs to be abundantly clear. Again, children need to be strong. & I’ve worked with couples many, many, many times, where I’ve said to them, “Are you willing to pay the price that your parents seemed to want from you in order to get money from them? Because I don’t think your soul is worth selling, even for a nice house.” & I think most of the time they agree.

So, one of the things I’ve often advised couples is be straight with your parents, say, “Listen, if you want to give, that’s great, we need your help. But needing your help doesn’t give you a right to run our lives. So you decide, you can help, but if you expect to help & expect to have extra influence on us, it doesn’t go together. It doesn’t work that way.” So, young couples, they need backbone, they need backbone. & I would say that it’s a very dangerous game to take money, along with influence, control, & interference. I don’t recommend it at all. 

Rhoda: I would completely agree. Absolutely. Also, in the same study, 22% said they hid their true feelings from their partner for fear of upsetting them, with 36% revealing that they made up excuses not to see in laws or went out when they visited. I am a huge proponent of being authentic, & this silence worried me because addressing boundaries is so important in healthy relationships. Do you agree? & what’s your advice? 

Dr. Michael Tobin: Well, how can I not agree? I mean, that’s one of those questions—it’s almost a rhetorical question. Of course, I agree. I’m not an advocate of lies, deception, miscommunication. A relationship is based on trust, it’s based on direct communication, & risk taking; risk taking to be authentic. If you have to hide who you are in order to balance a relationship between a spouse & a parent, it’s a very, very, very painful place to be, & it’s going to be seriously disruptive to the health of a marriage. 

So again, I would advocate for honesty, openness, & expressing fear. Listen, it’s not easy. A child has an attachment to a parent, & that attachment doesn’t disappear as soon as you get married. & parents have an attachment to children, & many parents have difficulty letting go & supporting as opposed to controlling. & I think that’s the crucial difference here. Parents need to learn how to support without controlling. 

Rhoda: Nice distinction. I really like that. Yeah, I agree. Grandparents who cannot get along with their sons-in-law or daughters-in-law, report worse relationships with their grandkids, & those who get along with their in-laws, report the strongest relationships with their grandchildren? What, if any, parenting role should a grandparent assume, in your opinion?

Dr. Michael Tobin: I would say that the general rule of thumb is that grandparent should play almost no parenting role. They have to be exceedingly sensitive & careful about telling their children how to parent, or parenting in lieu of their children. What it does is undermines the adult child & gives mixed messages. It’s such a common problem, & it’s incredible to me how, what should I say? mindless some parents of adult children can be. I’m blessed with 17 grandchildren. 

Rhoda: Wow.

Dr. Michael Tobin: So, I have plenty of opportunities to intervene, which I choose not to. The only time I intervene & this is by request of my children, is when they say if our kids are ever disrespectful to you or their grandmother, please speak to them directly. You don’t have to wait through us or speak to them. Now, fortunately, I find being a grandparent about the most delicious & wonderful thing in the world to be. I get all of the fun & none of the responsibility. So, I don’t really get in the position where I’m telling my grandchildren much. 

I’ll give you one example, though. We were going on a family vacation, I had three of my granddaughters in my back seat. They were about six years old at the time, they were absolutely killing each other, screaming, crying. & I have never once in all the years that I’ve been a grandparent yelled at my grandchildren. I pulled the car aside, turned around & faked yelling at them. & since they were so not used to this from me, it’s like, their six eyes popped out of their head, & the rest of the trip, must have been another half an hour, they were absolutely silent. So that’s the only time I’ve intervened. & when I told their parents about it, they all cheered me on, they said, “Great, fantastic. You did the right thing.” 

But if I see my children parenting incorrectly—in my mind incorrectly—& I have seen that, not only do I not intervene… in most cases, I don’t even say anything. Unless… I’m so careful, because I have to tiptoe around it. Especially my second daughter, she can be very sensitive. I said to her, “If you want to have some feedback for you, that’s the most I can say,” she has to opt in. I will never give unsolicited advice to my children. Rule of thumb. 

Rhoda: I agree. Yeah, I think that’s a great rule of thumb. I absolutely agree with that, totally. How should a couple respond to an intrusive demanding in-law? 

Dr. Michael Tobin: I don’t know if I should share the first thought that comes to my head, you know, but something like commit a capital crime. Other than, clearly, if they can’t set boundaries to an intrusive parent, they’re in big trouble. First of all, a couple have got to speak, they have to talk, they have to talk openly. They have to say, what are we going to do? What do we need to do to establish clear, impenetrable boundaries? What do we have to say to this person? Sometimes it can get very, very thorny & difficult. & if there’s an unhealthy mother-in-law or father-in-law, who demands control, it can be one of the most difficult problems that a young couple can deal with it really. & it’s something sadly enough, I have had to help couples navigate multiple times. 

Again, a young couple of has to draw a line in the sand & say to the parents, until here are no further, that’s it. They have to show strength & they have to stand by it. If they don’t, they can be steamrolled by an overbearing parent. It happens a lot, unfortunately.

Rhoda: I agree completely, I really do. Yeah, it does. Yeah, sadly. The most difficult relationship in the family is often between a daughter-in-law & her mother-in-law, a 2015 study found that not only overbearing controlling behavior was a problem, daughter-in-laws were also unhappy about under involvement. A co-author of this study, Dr. Rittenour, ended up feeling sorry for mother in laws. What are your thoughts & advice about this relationship, daughter-in- law & mother-in-laws? How should a couple respond to this conflict? 

Dr. Michael Tobin: Well, of course, a mother-in-law, daughter in law relationship is fraught with all sorts of complications. I mean, the mother-in-law is releasing her prints to a competitor. So that’s not easy for some moms to let go of her perfect absolute son to an obviously flawed female. So she has to do everything she can to protect your precious son. Problem number one, & I’m dealing with this now & it’s horrific, is that some sons need the constant unconditional & uncritical love of their mother. That can be actually quite damaging to the relationship because a wife is never unconditionally all the time loving her husband, & is never all the time uncritical of her spouse. It doesn’t work that way. 

Marriage is a challenging relationship. & if there’s a mother-in-law in the scene, who’s constantly telling her son that he’s perfect & his wife is not, it’s going to be very disruptive to the relationship. On the other hand, a rejected mother-in-law is also painful, painful for the mother-in-law. Now, the only explanation for that is long standing mother-daughter problems that would never work out. Again, it’s not good for a marriage, if there’s a daughter-in-law, who has an unhealthy negative attachment to her mother, & one in which she severs the relationship. & that’s not healthy either, because she’s going to carry around her, that pain and negativity that will impact her own family. 

So, in either case, if I were working with such a couple, I would try to help, if possible, to reconcile with the mother-in-law. Or in the case of the intrusive mother-in-law, again, if the son is an adult baby & can’t let go of his mother, then that’s a problem that has to be addressed, sometimes not so simply. 

Rhoda: I remember when my son & I were on our last vacation as the two of us. & I said to him, “Well, I guess this will be our last vacation because you’re really serious about your girlfriend.” & he looked at me & he said, “That’s what she said.” & I was like, yes, because that’s exactly the way it is, you know? It was very funny. He was so surprised. What if you’re married to someone who isn’t fully ready to let go, which we had mentioned earlier, or whose parents aren’t ready to let go, do you have any more advice about that situation, since it is the most common problem? 

Dr. Michael Tobin: All I can say is, that situation will create marital discord. That marital discord might be sufficient enough to bring the couple to therapy. Hopefully, that problem is strong enough to bring them to therapy, & maybe once they’re in therapy, they can understand that this unhealthy attachment is playing a huge role in their own marital discomfort, marital crises. So it’s the only way, because a problem that you just described if it’s under tended, it was not dealt with, it’s a scenario for a really problematic marriage, & maybe divorce. You’ve got to work out the in-law problems, you really do, it’s very important. It’s kind of one of the developmental challenges of a young couple. You’ve got to leave home & you’ve got to create your own home & your own relationship. 

Rhoda: Yes, & have respect for—your partner really becomes the priority, not your parents. 

Dr. Michael Tobin: Absolutely. 

Rhoda: You’ve got to be able to make them & negotiate with them.

Dr. Michael Tobin:  Absolutely. The first priority of a husband & a wife is to one another. Absolutely the first priority—& the second priority, & maybe this third. 

Rhoda: So one of the things I think a lot about that I don’t read much about is welcoming your in laws, & one of the things I did was reach out & try to get one-on-one time with each of my children’s partners, because I wanted to get to know them separately & not just as part of a couple. But that’s not something I read much about. What do you think about that? 

Dr. Michael Tobin: I a thousand million percent agree with that. I really do. I think it’s extremely important. & it’s something that I do. I have my Thursday evening get togethers with my sons-in-laws. It’s one-on-one, not even as a group of three sons. I find it very important to develop that kind of personal one on one relationship with each one of them. & I’m both a friend & a mentor to them. They’re at a stage in their life that they need guidance, they need support. At the same time, I like them all. They’re fun, they’re bright. We laugh a lot together. I think that they would probably say that they love me a lot. & of course, it’s mutual, & I think it’s good & it’s good for them. & my daughters love the fact that their husbands have a close relationship with their father. So, my daughter-in-law is to a great extent, she’s much more conversational than my son. So I probably spend more time talking to her than I do to my son directly. My son is more of a doer than he is a talker. & she sort of is the purveyor of information & what have you. So good. It’s a wonderful, you know, I got four new kids. 

Rhoda: Yes, that’s right. So, let’s balance the in-law picture with more positives. In what specific ways can in-laws be helpful to a marriage?

Dr. Michael Tobin: By being loving, supportive, non-intrusive, being involved grandparents, being available to help their children with babysitting if they can, if they live within the same community, you know, close proximity to their children, to spend Sundays, Saturdays, what have you, weekends from time to time with their children, to go out. One of the things that I do with all the couples is we go out—without children—we go out to a restaurant a few times a year. We do those kinds of things to create that kind of a connection, because it’s pretty hard to make a connection when you have a whole bunch of young kids screaming & playing & fighting, & doing all that. So that time together is also important. I think that like everything, the extent of your investment, it determines the payoff, the dividend. So, I think grandparents & parents need to invest, not control invest. & Sometimes that means financially as well, if they can. 

Rhoda: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with us about in laws today?

Dr. Michael Tobin:  In laws are, you know, when people get married, it’s a package deal. You don’t just marry a wife or a husband, you marry a system. & a young couple needs to be tutored on how to manage that system. As we’ve articulated, in-laws is one of the thornier challenges to negotiate in a marriage. If it’s done well, it will strengthen the marriage in innumerable ways.

On the other hand, if there’s an unhealthy attachment, if there’s intrusive in-laws, if there are children in a position who are constantly choosing between their parents and their spouse, that is a death sentence or a marriage. & I think every young couple needs to know that leaving home & starting your new relationship means leaving home & all of what that entails emotionally, physically, psychologically, & to whatever extent possible, financially.

To learn more please listen to the podcast above. Visit Dr. Michael Tobin’s website: https://www.drmichaeltobin.com

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