What’s the deal with in-laws? Why do people stereotypically complain when they have to spend time with their in-laws? Are they really so bad? It’s not a simple answer, but let’s take a look into this.
To understand our relationship with our in-laws, we first have to look at our relationship with our partners. The foundation of relationships with partners is normally formed based on our relationships with our parents or other caretakers.
If you look at the relationship with your significant other, you’ll probably notice that there are qualities of your partner that remind you of your own parents, in both desirable and undesirable ways. (See “What Attracts Us to Bad Relationships?” If you read that article, the next paragraph may sound conceptually familiar).
Why do our partners often have qualities that resemble our parents? The answer is because we subconsciously seek a comfort zone — we find relationships that remind our subconscious of the relationship we had with our parents. We find a situation that is familiar based on how we grew up because this familiarity gives us a situation we’re “used to,” even if it’s not always healthy comfort (which is why people with abusive parents may end up in abusive relationships).
It isn’t that we enjoyed the negative components of our parents so much that we went looking for those qualities, it’s that the “right” combination of negatives and positives from our partner set up a familiar environment, and brought us emotionally back to a subconscious childhood. In turn, this gives us the opportunity to resolve components of our childhood that remain unresolved.
For example, if I can get my partner to stop being so greedy with money, it will subconsciously make me feel like I’ve now resolved that issue with my greedy mother/father that carried on through my childhood.
Complex, right? We could go deeper, but we have the info we need to continue.
How In-Laws Can Push Our Buttons
In relating this to the in-laws, there is both a parental and a partner transference (very basically, a transfer of emotions based on emotional experiences in our past) and projections taking place with our in-laws. If you chose a partner that indeed contains positive and negative qualities of your own parents, chances are pretty good that his or her parents have similar characteristics to your own parents! (Note: the genders may not always align with characteristics — although your own father may have been lazy, emotionally distant, and demanding, these characteristics could show up in your partner’s mother, triggering a transference based on past emotions with your father between you and your partner’s mother).
So, while you may (and hopefully do) find positive characteristics in your in-laws, when those moments arise that remind you of negative traits of your own parents, it brings emotional similarities to being a child and going through those same emotions again. But this time it’s not your own parents involved in the unpleasant emotions, it’s your partner’s parents.
There’s an additional component to this. The traits that may already bother you about your partner often show up in his or her parents. When this happens, it can be tempting to subconsciously displace our frustrations with these areas of our partner onto the in-laws. It’s emotionally less threatening to blame the in-laws (internally) than it is to build resentment towards our partners.
So the in-laws can sometimes be the scapegoat for issues we have with our partners, since the in-laws are seen as the source of these issues.
Not All In-Laws are Bad
To be fair, not every component of an in-law needs to indicate a parental transference from our own childhood. But odds are, the stronger we feel about a certain quality (which are the ones we tend to focus on), the more likely it is that we are experiencing this parental transference. We tend to react more strongly when the emotion is latent. So if we find ourselves having a disproportionate emotional response to a characteristic of our in-laws, it’s a good time to consider from where this emotion is originating, whether it’s from issues with our own parents, or our partner, or siblings, or other close people to us in our lives.
It’s also worth noting here that it is very possible to have a strong relationship with in-laws, and there are people who do. When there is a heavy focus on negative qualities, it makes the situation more frustrating than if we focus on the positives. So while it may be easy to pick out the frustrating components of being with your in-laws, keeping your focus on their positive qualities will help, and maybe you’ll even end up enjoying your time with them.
Changing perspectives can change an entire experience (and relationship). Remember, if your in-laws didn’t have the positive traits they have, odds are you may not have chosen to share your life with your partner.