Why do people stereotypically complain when they have to spend time with their in-laws? Are they really so bad? Let’s take a look into this Relationships.
To understand your relationship with in-laws, we first have to look at your relationship with your partner. The foundation of relationships with our partners is usually 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 already 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 us subconsciously of the relationship environment 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” and understand how to live in, even if it’s not always healthy (which is why people with abusive parents may end up in abusive relationships).
It isn’t that you enjoyed the negative components of your parents so much that you went looking for those qualities. It’s that a combination of negatives and positives from your partner likely set up a familiar emotional environment (in not necessarily obvious ways — a lot of this is subconscious), and brings people emotionally back to a subconscious childhood state. In turn, this provides the opportunity to resolve components of our childhoods 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. (Again, this is all subconscious).
We could go deeper, but we have the info we need to continue.
How In-Laws Can Push Our Buttons
In relating this to 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 actually 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. 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. And maybe bring those more triggering qualities (whether it belongs to your own parents, your partner, or your in-laws) into therapy to work through them so they don’t become a chronically increasing issue.
Contact Nathan Feiles to inquire about therapy.