The question: I’m in my late 20s and have been married for close to two years. About 6 months ago, my in-laws decided to downsize and bought a townhouse on our street. While I respect and care for my husband’s family, I don’t appreciate living so close to his parents. I don’t feel like we have the same privacy any more. They show up unannounced and my husband is always visiting there. No one seems to think it’s an issue but me. How can I make this living situation work without building resentment? Or is it time for us to move?
The answer: Uh oh, sounds like a case of too close for comfort is brewing. Navigating the waters with family – particularly in-laws – requires a tremendous amount of patience, tact and compromise. It is good that you are recognizing the potential for issues early on, before they have a detrimental impact on your relationship with your husband and his parents.
There used to be a time when extended families, or living in close proximity to one another was the norm. This has shifted dramatically for a range of societal reasons.
There are certainly benefits to having family live close by, such as having social supports nearby, being able to stay connected and foster a closer relationship, and being able to mutually support each other (e.g., as parents age, or if you and your husband have children).
There is also, as you are recognizing, the potential for things to go awry, such as the invasion of your privacy and independent space, perhaps unrealistic expectations on everyone’s end of how much contact there should be, and a reduction in the one-to-one quality time you and your husband spend together. This can lead to frustration, resentment, and anger.
You need to start by having an open conversation with your husband, being respectful and sensitive to the fact that these are his parents. Ask him how he feels about how things are going with the new living arrangement (he may surprise you by also feeling torn about how to deal with the proximity). Let him know what your concerns are. Start by emphasizing that you have two important goals: one, that you and he continue to have a strong and happy relationship with his parents; and two, that you want to ensure you and he – as your own family unit – continue to thrive as a couple and don’t have unnecessary conflict over family. Be mindful of focusing on the positives that there inevitably are of having them close by, as I suspect it is not all negative.
I would suggest giving it a fair go of continuing to live where you do, but establishing some clear boundaries. Try to articulate what you specifically want. For example, rather than saying to your husband “I don’t want you going over there every other night” say, “I’d like you and I to have dinner together on weekdays so that we can catch up and spend time together.” If your in-laws drop by unexpectedly, you could say, “we love seeing you, but we’d really appreciate if you could call first just to make sure we are free to visit and not in the middle of something.”
If subtle attempts to shift expectations don’t work, then your husband is the one who needs to have a more direct conversation with his family about setting the parameters for behaviour. If you start that discussion, there is the high likelihood you will be viewed as the “bad guy.”
Be patient and give it a period of about six months to see if things get better. If not, then you may need to have discussions with your husband about whether moving is logistically the best option to maintain the overall happiness of everyone in your family.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra
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