‘He had to give up his family’: When toxic in-laws ruin relationships

Carol Sartor always felt like her relationship with her in-laws was forced.

The 47-year-old from North Vancouver got married in September 2003.

“[My mother-in-law] was cold and [my father-in-law] was arrogant and sexist,” she told Global News. “However, I believed family was important so once we had kids I gave them their time — I included them in everything. Many people thought they were my parents.”

But over the years, Sartor’s marriage started to fall apart. “I noticed how much my husband was like his dad. I pulled away from my husband but continued to put on the Stepford Wife face for my kids and the public.”

The couple officially separated in 2018.

No relationship is perfect, but often, when one partner has difficulty getting along with their in-laws, it can cause tension for everyone involved.

Dealing with toxic in-laws

Rana Khan, a registered psychotherapist at Couple Therapy Toronto, told Global News these toxic relationships, whatever shape or form, happen over time.

“It’s also helpful to define what toxic means. To me, a toxic relationship is a relationship that no longer serves its function and a relationship where this harm directed to one or more people.”

And sometimes managing these relationships is doing preventative work to ensure it doesn’t turn toxic to begin with, he added.

“If you are putting in more than what you’re getting out in return from the relationship, this may be a problem for you,” he continued. “More often than not, what these relationships need is time and space. If you can find a balance between time and space, you can ensure that your relationship does not turn toxic.”

But sometimes, people tend to cut their family members off. Khan said it would be his last resort.

“I think cutting people off can not only be extremely difficult and not practical at times but it also has unintended consequences such as guilt and shame which are often not as well thought out,” he explained. “Also, are you cutting them off because you think that will be best for you or would that be best for the relationship? All these questions are helpful to consider when making your choice.”

But not cutting in-laws off doesn’t mean putting up with them either. “I like to think of the middle path and to reach the middle path I think it involves a lot of self-reflecting and asking yourself questions — have I done what I could for this relationship? or have I done my part for this relationship? It is also helpful to renegotiate the terms of the relationship.”

Fighting with your partner and other family members

And besides carrying the burden of maintaining a relationship with your in-laws, these toxic relationships also end up hurting the couple.

Sartor said overtime, her own parents got involved. “My family did not like them or how my husband treated me so that also caused strain on me and my marriage.”

“It made me feel guilty but I always did what I thought was good for my kids and husband.”

Khan said couples who are thinking about marriage or long-term, need to have conversations about their larger families early on.

“If you have in-laws who are heavily involved in the relationship, I would ask what about that is a problem for you? What is the heavy involvement of the in-laws preventing you from doing, that you would otherwise be doing?” he explained.  “The answers to these questions is what would be helpful to focus on rather than the heavy involvement of the in-laws.”

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And if your in-laws are fuelling arguments, it’s about checking in with yourself and your partner.

“I always would ask to differentiate between is this impacting me, is this impacting you (your partner), or is this impacting us,” he continued.  “If it is something that is impacting you, is this something that you can resolve on your own, independent from your partner?”

When culture clashes

Sometimes, our relationships with our in-laws comes down to family traditions or culture. For examples, in some South Asian communities, it is common for their daughter-in-law to move in with her husband and his parents. This can cause stress for all parties involved.

Khan said for those who have toxic relationships with their in-laws and are part of these communities, it is an added layer that can be hard to mediate.

“However, I’m a firm believer of options and choice. Is this your own choice that you’ve decided to uphold certain cultural values? Are these your own values?” he said. “If you can own your own values, I think that can make a difference in how you navigate those values. Then, I would focus on establishing norms early on in the relationship and having those conversations early so both sides know exactly what they signed up for.”

Kim of Caledon, Ont., who chose to only share her first name with Global News, said she never had a good relationship with her in-laws.

The 40-year-old got married in 2008 and met her in-laws for the first time the year before. She went to India to shop for her wedding and spent two days with them. She was later told it was “disrespectful” she didn’t see them more — she felt as if her in-laws held a grudge going forward.

“For my wedding jewelry they re-gifted me a small wedding set from the first wife of their other son,” she told Global News. “When they finally moved to Canada in 2012, they made it a point to stay at the other brother’s house.”

Today, her in-laws barely have a relationship with her son and over the years, were the root of multiple fights with her husband.

“Divorce was on the table [at one point] and I slept on a couch for eight months,” she said. Her husband went to a counsellor who told him his wife and son should come first.

“My husband is reason we still together, he had to give up his family or break this up. “

Khan added for some, family therapy can help. “If you’re having difficulties managing all of this on your own, it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone in trying to manage these relationships and that help is always available.”

For couples in similar situations, it’s important to focus on your own relationship.

“I like to believe that people are particularly good at managing their relationships and if they know that they need to improve privacy or improve independence or any other thing, then I believe individuals will make it work and find their own unique ways of doing that.”

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