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Why Are Relationships With In-Laws Sometimes So Painful?

A mother and her grown sonSome relationships with in-laws are wonderful. When you’ve got a good relationship with your parents in law, you can feel as if you’ve gained another family. You are brought into the fold and your new family appreciates the love you share with their adult child. You can feel a mutual sense of deep belonging and fondness.

Some in-law relationships are very difficult. As couples therapists, we know that strife with in laws is a common issue that comes up in therapy.

Problems with parents in law can come in many forms. Perhaps you feel that your parent in law is overly involved in your life, or conversely, you feel rejected by them. Perhaps you feel incompatible with your partner’s parents because their values are different from yours.

On the other hand, maybe you feel like your partner doesn’t accept the family you came from, or that your partner doesn’t prioritize spending time with your parents as much as you’d like them to. It can help to understand why relationships with in-laws can bring up so much conflict and pain.

Why are problems with your in-laws so painful?

The in-law relationship can bring up vulnerabilities you have about belonging or feeling secure. Needing a sense of belonging and security is hard wired into all humans. As Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy says, “We have a wired-in need for emotional contact and responsiveness from significant others.” When we have that need met, we are more able to thrive and feel fulfilled. When our sense of belonging or security feels threatened, we feel distressed. A difficult in-law relationship can threaten these feelings easily because this is a family you didn’t grow up with. It’s easy to feel unsure about how you might belong. If you get a sense that your mate is somehow prioritizing their original family over you, it is common to feel threatened, which can lead you into conflict together. It’s as if there’s a part of your brain saying, “I’m not safe in this relationship,” even if you logically know your partner loves you.

So how do you resolve this kind of conflict? First, figure out the feelings going on beneath the surface for each of you. Some common feelings that come up in these situations are:


  • Overwhelmed
  • Vulnerable
  • Small or insignificant
  • Lonely
  • Unimportant
  • Hurt
  • Lost or confused
  • Unwanted


If you’re able to express what you’re each feeling underneath, and then create safety for each other to talk about those feelings, you can get through almost any conflict. On the other hand, if you try to solve the conflict without attending to the deeper feelings, you might continue to talk in circles rather than finding resolution.

Need some help working through conflict in your relationship? Call us at or schedule a free consultation now.