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Melissa* and her significant other’s (SO’s) mother, Barbara,* often talk freely about Melissa’s relationship with Barbara’s son, Brandon,* with nothing being “off-limits” – not even sex or relationship issues. In fact, Melissa and Barbara have a habit of “venting” or complaining to each other about their respective partners.
The two women have become so “chummy” with each other that they spend a lot of time together – i.e. shopping, going on “lunch dates,” getting their hair, nails, and toes done, etc. Barbara calls Melissa “her play daughter” and Melissa, who is estranged from her own mother, relies on Barbara for support and guidance. Brandon isn’t fond of his mother and partner being so close, because he believes that talking about “relationship issues” should stay between Melissa and him.
But Melissa disagrees. She tells Brandon, “I can talk to your Mom about anything. She’s just so cool! She gives the best advice. I’m not close to my own Mom, so Barbara is the perfect surrogate. I absolutely love her – probably just as much as you! But, don’t worry, we don’t even talk about you…all that much.”
Melissa loves talking to Barbara because she doesn’t automatically take her son’s side. Subconsciously, Melissa is looking for that missing mother figure in Barbara, so she confides in her when she probably shouldn’t. Melissa’s closeness with her SO’s mother works for her, but is starting to cause problems in her relationship with Brandon.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals.
The Dangers of Talking About Relationship Problems with Your SO’s Family
A good relationship with your SO’s mom or dad is paramount to a healthy relationship. However, it’s important to set healthy boundaries and limit how much you openly share with your SO’s family.
How much information is too much information?
It’s important to set healthy boundaries between yourself and your SO’s family—your relationship may not survive if you don’t. Being an “open book “with your partner’s family can set your relationship up for failure. Seriously. Thus, it’s probably better that you keep some things (i.e. arguments, your sex life, etc.) to yourself or between you and your SO.
Studies Confirm This
According to a study on marital satisfaction and in-law relationships, wives who feel they can share anything with their in-laws because they’re close have a 20% higher chance of divorcing, as compared to relationships where the wives do not feel that way towards their in-laws.
On the flipside, husbands who feel they can share anything with their in-laws have a 20% higher chance of remaining married, as compared to those who don’t feel that they can share anything with their in-laws. The difference in in-law relationships stem from how males and females perceive or view relationships.
For instance, a wife who watches her husband try to bond with her family is more likely to feel closer or more attached to her husband. This wife most likely views her husband’s effort as a sign of love and commitment.
Conversely, when a husband watches his wife become super close and share personal tidbits about their relationship with his family, it can cause resentment between the spouses. The husband may not want his family knowing his “dirty laundry,” which can lead to conflict and eventually divorce.
When it Comes to Talking about Relationship Problems, Keep it Between You and Your SO
The truth is sharing too much information with your SO’s family can cause you to experience “buyer’s remorse” really quickly. This is especially true if your partner’s family uses the information you share against you. You also don’t want your SO’s family giving you unsolicited advice because nine out of ten times that advice will be aimed at you instead of their loved one.
So when it comes to talking about relationship problems with your SO’s family, don’t. It will most likely backfire and paint you as the “backstabber.” The good news is there are ways you can bond with your SO’s family without “over-sharing.”
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Talking About Relationship Problems with Your SO’s Family Can Backfire
You may be too close to your SO’s family (especially his mom, sister, aunts, or grandmother) if you feel comfortable sharing personal information, like disagreements, with them. You may also be too close if you go on vacations with them or spend large amounts of time with them – without your partner.
Understand that your SO’s family are not your BFFs. They are also not your family – even if it feels that way right now. The truth is you and your SO can break-up at any time, leaving you “high and dry” without your SO or their family. Why? Because at the end of the day, their allegiance is to their loved one – not you.
Unfortunately, it happens all the time.
For this reason, it’s important that you not allow your relationship with your SO’s family to morph into a “buddy relationship.” When you talk about relationship problems with your SO’s family, you invite them into your relationship – to judge you, your SO, and your relationship. And guess what? You can’t just “turn-off” this access because you get tired of their intrusive and annoying advice, criticism, and “guidance.” Why not? Because it doesn’t work like that –you’ve already allowed them in.
Talking About Your Relationship Problems With Your SO’ Family is Oversharing
FYI: Families, especially parents and siblings, remember everything. So, even if your relationship starts out swimmingly, it can turn sour really quickly if you “mess up.” Even though you’ve spent hours sharing your thoughts with your SO’s family, at the end of the day, they will almost always choose their blood over you.
Thus, sharing too much with your SO’s family can lead to disappointment and heartache if things don’t work out between you and your SO. In this situation, you not only lose your partner but also your “second family.” This may sound harsh, but you should be prepared if you decide to vent to your SO’s family about issues between you and their blood relative.
Talking about Relationship Problems with Your SO’s Family Can Cause Problems in your Relationship
When you complain to your SO’s family about your SO, you also risk causing problems in your relationship. Your SO may not mind you becoming close to their family – at first. However, once you begin sharing intimate details with their family, it can quickly become a no-go. In other words, your SO may not want their loved ones to know that you argued last night about having sex. That information is personal and should be kept between the partners.
Plus, when you “overshare” with your SO’s family you risk blurring the lines on what is acceptable information to share with others and what is not. This can cause boundaries to become broken and for your SO’s family to feel as though they can say anything to you. And, although rare, talking about relationship problems with your SO’s family could cause your SO’s family to criticize them.
They May Misunderstand Your Intentions
Venting to your SO’s family can also cause them to misinterpret or misunderstand your intentions. As a result, it’s important for you to understand that although beneficial for you and your SO’s family to become BFFs, there is a chance, however slight, that it may not last forever. In the same vein, there’s a chance that one day, the information you provide your SO’s family will come back to bite you in the butt. Because the truth is your relationship with your partner’s family is fragile.
Furthermore, venting about your SO to their family puts the relatives in an odd predicament – support you and betray their loved one, or support their loved one and cause friction between you and them.
It also forces your SO’s family to keep your “secret” against their loved one. This could cause a rift between your SO and their family in the future. More specifically, your SO may feel like the family is siding against them by not telling them what you said. Plus, how will you feel if your SO’s family starts giving you unwanted advice? You’ll probably resent it – and them.
Therefore, oversharing information isn’t healthy for you, your SO, or their family.
Period. You must share personal information only with your SO – not their relatives. Talking about relationship problems with your SO’s family puts your relationship at risk.
Ironically, a study found that women who share extremely personal information with their in-laws have a 20% higher chance of divorcing, as compared to wives who restrict the information they share with them.
Another study found that partners feel like “part of the family” when their SO’s family shares “family history” (i.e. childhood or family experiences) with them. However, the same does not apply when partners talk about relationship issues with their SO’s family. In other words, venting to your SO’s family about their loved one or your relationship does not make the family feel closer to you.
Here are some tips for talking about relationship problems in a better, healthier way:
Set the rules with your SO (in advance)
It’s normal to have different comfort levels when it comes to your SO’s relationship with your family and vice versa. You must set the rules with your SO in advance. In other words, talk about what you think is healthy communication and what you think crosses the line. The key is to be on the same page with your SO.
So, set the rules early with your SO, so you both know acceptable and non-acceptable behavior when it comes to your respective families. A “rule” may look like not sharing details of your sex life with your SO’s parents. Or, not running to your SO’s siblings to vent about their annoying habits.
Note: The “rules” may be different for each family.
Keep it in the relationship
In other words, if you have a problem with something your SO is doing or not doing, discuss it with them – not their family. Nothing can cause problems in a relationship like going behind your SO’s back and talking about relationship problems with their mom, dad, siblings, etc.
To your SO, this action feels like a betrayal and it is. Problems and concerns should stay within your relationship. The key to a good relationship is healthy communication and an ability to effectively work together to resolve issues. If you don’t have those two things, your relationship may ultimately fail. Because, well, no one likes feeling like your SO is talking about you behind your back – to anyone, and especially your family.
So, talk to your partner and refrain from using blaming statements like “YOU did this or that.” Working through your issues will help you grow closer together as a couple. It will also prevent your SO’s family from putting their two-cents in about you and your relationship.
Don’t take the bait
If someone in your SO’s family tries to bait you into saying something about their loved one – don’t fall for it! It will backfire on you. What do I mean? I mean your SO’s family member (especially their siblings or parents) may be trying to gauge what type of person you are by trying to “trip you up” or get you to say something negative about your SO. This could be a character test.
For example, if your SO’s mother jokingly says something like, “I’m sorry that my son chews with his mouth open. You’d think he was raised by animals. It’s really kind of disgusting, you know?” If one of your SO’s relatives tries to lure you into their bait – go the other way. Smile and then quickly change the subject. Do not add anything to the conversation.
Rather, direct the flow of the conversation towards something more positive. However, if you feel a need to respond, say something like, “No, his chewing doesn’t bother me. In fact, I find it quite adorable.” So, if you must vent – vent to your best friend or vent in a diary or journal – do not vent to your SO’s family. Period.
Be prepared for any backlash
If you go against conventional wisdom and decide that talking about relationship problems to your SO’s family is okay, be prepared for any backlash. In other words, the day may come when your SO’s family isn’t as supportive as they “used to be.” There may also come a time when your SO’s family reminds you of things you said during your venting sessions with them. Remember, their first allegiance is to their relative – not you.
So, if you get too comfortable and something really negative or offensive slips out, your SO’s family will most likely step in and defend them. If this happens, their family will never look at you the same.
Also, be prepared for backlash in the form of unsolicited advice. Because it will eventually happen if you start oversharing with your SO’s family. At first, you may welcome any advice, but over time it could get old and annoying.
About the Author
Dr. R. Y. Langham
Ph.D. in Family Psychology
Ree has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (M.M.F.T.) and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She spent over ten years counseling families, couples, individuals, and children on adjustment issues such as blended families, same-sex couples, dysfunctional family relationships, relationship issues, etc. Now she writes for famous health organizations and is a published author.
Full Bio | LinkedIn
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