Coping With In-Laws When You’re a Stepmom

Updated on October 26, 2017
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Vivian understands the conflicts that beset blended families and offers a fresh perspective on successfully tackling the in-law component.

The In-Law and Stepmom Dynamic

Ideally, your new in-laws will welcome you with open arms. After being helpless bystanders who watched your husband suffer through his first marriage, they are ecstatic he found you and the happiness that previously eluded him. They are empathetic with your reservations concerning step-parenthood, but they applaud your efforts because you are trying. They respectfully listen to you vent and make every effort to be supportive of your newly blended family. They are wise enough to button their lips when they are tempted to share unsolicited advice or opinions. Understanding your husband is a grown man, they give him the freedom to forge his own path without interfering. They know the two of you will face hurdles typical of any couple, but they have faith the two of you can handle it. They don’t try to exert pressure or control to determine your outcomes. They recognize it’s your lives, and you are free to live them as you see fit.

Are you shaking your head and wishing it were that easy? Many stepmoms experience varying degrees of conflict with the in-laws, stemming from their affection for the ex-wife, their concern for your step kids, or their general malaise towards you.

Loyalty Issues Within Blended Families

Some in-laws retain a cordial relationship with the ex for the sake of their grandchildren, nieces, or nephews. It doesn’t mean they are bosom buddies with her—they simply don’t want to jeopardize their chances for visitation with the kids and risk alienation. When mom and the ex in-laws aren’t bashing each other, the kids aren’t torn and forced to choose a side. Kids are free to love the in-laws without feeling they are betraying mom, and mom isn’t pulverized by dad’s family. In this arrangement, everybody wins. It’s the mature approach to preserve positive relationships. However, in-laws sometimes cross the line. How chummy is too chummy?

If your in-laws politely exchange pleasantries with the ex for the sake of propriety when their paths cross, it’s a sign of good manners. After all, they may need to contact her about attending a school event or arranging a visit for a special activity when it’s not your husband’s weekend. Giving her the cold shoulder, spitting in her direction, or dicing her with verbal jabs would only be counterproductive, if they hope to maintain a positive connection with her children. If your in-laws, however, go out of their way to call her, invite her to family gatherings, chat and text frequently, and plan girls’ days out together, there’s a problem.

Parental loyalty, under normal circumstances, rests with their children. It doesn’t matter whether or not they agree with their son’s decisions or actions, what matters is that he is their son. Out of respect for their son—your husband—it’s imperative in-laws draw a boundary with the ex. If they were quite fond of her and had enjoyed a mutually rewarding relationship prior to the divorce, it gets sticky. Your in-laws may be reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They may embrace the attitude, just because you’re not married to her anymore doesn’t mean we have to end our relationship with her too. To continue in a relationship with the ex after your husband’s divorce, however, is tacky and awkward. Persisting in a relationship with her sends a clear signal to your husband: We favor her over you, and we will continue to make her our priority.

It’s often heart-breaking when relationships come to an end. People die. People move. People are offended. People divorce. It’s part of life. Expecting your in-laws to pare down their interaction with the ex might appear harsh and unnecessary to them, but it is perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t mean they have to stop liking her. It doesn’t mean they have to intentionally avoid her. It doesn’t mean they have to join in when you and your husband spout off about things she has done to provoke you. What it does mean is they acknowledge blood is thicker than water. It means they love and respect their son enough to place his needs above their own. It means they recognize he has moved on and has remarried and it’s simply inappropriate to regularly cavort with a woman who represents conflict to their son and his new bride. It means they are sensitive to the feelings of his new family and understand a well-oiled relationship with the ex is only going to cause him additional grief, especially when he is already faced with the challenges of a blended family.

What happens when your sister-in-law or mother-in-law don’t like you and side with the ex? What if they are even petty enough to make you the topic of conversation when they get together? You’ve married into a family you hope to embrace, only to find you are being shunned, criticized, and unaccepted. How do you handle that? First, extend grace. They are not obligated to like you! Consider, however, a verse from Romans 12:18, If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. It hurts when people don’t like us. It’s hard not to take their animosity personally, especially when they are family. It’s difficult not to retaliate when we have been wronged. You don’t have to be your sister-in-law’s BFF, but to keep peace within the family, rise to the occasion and be the better person. Don’t be roped into the vicious circle of spite. As far as it depends on you… don’t have to be fake or pretend you haven’t noticed their niggling. You may even choose to confront them about it in a peaceful manner to clear the air. They may respond positively and find you are a nice person and not the ogre they’ve painted you to be. However, brace yourself—is it possible their angst against you is justified? If they are offended by you, have you given them reasonable grounds? For example, if your husband had a cheating heart, and you were the object of his affection, it’s easy to see how you could be judged and labeled for breaking up a marriage. You may have justified your actions actions in the matter, but it doesn’t change the reality—you were instrumental in axing a viable marriage. Of course your in-laws are going to sympathize with the ex!

Regardless, how do you get over the hump and move on with the in-laws? As much as it depends on you….realize if you throw in the towel off the bat and dismiss the in-laws, you are only going to support their position. See, we were right about her, they will muse to themselves. Offer the olive branch. Seek a fresh start. Prove to them you are the best thing that’s ever happened to their son or brother. If your husband is happy, it will speak volumes to them. Be honest with your in-laws. Sometimes honesty and forthrightness is shocking to those who’d rather hide behind a mask of insincerity. Point out all the times they have been unkind to you, ask what you’ve done to make them feel this way, and see if there is any way all of you can build a new bridge—one that will lead to trust, respect, and peace within your family. If you, in good faith, try to make things right, and the in-laws still won’t get on board, you have fulfilled the as much as it depends on you admonition. You can’t control the will of others, and if they continue to support the ex and show you disdain, you are not obligated to invest further energy into the relationship.

Husbands Should Take the Lead in Your Blended Family

You shouldn’t be juggling family conflict alone. Don’t let your husband off the hook—if his family hasn’t greeted you with the welcome wagon, let him deal with it. An honorable man will see you are being mistreated and will charge behind the scenes to nix the abuse. He will communicate to his family that you are his wife and demand they demonstrate common courtesy and respect towards you. He will make it clear if they continue to verbally jab you or undermine his family, it will not be tolerated and will result in a lack of relationship with him. Genesis 2:24 states, Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. It doesn’t matter whether or not you were the best choice for a spouse, he still picked you. As a result, you have become one unit, and you take precedence.

What if chivalry is dead? Maybe you have a passive spouse who either pretends not to notice the injustices you are suffering at the hand of his family. Or, maybe he has acknowledged it, when you’ve persisted in pointing it out, but he makes no attempt to correct the problem. What are you supposed to do? First, try to help your husband man up. A teacher posted a sign in her classroom that read, My teacher thought I was smarter than I was, so I was. Sometimes, men respond when you raise the bar. When you treat your man like a hero, he just might be one. When women are hurt, angry, or frustrated, their words often sound like Chinese water torture to a man’s ears. He just wants to escape, not charge the enemy on his white steed to defend her honor. Encourage him to be valiant, look to him as your leader and the head of your house, and he just might rise to the occasion.

One thing you must always strive to avoid is broken relationships. It’s easy to give people the axe when they’ve hurt or deceived you. But, if you cut off everyone who ever offends you, you could end up very alone. If your husband will not confront his family, unleashing your pent up fury will only inflict permanent damage to your family. A better solution is to be classy. A classy woman can interact with his family without involving her heart. She’s smart enough to realize his family can’t be trusted, so she engages affably with them at holidays, parties, visits, or dinner, but she’s wise enough not to divulge any details of her life that could be used against her later. She doesn’t call or text his family for banal chit-chat, but if they contact her, she responds with poise and benevolence. Though it may appear superficial, this approach will keep your husband happy because you aren’t pressuring him to alienate his family. Be honest with him—tell him the position you are taking with his family so he can’t accuse you later of being phony. But with your admission, let him also know you won’t be responsible for any further turmoil they cause. You’ll be showing him that despite the problem, you’re doing your part to offer a solution to avoid outright estrangement.

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Handling Preferential Treatment in Step Families

If there’s one thing that ignites a stepmom's fuse, it’s when the in-laws display obvious favoritism to your step-children. Some in-laws cover every square inch of their homes with pictures of their first set of grand kids, while your kids’ photos are squirreled away in photo boxes. Other in-laws shower gifts and money on their original grand kids to compensate for some imagined wrong, yet your kids are overlooked. In-laws love to reminisce and share stories of their first grand kids through the years, but any fond memories of your children remain unspoken. Some in-laws obsess when the next opportunity will arrive for them to spend time with their first grand kids, but make no plans to visit with your kids. Managing a blended family is ripe with challenges and stress, but in-laws only worry how this turmoil will affect their first set of grand kids, with no regard to the impact it’s having on your own children.

Should you address these issues with the in-laws? Probably not. Your in-laws want to pamper and spoil their first set of grand kids. Let them. They are free to spend their time and money how they please. If you reprove them, they will only become indignant and offended. Gently draw your husband’s attention to the favoritism so he’ll be on board with you when you want to do something special for just your own kids when his are with their mother. Shield your kids from rejection as much as you can. Some kids are so distracted with other activities, they won’t even notice they’ve been slighted. If your parents love on your kids and are involved in their lives, they won’t miss the attention from his family.

Setting Boundaries with In-Laws

If you have the type of in-laws who just can’t let it go, stronger measures will need to be taken. Like Austin Powers after he was cryogenically frozen, perhaps your mother-in-law has no inner monologue. She feels compelled to tell you how you should be treating her grandchildren, how you should conduct yourself with the ex, how you should be handling her son, and how your home should be managed. Find a nice way to say, Butt out, granny! You and your husband are adults. While you might not know it all, you don’t need a know-it-all barking commands over your life. Delete her long-winded e-mails without responding. Unfriend her on Facebook. Give her clear boundaries and let her suffer the consequences for not respecting them. What are the consequences of ignoring your boundaries? Your wrath might be one. Suspended relationship with your family might be another, until she learns to keep her lips zipped and her opinions to herself. You aren’t being mean. You are drawing boundaries, and if she chooses to cross the line, she is responsible for the consequences, not you. If your mother-in-law is the controlling type, she may even do her best to create a wedge between you and your husband. She isn’t beneath rallying him to her side and turning him against you. It’s imperative you communicate regularly with your husband to stay in agreement and united to prevent your relationship from being battered by the waves of her toxic manipulation. When she sees her ruses aren’t working, don’t be surprised if she plays the death or dementia card. This final, emotional plea is the last trick she has up her sleeve before she throws in the towel. Yes, some mothers-in-law actually do this!

Pursuing Peace for a Strong Blended Family

Marrying a man with children has given you an already full plate, sometimes even more than you care to handle. Coping with in-laws on top of it all can be quite daunting. Your goal is to preserve relationships and experience peace in your home. Toxicity has to go for peace to be achieved, but peace doesn’t typically fall on us—we have to seek it and run after it. It takes work to obtain peace! Finding balance with your in-laws requires you to set boundaries, be honest, demonstrate compassion for their position with your step kids, forgive them when they mess up, overlook the inconsequential, remain united with your husband, and stand firm against overbearing advances or emotional manipulation………as far as it depends on you.


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