When you decide to marry, you’re not only gaining a life partner but their family, too. Building your relationship with your future in-laws is a crucial investment to make since, hopefully, they’ll be around for many of the upcoming exciting chapters in your relationship. They will be there to toast to you on your wedding day, admire the home you purchase, and if you decide to have children, they’ll take on the role of grandparent. As you look forward to the many adventures ahead of you, there are ways to start to build your connection with your partner’s parents. Here, relationship experts recommend the best ways to get started:
Look for shared interests.
No matter who you are trying to attract, one of the first rules of getting along with someone is to look for what you have in common, says Marisa Peer, the founder and creator of Rapid Transformational Therapy. Generally speaking, she says whatever you look for, you will find. “If you look for why you're different, you'll find that,” she continues. “If you look for what you have in common, you'll find that too. Of course, what you have in common with your in-laws is that you love their child.”
And that’s a great spot to begin. What parent doesn’t want to hear their beloved (full-grown, adult) baby is cherished and adored by another person? Peer says to begin by sharing what you love about your partner—from their kindness and integrity to their honesty, intelligence, and ambition. Then, you can move on to other topics that steer away from politics or religion, which can be triggering and polarizing for many.
Instead, Peer says to try and focus on any shared interests you suspect you may have, even if they feel a little superficial. “Maybe it's music, or a type of cuisine, or gardening, or movie genres,” she explains. “If you struggle to find things to talk about, then read some articles or come up with some book suggestions around your shared interests before you have a meeting with your in-laws.”
Ask them questions.
When you’re in an unfamiliar place or meeting new people for the first time, asking questions is a simple way to build a repertoire. It also illustrates your genuine curiosity and your commitment to your partner since you want to know more about the people they love. So rather than talking about what you do, what you like, what you want, and so on, turn the conversation around to your future in-laws, recommends Dr. Darcy Sterling, a therapist and the host of E! Network’s Famously Single. As she puts it, they’re human beings, after all—and they’ve had a lifetime of adventures, experiences and memories. If you’re not sure what to ask about, Dr. Sterling provides talking points:
- Ask about work: How did they choose their career?
- Ask about their childhood: Where did they grow up?
- Ask about their spouse: How did they meet?
- Ask about their passions: What do they like to do in their spare time?
- Ask about the future: What do they hope to do in retirement?
“Pay attention to their answers because they can give you gift ideas when you need them, as well as give you follow-up questions at future gatherings,” she adds.
Practice acts of kindness.
When a friend remembers you had a promising interview coming up and texts you in the morning to wish you good luck, does it make you smile? Or when your partner surprises you with flowers or your favorite takeout food following a rough week, do you feel supported and loved? These small acts of kindness go a long way in building relationships, and will be greatly appreciated by your in-laws. As Peer says, even if you don’t have a deep connection, bringing over a house plant, picking up a sweet treat, sending and framing photos all show that you care. “These small gestures show you're making an effort and can add up to a lot,” she adds.
Share the big picture.
As your connection with your in-laws grows, you’ll hopefully become more comfortable around them. However, to preserve your connection, you still want to resist the temptation to discuss specific topics. As Dr. Sterling reminds, they’re not your parents or your best friend, so don’t complain to them about their kid. And yes, this is still the advice even if they complain about their kid to you. “Also, do not complain about your relationship to them,” she continues. “They will forgive their child for any mistakes, but not you. So be mindful of the information you share with them.” They shouldn’t be your sounding board but a part of the bigger picture in your personal life.
Dr. Sterling says to think of it this way: if your boss has asked you to work extra hours to help cover for a sick team member and you complain to your mother-in-law about how annoyed you are, she’s likely to hear two things:
- For you, helping out is a nuisance when someone’s sick. How will she act when it’s my child who’s sick?
- Your work ethic doesn’t seem too admirable.
That’s why Dr. Sterling recommends sharing the big picture… but leaving the details out. “Children-in-law have a propensity to overshare with their partner’s parents because we want to be accepted and loved by them,” she continues. However, the more details you share, the more red flags those details can throw up for in-laws because they will forever hear your stories, thoughts and feelings through the lens of ‘Will this person make my child happy?’
Jump in to help.
While building a relationship with your inlaws requires many of the same skills you’d use to build a relationship with anyone, it’s important to remember that they are in their own unique category, Dr. Sterling says. Since they will be part of your family, you should begin treating them as such, right from the beginning. A big part of that is integrating yourself without asking permission. “Don’t offer, act,” she recommends. “I cringe when I’m at a friend’s home, and I hear another guest ask, ‘Can I help with anything?’ The answer’s always, ‘No’—even if the host’s arm is on fire.”
Rather than waiting to be invited, Dr. Sterling recommends getting out of your chair and picking up some plates if your mother-in-law is clearing dishes. Or if she’s plating food, just walk into the kitchen, and start helping. “It will signal that you’re a team player and you’re willing to pull some weight,” she adds.