As a clinical psychologist, I often work with couples navigating the complexities of in-law relationships. It can be tough but important to set boundaries with in-laws to keep a good relationship with your partner. By applying science-based couples therapy strategies, you can learn to communicate your needs, establish clear limits, and cultivate positive interactions with your extended family.

The importance of boundaries in relationships

Boundaries are the limits we set in our relationships to protect our emotional, physical, and mental well-being. They help us maintain autonomy, respect, and a sense of self within our relationships.1 In the context of in-law relationships, boundaries are crucial for navigating the complexities of merging two families and establishing a healthy dynamic. Boundaries with mothers-in-law, fathers-in-law and other family members foster respect, prevent fights, and let you focus on your own new family unit.

Research shows that the quality of relationships with in-laws can significantly impact the health and satisfaction of a couple’s relationship.2 Setting clear boundaries helps couples prioritize their own relationship while still maintaining positive connections with extended family members. Boundaries promote mutual respect, reduce conflict, and allow for the development of a strong, independent family unit.

Identifying your needs and values as a couple

Before setting boundaries with in-laws, it’s essential for couples to have an open and honest discussion about their individual and shared values. This conversation should cover topics such as the importance of family time, privacy, autonomy, and decision-making processes. By clarifying your values as a couple, you can better identify areas where boundaries may be necessary.

Unmet needs in a relationship can lead to feelings of frustration, resentment, and disconnection.3 When in-law relationships infringe upon a couple’s needs for privacy, autonomy, or quality time together, it can strain the couple’s bond. Recognizing the impact of these unmet needs is a crucial step in prioritizing your relationship and setting appropriate boundaries.

Consider the case of Colleen and Amir, a couple living in Houston, Texas. Amir, a software developer born in India, moved to the USA at age 5. His parents, who still live in India, wish to stay with the couple for three months yearly in their small home. Colleen, a teacher born in the USA, is uncomfortable with this arrangement.

While she wanted to maintain a healthy relationship and open communication with her partner’s family, she also wanted to advocate for her own. When his family visited last year for three months, she felt like her own mental health was at risk. She also had very different child-rearing ideas than her Mother-in-law and felt as if spending time alone with her new family was also important.

She wants to save for their 18-month-old son’s college education, take vacations, and eventually buy a bigger home. Amir, as the oldest son, feels torn between his parents’ expectations and his wife’s desires.

Amir needed to explain cultural expectations in a way that Colleen could understand. He felt a cultural and moral obligation to send money home to his parents, and he knew that they did not have the finances to stay this long in a hotel. They also didn’t want to.

To navigate this situation, Colleen and Amir must openly discuss their individual needs and shared values. By prioritizing their relationship and presenting a united front, they can work towards finding a compromise that respects both their boundaries and their extended family’s needs.

Communicating boundaries effectively

When preparing to communicate boundaries with in-laws, choose a time and place that allows for a calm, respectful conversation. Avoid discussing boundaries in the heat of the moment or during family gatherings where emotions may be heightened. Instead, opt for a neutral setting and a time when all parties are receptive to an open dialogue.

Use “I” statements to express your needs and feelings clearly and avoid placing blame.4 For example, Colleen might say, “I feel overwhelmed when we have extended visits from family. I would appreciate if we could find a compromise that allows us to maintain our privacy and routine with our son.” This approach promotes a more constructive dialogue and reduces defensiveness.

Active listening and empathy are essential skills for effective communication, particularly when discussing sensitive topics like boundaries.5 Encourage your in-laws to express their perspectives and feelings and try to understand their point of view. By showing empathy and respect for their experiences, you create a foundation for more positive, collaborative problem-solving.

Navigating cultural differences

In some cases, boundary challenges with in-laws may stem from cultural differences in expectations and norms around family involvement. It’s important to acknowledge and respect these cultural differences while still advocating for your own needs and values.6 Engage in open conversations with your partner and in-laws to better understand each other’s cultural backgrounds and find ways to bridge any gaps.

For Amir and Colleen, this might involve discussing the significance of family ties and filial piety in Indian culture while also expressing their desire to establish their own family traditions and maintain a sense of independence. By seeking to understand and respect each other’s cultural perspectives, they can work towards finding a middle ground that honors both their relationship and their extended family’s values.

Maintaining boundaries over time

Once you’ve established boundaries with your in-laws, it’s crucial to apply them in your interactions consistently. This means kindly but firmly reinforcing your limits and expectations, even in the face of pushback or resistance. Consistency helps in-laws understand and respect your boundaries over time, leading to more harmonious relationships.7

When enforcing boundaries with in-laws, couples must present a united front. This means supporting one another’s boundaries, avoiding triangulation or taking sides, and communicating a consistent message to extended family members.8 By demonstrating solidarity and mutual respect, couples can more effectively navigate boundary challenges together.

As relationships and circumstances evolve, so too may your boundaries with in-laws. Make a habit of periodically reviewing your boundaries as a couple and assessing whether they still align with your needs and values. Be open to adjusting boundaries as needed, and communicate any changes to your in-laws in a clear, respectful manner.

Dealing with boundary violations

Despite your best efforts to establish and communicate boundaries, there may be times when in-laws overstep or violate them. In these instances, address the violation in a calm, assertive manner. Express your feelings using “I” statements, remind them of your agreed-upon boundaries, and reiterate the importance of mutual respect and cooperation.

When boundary violations lead to conflicts with in-laws, employ effective conflict resolution strategies to navigate the situation. This may include active listening, expressing empathy, focusing on common goals, and brainstorming mutually beneficial solutions.9 By approaching conflicts with a problem-solving mindset, you can work towards resolving issues and strengthening your relationships.

If boundary challenges with in-laws persist despite your efforts to communicate and problem-solve, it may be helpful to seek the guidance of a couples therapist. A skilled therapist can provide an objective perspective, offer evidence-based strategies for setting and maintaining boundaries, and facilitate productive conversations between you, your partner, and your extended family.10


Setting boundaries with in-laws is an essential skill for nurturing a strong, healthy relationship with your partner. By understanding your needs, communicating effectively, and consistently enforcing limits, you can foster positive interactions with extended family while prioritizing your bond as a couple. Remember, it’s a continuous process that requires patience, empathy, and commitment from both partners. With the right tools and mindset, you can navigate the complexities of in-law relationships and build a foundation of mutual respect and understanding.


1. Katherine, A. (2000). Where to draw the line: How to set healthy boundaries every day. Simon and Schuster.

2. Simpson, Roger. (1990). Conflict styles and social network relations as predictors of marital happiness: A comparison of black and white spouses. Doctoral thesis.

3. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2012). Adult attachment orientations and relationship processes. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 4(4), 259-274.

4. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. Harmony.

5. Levitt, H. M., & Piazza-Bonin, E. (2016). Wisdom and psychotherapy: Studying expert therapists’ clinical wisdom to explicate common processes. Psychotherapy Research, 26(1), 31-47.

6. McGoldrick, M., Giordano, J., & Garcia-Preto, N. (Eds.). (2005). Ethnicity and family therapy. Guilford press.

7. Buehler, C. A., & Welsh, D. P. (2009). A process model of adolescents’ triangulation into parents’ marital conflict: The role of emotional reactivity. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(2), 167-180.

8. Peleg, O. (2008). The relation between differentiation of self and marital satisfaction: What can be learned from married people over the course of life?. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36(5), 388-401.

9. Fincham, F. D., & Beach, S. R. (1999). Conflict in marriage: Implications for working with couples. Annual review of psychology, 50(1), 47-77.

10. Baucom, D. H., Epstein, N. B., Kirby, J. S., & LaTaillade, J. J. (2015). Cognitive‐behavioral couple therapy. Handbook of cognitive-behavioral therapies, 4, 219-251.