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Tug of War

The In-Law Tug of War

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

I started to ask you on advice for one very specific situation regarding my husband’s family, but in trying to explain the complicated mess, realized the problem at the core is really much broader. What I’m really wondering, I guess is, how equal do the two sides of the family need to be in our lives?

In the past we have always lived closer to my in-laws, so we saw them more often, but we still tried to keep a balance: traded off holidays when we could afford to fly to my parents, etc. Mostly because we have a 2 year old son who is the first grandchild on both sides. Up until now I’d say it’s been pretty equal.

However, we recently moved closer to my parents in the mid-west, and a situation arose where, to sum up a LONG story, his family basically failed to plan ahead when they wanted us at a family reunion and we made other plans to visit my parents, instead. We have seen my parents more recently, but they INVITED us for this next event, whereas his parents never said anything and figured we would just show up if we could. This is typical of both sides of the family. My side are planners, his side are… well, dis-organized and inconsiderate if you want my opinion.

The thing is, I know if I had taken the situation into my own hands and planned ahead, we could have worked something out. I could say I’m sick of their lack of planning and the way they seem to expect us to be at their beck and call, which I am, but if I had wanted it to be fair, I would have gone ahead and planned it with or without their help. I feel like in a situation like this they SHOULD be the ones making the effort because they planned the event, but I know them well enough to know that they wouldn’t and probably never will.

Now, my question is, as someone who is adept at planning and thinking ahead, whereas his family is extremely handicapped in that department, should I just accept that this is the way it’s going to be and learn to deal with it, or do I have a right to put my foot down and say “we will not be participating in family events unless we are given sufficient notice and treated with proper courtesy” (in less stuffy terms). Basically, “I’m sick of the last-minute changes and complications and the stress you add to my life, so get better or you can just come visit us when ever that is convenient for you”.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, I think part of me likes the “out” they give me by being such bad planners. I don’t mind that they make it impossible for us to participate sometimes. I’m not someone who truly longs to spend time with my in-laws, let’s be honest. If I could choose on any given holiday between his side or mine, I’d choose mine. In addition to the chaos, his father can be pretty… harsh, arrogant, politically incorrect, offensive, insensitive, so on and so forth and the family lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere. When we go there I end up either hanging out with the cows or in a tense battle of wills with his dad wherein I am the ONLY member of the family who refuses to submit to his judgment-filled Patriarchal reign. Are they good people? Yes. Would I prefer that my son spend more time with my parents than his, though? Yes. Is that wrong? And if so… how wrong, on a scale of 1 to 10?


Advice Smackdown ArchivesSo you know that old rule of dating and marriage, about thinking you can “change” a boyfriend or spouse, either with ultimatums or sheer force of will? I’d say that rule probably applies TIMES FOUR BILLION AND SEVEN to in-laws, give or take a few billion.

Is there anything you can do to make his family bend to your preference of planning ahead and advance invites? Hellllll no. And you know this. And I absolutely can’t get behind the idea of laying down ultimatums with them over something that — I’m sorry — isn’t any kind of cardinal sin, by any stretch of the imagination. Some people are planners and like details worked out and all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed well in advance. Some people aren’t, and prefer a more go-with-the-flow, spur-of-the-moment type of pace. This is just a personality difference, and NOT a question of one personality being RIGHT and one being WRONG. (Though I say this because I’m not, personally, a very good planner either.) But these two personality types are usually ripe for conflict, or for at least bugging the crap out of each other. “Why can’t they get their act together? I can’t be expected to drop everything for them like this!” you say. “Why is she so inflexible? We didn’t do it on purpose!” they say back.

So. No. You can’t — or SHOULDN’T, at least — tell them that they simply MUST cater to your personal preference of getting stuff on the calendar at least X months in advance, or else you will boycott ON PRINCIPLE, SO THERE. I get that this drives you crazy, but you’re going to have to suck it up and meet them in the middle. Or probably somewhere even past the middle (see: changing, not gonna happen).

You can — and SHOULD — tell them, when avoidable scheduling conflicts arise, that “Hey, we could have made this if we’d just had a little more notice. Since we’re kind of stuck in a juggling act between two sets of grandparents, it would be SO GREAT if you could let us know about events as far in advance as possible, even if the dates are just ‘maybes’ so we can keep track of potential conflicts and stuff.”

A nice, neutral request, with no hint that you think they are a bunch of flaky, irresponsible calendar clowns who offend your delicate planner-person sensibilities. They might completely ignore that request, of course, but seriously, don’t turn this into some kind of deal breaker because of Other Feelings about them.

So moving on the the bigger problem: You don’t particularly like them, or spending time with them, which fans every little conflict into something HUGE and OMGSOANNOYING. I think you know this, and are looking for a forgivable “out” that will soothe a guilty conscience over keeping your son from his grandparents. Who, as far as I can tell, haven’t done anything worth complaining about in THAT department? They aren’t ignoring your parenting wishes with him? Feeding him things you don’t want him to eat? Overstepping the discipline bounds? Putting him in dangerous situations? Teaching him swear words? Taking him to strip clubs and dogfights?

These are all things that merit serious reconsideration of the grandparent/grandchild relationship. Everything else does tend to fall into a “suck it up” heap, be it with in-laws or your own crazy side of the family. I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND that you don’t like hanging out with them and they drive you crazy. But these are the people and the atmosphere — however imperfect or politically incorrect — that produced your husband. Who I assume turned out okay and doesn’t have any reasons to say that HE doesn’t want his child spending time around them. Because that’s really his call to make. You don’t mention his opinion about any of this, and it’s a really important one.

My husband and I used to have a lot of problems with the in-law tug of war, once upon a time, because we each preferred our “own” families and hadn’t quite gotten the hang of the every-other-holiday fairness routine. (Our parents live super-close to each other, which actually created a whole other set of problems, like who-we-stayed-with vs. who-we-ate-Thanksgiving-dinner-with vs. who-got-more-alone-time-with-the-baby vs. OH MY GOD.) It improved almost immediately once we agreed to drop the combative “my parents” and “your parents” type of thinking. We both belong to both. His parents are my family, vice versa. That doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to complain liberally about both sides, but it does lead to more unconditional acceptance of the other side of the family as exactly that: Family. Totally not perfect, totally not going to change, totally absolutely important to value anyway family.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Heather

    July 30, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    I like Amy’s way of SAYING something, “We’d appreciate, just fyi” that sort of thing. Heck, blame the baby for making spontaneous things hard heh. But I also agree to not issuing an ultimatum. And that your husband’s wishes are important, obviously. Also, speaking in sentence fragments is my thing, apparently, other than obnoxiously agreeing with everything Amy says. Tada!

  • Leigh

    July 30, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    It is important to get everyone on the same page that there is only one of you (or your child) and everyone is going to have to share and be considerate of the whole picture. Both sets of grandparents need time and so do you. Both our families live far away and I am upfront about how our visits divide up (My parents got the first Chirstmas, his get the second, them we will stay home). When I am traveling alone (frequently) I spend more time with my parents because it is easier for me there and I will not apologize for that. If I have to fly for hours with a toddler, I decide where I am going. This time we visited both sides, but spent far more time with my family. But when we visit as a family, we will probably go to his family more.
    As to the notice issue. Once you have the base understanding of having to share time. I like the suggestion of booking early so that the spot is not taken. If they are last minute, you can say you are sorry, but you can not get there because of prior plans.

  • Cassie

    July 30, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    I, too, hate my inlaws. It’s not that they are horrid – although they have the MOST anoying quirks, etc – it’s just that there is absolutely no middle ground between us and we don’t mesh. AT ALL. I, too, would prefer family holidays and such with my parents, all the time. (Like Amy, my parents and my husband’s parents live near one another and we live… not near either. So I get those issues too.)
    But! When we had our kiddo, I immediately understood that I had to put aside my feelings, because – as flaky as I find them – my inlaws are actually pretty damned good grandparents. Just as good as my own parents. It sucks, and I won’t deny that, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the fair/equal time thing. Hang out with the cows. Enjoy some quiet time without your son while the grandparents spoil and play with him. Enjoy the fact that you now have an excuse to hang out in the fields or with the cows and away from them. (“I though it might be nice to let you and Munchkin get some quality one on one time without mommy hanging around.”)
    And! I’ve also found that my kiddo is a great middle ground for relating to the inlaws. There’s a lot less controversy and strife when the discussion is all about the kiddo and his love of his dump truck instead of the political and social correctness of Pat Robertson or whatnot. 😉

  • Thayet

    August 1, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Amy, can you explain more about how you negotiated the in-laws who live near each other thing?  My husband and I live about 11 hours away from both of our parents, but our parents live in the same state about 2.5 hours away from each other.  So whenever we visit, we are expected to see both families.  Neither of our families is any good at planning the events we are expected to be at, or telling us about time conflicts.  It still feels like a struggle to get them to acknowledge us as a single unit rather than their individual children.  

  • Bethany

    August 1, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Ok I know how it is. I would much rather do things with my family than the in-laws…at least when it comes to the parent-in-laws. The first thing I consider though is my husband. I would never deny him his family. I can suck it up if it is important to him. Other than that though, I have no notion that things need to be “fair.” In a lot of ways I take on a first come, first served attitude. But being in the same situation as you, me being the planner and his family being very poor at that, I have decided that it is important to have time with them. But it is on my terms. So I will seek out info if I know something could be coming up. Not every year for every occasion, but if we haven’t socialized with them in a while, I will make an effort. I don’t allow them to expect fairness and equality between the families. For that matter it really isn’t any of their business how it is divided. If they ask for something in advance then I will try to work it in but I have zero feelings of guilt if 1) I am busy, with my family or just friends, or 2) I just don’t wanna (given my husband doesn’t care).

    I don’t know about your siblings or your husbands but as the families grow and more grand kids are involved things will get easier too. I find family gatherings with the in-laws soooo much more enjoyable now that my kids have cousins to play with. So, if it helps, there is something to look forward to.

  • Lydia

    August 2, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    This is so perfectly timed…I’m getting married in just a few short weeks and family time being split is already an issue. And that’s without babies! It’s even come up on the wedding weekend where now we have both mother’s planning things to do the day after and we are feeling pulled. My almost-husband absentmindly suggested we split up the day after and I flipped my shiz. I am not spending our first day married with our seperate families, did he miss the part where we made a whole new family unit the day before? He got it and we are making a plan to do the day together. But yeah. My family=planners his family=still hasn’t all RSVPed to our wedding that is in a short few weeks and a country away from they live. Ahem. Not that I’m waiting for those rsvp cards or something…

  • PaintingChef

    August 2, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    OMFG. I could have written this question. I didn’t… but I could have.

    I have the same kind of in-laws, and I will go ahead and tell you that Amy takes the high road. She is a better wife and mother than I am. (Well, I’m not a mother at all but she’s a better wife and person than I am.) I will go to the grave trying to train those a-holes. I say no to last minute plans every time simply as a matter of principle.

    My in-laws are out of town about 6 months out of the year (my husband and I, my parents AND my in-laws all live in the same town and I have to agree with Amy… the grass is always greener… holidays make me INSANE but at least now that we are in the same town too, the “where are we staying” dilemma is no more). So since they are always gone, as soon as they get back in town, we are expected to drop everything and be at their beck and call. NOT. HAPPENING.

    And I’ve finally gotten my husband to see (and agree with) my point of view. Their refusal to ask ahead of time is just disrespectful. It’s them giving a clear message that their time is more valuable than yours. They aren’t giving you the courtesy of a few days notice. So there is no reason for you to give them the courtesy of a last minute visit.

    Now, like you, I find this convenient because it adds up to less time spent being miserable with the in-laws which is ALWAYS a good thing. But I stick to my guns with the last-minute plans and parents rule. I also decline last minute requests from my own parents. (Unless Patrick is like… NO! SAY YES! That sounds like FUN! Fun is never an accidental side benefit of in-law time…)

    As far as holidays go, and time spent with parents in general I’ve learned one VERY valuable lesson. Every time that HE wants to see HIS parents, I don’t necessarily have to be there. It’s not ME they are wanting to hang out with, it’s my husband. So sometimes we divide and conquer and once we embraced this, things have become much easier. But this works for us because everyone is in the same town. I guess you don’t have that luxury… Also? We don’t have kids.

    But the kid angle brings up a whole new batch of anger with me. What…? When we have a kid, suddenly his parents are going to like us more and want to spend more time with us? Oh. Hell. No. I can’t wait for them to try and play that card. I just… I think I generally don’t like them as PEOPLE. Not just as in-laws. I just do NOT like them. I wish I did, I’ve tried to force myself. I’ve tried everything under the sun. And yet… here we are.

  • SarahB

    August 2, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Why not have your husband deal with scheduling events with his parents?  And set the “we need to know x weeks in advance” together.  So, you and your husband decide you need to know, say, a month or whatever in advance what your weekend and travel schedule will be.  It’s your husband’s responsibility to determine with his parents when you’ll be visiting with them (and you, together, might have some idea in mind that x visits per year would be about right).  And if your husband doesn’t schedule them, oh well!  Take the responsibility (and guilt) off your shoulders, and let your husband take the lead with his family.

  • SarahB

    August 2, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Why not have your husband deal with scheduling events with his parents?  And set the “we need to know x weeks in advance” together.  So, you and your husband decide you need to know, say, a month or whatever in advance what your weekend and travel schedule will be.  It’s your husband’s responsibility to determine with his parents when you’ll be visiting with them (and you, together, might have some idea in mind that x visits per year would be about right).  And if your husband doesn’t schedule them, oh well!  Take the responsibility (and guilt) off your shoulders, and let your husband take the lead with his family.

  • natalie

    August 4, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Oh this is a tough one for me too. My husband is not very close with his family and they don’t make much effort to see us. His sister and her family actually lived in the same city as us but moved back home (a state away) a month ago…with out telling us. Not close knit at all. His mom and dad (divorced) have called us maybe 3 times each this year so far.

    On the other hand my mom lives less than 5 minutes from our house, watches our daughter everyday and in general is a second mom more than just a grandma. I have a large extended family and am very close with my mom’s immediate family so we do a lot with them.

    YET every holiday suddenly his family wants to pretend that they are hallmark, close, besties. The christmas before last, as we were getting ready to go to my families’ christmas eve party to show off my two week old baby to everyone for the first time, his entire family showed up on our door. (Mom and Dad, sister her family and brtoher with his girlfriend and her kids). They had driven in that day and went to his sisters first to pick her up and then ended up at our house. They had tons of ooze and I ended up with his drunk family being loud and stupid in my house until 2 am, my brother-in-laws girlfriends kids passed out on our couch because they are young kids. They finally left and I was able to try and put my 2 week old down at 3 am on christmas morning. They did the same thing at easter, and thanksgiving and christmas again.

    I WANT to be nice about it and my husband gets annoyed because we spend so much time with my family the rest of the year but I almost feel like “dude you can’t ignore us all year and then expect we jump to be with you on the most important days of the year”


  • T

    August 6, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    My in-laws live walking distance from my house and absolutely could not understand that my family flying in from way out of town for last Christmas meant they couldn’t just have us come over whenever it suited them. Then when I tried to be the bigger person and invite them to 2 events over that holiday, they showed up late to one event and not at all to another.

    You absolutely cannot issue any ultimatum regarding advance notice or expect that their family dynamic will change in any way regarding scheduling. This is simply how they are, and the good news is that when conflicts arise and you are unable to attend something, you get to say, “I’m so sorry, we didn’t know about it, and happen to have other plans.” It is reasonable to try to hint that because you have to buy plane tickets to attend these (last-minute) events, advance notice would be helpful.

    Some peoples’ in-laws truly become a second family, some don’t. Just be civil, courteous and considerate, and remember that they did something right in their past (your husband) and that, in the absence of glaring deficiencies, your son gets to make his own relationship with them.

  • Tracy

    August 9, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    It’s a mistake to confuse “fair” and “equal.” Being fair does not mean everyone is treated the same. Being fair means everyone gets what they deserve.

    Now, to me, people who assume you are sitting by the phone waiting for them to call and say “Can you come see me NOW! RIGHT NOW!” are getting exactly what they deserve when you politely say “Oh, darn, I’m sorry, but I have plans.” Amy is right that you will not be able to change your inlaws. But you know what? That means they don’t get to change you, either. If you prefer to plan ahead of time, go ahead and plan. And when their last-minute invitations conflict with your plans, let them know. Maybe plan a few things with them, if they’re willing, just so they don’t get completely left out. But do not feel compelled to change existing plans, or leave huge blocks of time open, just in case they might come up with something and want to involve you.

    Also, Natalie? Your story is horrifying. This is when you say “Goodness, I’m so sorry, but we were on our way out. I can point you to a nice hotel, and we’ll see you tomorrow.” Rude? Less rude than the way they treated you.

  • Lee

    June 3, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    My in laws do this to us. They never plan ahead and if we are busy we just say “Sorry, we are busy”. If we are not doing anything better then we will go, but often times we can’t attend and I do not feel one bit guilty. 

  • Kristin

    November 30, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    This is an old thread but I came to it via the sequel “Grandparent and In-Law” post.

    While there is no hard-and-fast rule for negotiating relationships with in-laws (who might also be grandparents, thus upping the emotional ante quite a bit!) there ought to be one constant principle:

    There is no “your family” or “my family”. You and your spouse (and your children) *are* the family. You and your spouse are the adults of the family. And you and your spouse are the time-managers, guest-list composers, and social planners of your family.

    So when receiving or issuing an invitation of any kind, the deciding factor should not be “if it’s a good time for Mom” or “you know how Dad gets” or “it’s been two years with your folks, now it’s my folks’ turn.” 

    Instead, start with “us”. What would *we* like to do? And that includes “I would really like to go to Thanksgiving at my parents’ place because it’s important to me to watch the football game with my younger brother.” Or, “I would really love to spend Christmas with my mom because I like going to midnight carols with her.” Or even, “You know, if we spend New Years at Auntie Em’s, she’ll babysit and we can go see a movie.”

    This may result in some disproportion in time spent where and with whom; it may mean that Auntie Jane feels slighted in favor of Auntie Em; it may mean that Thanksgiving is with Dad and Christmas Eve with Mom. You may get huffy phone calls from Uncle Joe or snarky e-mails from Sister Sarah. That’s o.k. They will all survive without your wondrous presence … and you can schedule visits at *your* convenience, like March. After all, if it’s the time spent together that matters most, any day is a holiday!

    Then the one glorious day will come when your family decides that you are not, in fact, a traveling circus, and that you would love nothing more than to spend a lovely quiet holiday in your own cozy little home in nothing more than your jammies and a warm cuppa … and spouse and kiddies can visit the grand’rents on Skype.


  • Sissy

    December 19, 2013 at 9:18 am

    I’m a new grandmother of twin girls which is amazing. I have 4 boys now men and 3 are married so I know there will be many grandchildren to come. This is the first Christmas and the twins are only about 2 months old. My son and his wife are coming to town and we live near the in laws. They will stay with us 3 days and spend Christmas Eve at our house and 5 days with the in laws and Christmas day. We decided to join them for Christmas dinner. It’s really hard to split the time feeling get hurt this is all new for me, but I’m trying to remember what I went through myself when raising my own children. Normally the Mothers side gets more time its just the way it is. My husband and I have decided we have to make time to visit them and the girls and not worry so much about the time spent during the Holidays. We will get to see them so its all good. Would I want more time? Of course but I have to learn that me pulling or tugging at the situation only causes more stress for everyone. I love them so much and feel so blessed to have twin girls! I mean Girls finally! Wonderful Life…

  • Tonnie

    November 29, 2014 at 10:47 am

    I hate my mother in law. She is an interfering old hag with no life of her own. She takes it upon herself to do whatever she wants without consulting me first. I told her if she continues she would not see the kids, point blank……

  • Tonnie

    November 29, 2014 at 10:59 am

    A person that does not respect other people’s wishes has serious issues. She is obsessed with her own son, she thinks she is suppose to know every single detail of our lives. She sits in the room all day yapping on the phone or watching and over analyzing every news tragedy then freaking out and worrying my kids about it. She has “Somebody owns me something” attitude. She beings nothing to my home.