How to Deal With a Difficult Father-in-Law

Dealing with difficult people isn't easy in general, but how do you cope when the toughest person to interact with is your father-in-law? A local psychologist weighs in on how to deal with a difficult father-in-law.

It’s hard enough blending two families together when everyone gets along. But things can really get complicated when you throw a difficult father-in-law in the mix. Whether he’s passive aggressive or just straight up rude, a man who’s none-too-pleased by your presence is incredibly difficult to interact with. So how do you deal with a difficult father-in-law? Here, behavioral health psychologist Philip Lanzisera of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit weighs in with tips for turning a tricky FIL situation around.

“Think about what kind of relationship you want with that person,” Lanzisera says. You should judge your words and actions by how likely they are to bring you closer to that sort of relationship, he adds.

Communication dos and don’ts

Some fathers-in-law can be difficult to engage with – especially if they have a tendency to be a bit aggressive – but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to keep the lines of communication open. “When you do have an opportunity,” Lanzisera says, “be engaging, be relaxed and be appreciative of that person.” If you want to get closer to someone, you’ve got to show an interest in them, he says.

One way to do this is? Open up conversations with your father-in-law about his interests. If he loves airplanes, do a bit of research on different planes and discuss. If he likes to cook, ask him for some recipe ideas or to tell you about his favorite meals.

Keep the conversations light. Avoid anything major. For example, if he’s incredibly political or has an affinity for a specific basketball team, avoid these hot-button topics – it could save you some stress. “Graciously decline to discuss things that you know are going to lead to an argument,” Lanzisera says.

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Also, it’s not always what you say but how you say it. Tone of voice can trigger a negative reaction, he says, so you must be in charge of keeping your emotions in check at all times – no matter how hurt or frustrated you are.

Gain control

Mothers-in-law tend to get a bad rap when it comes to controlling their kids, but dads can be equally – if not more – controlling. Take this story from Family Education, for example. A recently widowed father-in-law tries to dictate what utility company his daughter and husband use, how to invest their money and more. Plus, he criticizes the couple for how they raise their kids. On the plus side, he helps with their children and completes home repairs for them. It’s tough because while he’s helpful, he’s too controlling. Striking a balance is hard in cases like this, but not impossible.

Try to understand your father-in-law’s motives in all of this, Family Education suggests. Remember, “these folks are not necessarily nasty or evil,” Lanzisera adds. Dad may believe he’s being helpful, but you can also address areas where he is being a little too helpful. Need assistance? Try consulting a counselor or religious leader, Family Education notes.

Confide in your significant other

You don’t want to put your significant other in the middle; however, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid.

“If you feel kind of left out, if you feel hurt by that, again, talk with your spouse about that person. See if your spouse can run interference for you,” Lanzisera says.

Your spouse should remember that you are now his or her primary relationship, so it’s important to help smooth things over between you and your father-in-law.

Things to remember

You’re not looking for a short-term fix. This person will be in your life for years, so ask yourself, “What is your goal? What are you trying to achieve?” Lanzisera says.

Try to understand the reasoning behind his actions. Some people, for example, are just controlling. “Anything outside the realm of their control (you, your family, their adult child, the rest of the world) is very threatening,” Grandparents.com notes.

Be patient during this process and assume innocence, Lanzisera says.

This post was originally published in 2015 and is updated regularly.

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