Real Simple’s etiquette expert offers her best advice for dealing with your partner’s family.

By Catherine Newman
Updated May 18, 2016
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My brother-in-law has been a source of tension in my immediate family since he married my sister, three years ago. He invites himself over, dominates conversations, and is a self-serving person. My sister seems to have no idea that he is unpleasant to be around. I have a fine relationship with my sister but find myself avoiding her so I don’t have to be around him. The rest of my family is fed up. What should I do? — K. H.

What it sounds like you want to do—but should not do—is vent all your pent-up feelings. Don’t tell your sister that you and everyone else think her chosen partner is a jerk. Because despite your unhappy conclusion that this man is an interloper who has insinuated himself into your family, he is family now. You cannot exclude him from gatherings without destroying your relationship with your sister. That said, you can try to limit the amount of time you spend with her bore/boor of a spouse by pitching one-on-one plans with her for dinner or a movie. And you are certainly well within your rights to say that unannounced visits don’t work for you. Finally—and hardest to consider, I know: Can you open your mind at all? When people start to grate on me, I can find myself irritated by every single thing they do, whether or not they are behaving irritatingly. In my family, we call this the “all arrows point in only one direction” feeling, and it’s a bad habit, best shaken. As your brother-in-law becomes more comfortable with your family, perhaps his noisy posturing will abate and more appealing sides of his personality will reveal themselves. It’s worth imagining.

My 80-year-old mother-in-law is very body-conscious and often makes disparaging remarks about other people’s weight in front of my young daughters. Can you help me with a kind line to shut it down? I talk to my girls (ages two and five) a lot about being healthy, but I’m afraid these offhand comments will start to take root in their psyches. I know from personal experience how they can. — S. G.

Your kids are so lucky to have you watching out for them. As they get older, and the stakes get higher—I speak from experience here—you’ll be able to address this with them more explicitly. “Oof!” you can say one day. “I love Grandma so much, but I don’t like the way she talks about people’s bodies! I wish she understood the idea of being healthy, like we do.” But they’re too young for that now, and while you can keep stressing the importance of strength and functionality over weight and appearance, it might also be helpful to speak directly to your mother-in-law. “I would be proud of my body if I were you. We think you’re amazing,” you can say. “And I would prefer that you not make negative comments about other people’s bodies and weight in front of the girls. There is such an epidemic of eating and body-image disorders, and I’m trying to keep them healthy.” Cite eating-disorder statistics if she’s not convinced: One study estimates that half a million teenagers suffer from them, and the National Eating Disorders Association identifies the glorification of thinness as a contributing factor. If it’s easier to have your partner do the dirty work, then by all means, foist the job off. What matters is that your daughters get to prize activity and freedom. Because you’re their mother, though, they’re quite likely to do exactly that.

My mother-in-law badgers my husband constantly, questioning his career choices and saying he’s not taking good enough care of me and our child. In reality, we have a strong marriage, and I just happen to make more money than he does. How can I make her leave him alone? I’ve confronted her directly in the past, but she became a bemoaning victim. We live in a different state now but want to move back home. I’m not sure how happy we could be with my husband constantly defending himself and me walking on eggshells. Help. — K.E.

I just sent up a silent prayer that I not turn into that kind of critical, meddling mother of adult children. Thankfully, your mother-in-law’s belittling doesn’t shake your faith in your marriage—it only annoys you and upsets your husband. Or might upset him. It’s worth remembering that sometimes these long-held family dynamics are more familiar than appalling to the main players. Either way, this is not your battle to fight. You can certainly build him up with love, praise, and gratitude, and you can offer to strategize about the best ways to respond to his mother. But if you take her on yourself, you’ll perpetuate your mother-in-law’s sense that your husband is ineffectual—and, worse, risk making him feel impotent himself. Relationships between wives and mothers-in-law are famously thorny. You’re going to have to extricate yourself from the triangle and let your husband deal with his mother directly, whether that’s in a different state or (gulp) the same town.

We’re expecting a baby, and my in-laws are excited to spend time with their first grandchild. I’m very appreciative of their offers to babysit, but I’m concerned about one major thing: They’re terrible drivers. Both are hard of sight and hearing, and I’m frightened to get in a car with them, let alone allow them to take my baby places. How can I politely bring up this caveat to their offer to help? — C. Z.

If only we were raising kids in the good old days, like your in-laws did, when the babies just rattled around in the wayback and nobody cared! Alas. I would recommend skirting around the issue. But if you try to subtly arrange outings in such a way that the driving situation never comes up, then you are always going to worry that it will. Go with transparency instead, and take responsibility for the ensuing awkwardness: "I’m thrilled that you two want to be so involved in the baby’s life, but I don’t feel comfortable with other people driving her around. I’m sorry to be such a worrywart." Yes, this is a white lie—with "other people" being a euphemism for you—but you do want to spare their feelings. Ideally they won’t be looking to catch you in a contradiction. If they pursue the issue, then know that they are choosing to make the interaction more difficult than it needs to be. Either stand your ground ("I’m sorry—this is a harder conversation than I’d hoped to have, but I’m really adamant about this") or stick your partner on follow-up duty.

My foreign-born in-laws are great people but are somewhat lacking in table manners. They will often eat directly from serving utensils. It’s gross, not too mention unhygienic. But in their culture, apparently, serving utensils don’t exist. How do I discourage this behavior without coming off as an awful daughter-in-law? — J. G.

The issue isn’t that they’re lacking in table manners. It’s that the manners your fab in-laws practice are different from your own. Table manners, like all manners, are culturally specific. What’s rude in one place may be valued in another. Burping at the table proved to my Russian grandmother that her stuffed cabbage was delicious and that we were in good health. Your in-laws’ culture might value community and sharing over sanitation. Respecting this difference may not mitigate your revulsion, however, and the general expectation is that people from other places adapt to local practices. (When in Rome…) I would foist the problem off on your spouse, since the parents are less likely to be offended by their own child, who understands both cultures. But if you want to say something yourself, then avoid patronizing them by using this as an occasion for mutual illumination. "Tell me how food is served where you come from,” you might begin. Ideally, the conversation can then segue into a discussion of the role of serving utensils in the place they are dining now.

My mother- and father-in-law live out of state, and we rarely see them. They are very well-off financially, and yet every single gift my children, my husband, and I get is from a garage sale, a consignment shop, or a thrift store. I can’t help feeling insulted every time my kids open a present that has stains all over it or embarrassed when I open an obvious secondhand outfit on my birthday. Am I being too sensitive, or is this something I could address in a classy manner? — K. C.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” refers to checking those equine teeth for age and damage. And the expression means, “Hey, it’s a horse, and it’s for you! Be grateful.” You see where this is headed. It is never appropriate to question the value of a gift that you’ve been given, whether that gift is new or old. And you certainly have no reason to be embarrassed when the presents are opened. You didn’t buy them. Besides, thrift can show good values. Your mother-in-law is well-off now, but if she grew up poor, then financial anxiety might still plague her. On the other hand, maybe she’s just cheap. Either way, you have a couple of options. One, do nothing. That is, write a thank-you note and donate the items to Goodwill. (They’ll be reunited with their old friends!) Or, two, gently redirect your mother-in-law toward a different approach: “As the kids get older, I find it harder and harder to know what they might like. Why don’t you get them a gift card to iTunes or Amazon, so you know your gift will be put to good use?” In-laws tend to provoke outrage over various issues, large and small. Since this is a small one, see if you can let it go.