Skip to main content

Like many, Levi and future Palin in-laws have some smoothing out to do

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
Levi Johnston and Bristol Palin may be happily engaged in US Weekly, but Johnston faces a challenging road ahead with his in-laws, Sarah and Todd Palin, after he posed naked in Playgirl and gossiped about the family.
Levi Johnston and Bristol Palin may be happily engaged in US Weekly, but Johnston faces a challenging road ahead with his in-laws, Sarah and Todd Palin, after he posed naked in Playgirl and gossiped about the family.
  • Getting along with in-laws can affect the conflict levels in a marriage, experts say
  • Levi Johnston, who is engaged to Bristol Palin, is going to have challenging time with his in-laws
  • Johnston had bad mouthed his future in-laws and appeared naked in Playgirl magazine
  • One marriage expert suggests communicating and setting boundaries with in-laws

(CNN) -- On the other end of the phone line, Holly, a 42-year-old from Texas, doted on her husband, but when the conversation shifted to his mother, she let out an exhausted groan.

The complaints Holly shared about her mother-in-law included calling too often, snooping through her stuff and gossiping behind her back.

"It's just been really horrible," said Holly, who declined to give her last name. "I would try to be nice to her, and she would say or do something that would hurt me."

While Holly's claims represents only one side of the story, her frustration is echoed among many spouses across the country who know managing a relationship with their in-laws can be tricky and sometimes downright annoying.

Just this month, Levi Johnston, 20, announced his engagement to Bristol Palin, 19, in US Weekly. But his road ahead with the future in-laws -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd -- is bound to be rocky after his claims about the Palins, his baby daddy drama in the tabloids and nude photos in Playgirl Magazine.

Sarah Palin responded shortly after that she found out about her daughter's engagement the same way the rest of the country did -- with the magazine announcement. "Bristol believes in redemption and forgiveness to a degree most of us struggle to put in practice in our daily lives," Palin said.

The Johnston/Palin clan all have some work to do, said one expert.

"If they are going to go forward with the marriage, Levi needs to make some efforts to smooth over relations with his future in-laws," said Bradford Wilcox, director of The National Marriage Project, an organization based out of the University of Virginia that provides research on marriage. "Likewise, the parents need to make some efforts to restart their relationship with Levi."

Wilcox, who has studied the impact of in-law relationships on marriages, said married couples with more support from their in-laws tend to encounter less conflict in their marriages.

Disagreements between spouses and in-laws usually stem from in-laws' having difficulty letting go of their grown children, said Scott Haltzman, a psychiatrist and author of books on family relationships. Unrealistic expectations from in-laws can fuel the arguments, especially between a wife and her mother-in-law, he said.

One Irvine, California, woman said her in-laws spoke rudely to her and expressed disappointment in her relationship with their son from the first time she met them. Her in-laws skipped the wedding, in 2004.

"It's not a give-up situation right now," the woman said with a hopeful tone. "It just needs some time."

But some spouses faced with difficult in-laws are less optimistic. In the internet abyss, dozens of online vent forums and Facebook groups have sprouted to allow spouses to rant about toxic in-laws. Many of the submissions lament that their in-laws will always be a problem. One woman, who complained about her in-laws on Facebook, said she divorced her husband because of her strained relations with his parents.

After hearing about his co-workers tirelessly complain about vacationing with their in-laws, Fred Telegdy, a multimedia developer in Virginia, launched "I Hate My InLaws!" The website, started in 2002, has more than 11,600 in-law horror stories.

The posts on the websites are anonymous to protect the privacy of the in-laws, he said. Many are angry posts about money disputes and personality differences. The writings are often saturated with curse words and unkind nicknames.

Luckily, Telegdy said, he gets along with his in-laws.

"Often the people you know also know your in-laws, and it becomes an issue who you can talk to and who you can't talk to," Telegdy said. "You can't talk to your spouse a lot of times. The web becomes a place where people can get it off their chest."

A decade ago, Beverly Freid, 48, started her online site "Mother-In-Law Stories" as a discussion board for spouses struggling to mend fences with their mothers-in-law. Freid has received a wide range of in-law submissions, including the story of a woman who bought her daughter-in-law a gift certificate for liposuction. Another woman complained her mother-in-law served her food at a dinner that could have caused her to have an allergic reaction.

Freid's most memorable submission involves a mother-in-law who was less than thrilled about her son's engagement. She replied to the news by saying, "Who is going to mow my lawn?"

Unlike these anonymous sites, the war of words between the newly engaged Johnston and the Palin family has been fought in public. Last year, Johnston appeared on the "Tyra Banks Show" and said he had been living with Bristol Palin at her parents' home. Sarah Palin's representatives denied that claim.

Then in November 2009, he appeared naked in Playgirl magazine.

During an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin called Johnston "Ricky Hollywood" and said his "aspiring porn" career was "heartbreaking."

Johnston apologized to the Palins earlier this month in People magazine, conceding some of the statements he gave about the Palin family to the public were false.

Jenna D. Barry, author of the "A Wife's Guide to In-Laws," said setting boundaries can help minimize in-law disputes. She advised the disgruntled to avoid putting their spouses and in an uncomfortable position with their parents. Barry also suggested that a spouse who dislikes the parents-in-law should address any problem with them directly.

"Just be a confident adult," Barry said. "Be respectful and assertive with them."

And Barry wasn't just doling out random advice. She admitted she had her own quarrels with her in-laws. But after improving her communication with them, she worked out their shaky relationship.

She's been married for 16 years.