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Navigating the Intricacies of Managing In-Laws in Intercultural Relationships in Spain

Navigating the Intricacies of Managing In-Laws in Intercultural Relationships in Spain


Intercultural relationships bring a myriad of challenges and rewards, and one common area that can significantly impact the dynamics of these relationships is managing relationships with in-laws in the foreign culture. 

This blog post delves into the cultural impacts of Spain as a family-oriented culture for expat partners, the idealisation of mothers, the challenges spouses may face, and the influence of parochialism and xenophobia on in-law acceptance, particularly within the context of Spain. We also look at the  responsibilities of each partner in intercultural relationships when it comes to managing extended family dramas and pressures.

Note that this post deals in generalisations and may not be applicable to all situations. Remember, you are the expert on your life and situation!

Family-Oriented Culture and Prioritisation of the Family of Origin

Spain, generally known for its strong family-oriented culture, places significant value on familial ties and traditions. The prioritisation of the family of origin is deeply ingrained in Spanish society, with strong expectations around participation in family events and maintaining close relationships with extended family members. This cultural norm can pose challenges for couples in intercultural relationships, where differing views on familial involvement and boundaries may arise. 

What situations are we talking about here? 

This can be things like, finding the pressure to visit your mother-in-law every Sunday lunch cumbersome but not daring to tell your partner who adores their mother. Alternatively, it can be that you find it insane to keep your newborn up all night for Noche Buena, yet the expectation to attend  feels unsurmountable. Forget about trying to get your in-laws to understand you don’t come from a culture where babies or children are out and about past 6pm.

Additionally, it is rather common for in-laws to make impromptu visits to your home which can feel intrusive and anxiety-inducing. Negotiating this issue becomes a battle ground in your relationship since this is a clash of cultures – deeply embedded values and expectations. Maybe your mother-in-law even still insists on doing your partner’s laundry or your partner still drops over to their mother’s home every day for lunch. Perhaps your mother-in-law sends messages to your partner like “Together forever,” making you feel as though you are managing some weird version of infidelity in your relationship, with your mother-in-law as the other woman.

In an intercultural relationship, the clash between the expectations of prioritising the family of origin and the desire for independence within the marital unit can create massive amounts of tension. The pressure to devote time and energy to extended family events, coupled with guilt-tripping if one chooses to prioritise the spouse over family obligations, can strain the relationship between you and your in-laws, between your partner and their family of origin and between you and your partner.

This challenge is a doozy on the intercultural couple drama richter scale. The possibility of massive ruptures to your relationship is real.

Idealisation of the Mother and Demonisation of the Wife

In many cultures, including Spanish culture, the mother holds a revered position within the family structure while the wife or spouse may face challenges or even be demonised in comparison. The idealisation of the mother as the primary caregiver and nurturer can lead to unrealistic expectations placed on the female partner to fulfil similar roles, creating conflict and resentment within the family dynamic.

This idealisation of the mother and the potential demonisation of the wife can be exacerbated in intercultural relationships, where cultural differences in gender roles, expectations, and family dynamics come into play. Spouses from societies outwith Spanish society may behave very differently in these roles than may be expected by their Spanish partner’s family. 

Striking a balance between respecting cultural norms and establishing healthy boundaries, in addition to educating the extended family about cultural differences becomes crucial in managing these dynamics effectively.

Impact of Parochialism, Xenophobia and Shared Responsibilities

Parochialism, characterised by a narrow-minded focus on local customs and traditions, and xenophobia, the fear or dislike of people from different cultures, can significantly impact the acceptance of a spouse by their in-laws in an intercultural relationship. These attitudes may manifest as resistance to accepting and embracing cultural differences, leading to tensions and misunderstandings within the family unit.

Similarly, language barriers can lead to you feeling alienated and uncomfortable at family gatherings. It is not unheard of to find in-laws talking to the foreign spouse via their partner, in the presence of the foreign spouse, as though they are not even present or a competent adult! Learning the language can be a very real need in this circumstance.

Navigating in-law acceptance in the face of parochialism and xenophobia requires open communication, mutual respect, a willingness to bridge cultural divides and learn the language. Building understanding and empathy towards each other’s backgrounds and traditions can help foster acceptance and create a more harmonious relationship within the extended family.

Shared Responsibilities

In the context of intercultural relationships in Spain, the responsibility of the spouse within the host culture (in this case, the Spanish spouse) to set boundaries with their family and prioritise their own new family unit is paramount. While cultural expectations may lean towards strong ties with the family of origin, it is essential for the spouse from the host culture to navigate these expectations thoughtfully. By setting clear boundaries, communicating openly with both families, and prioritising the needs of the marital unit, the spouse can help create a healthy balance that honours both cultural traditions and the well-being of the relationship.

Additionally, the expat spouse in an intercultural relationship bears the responsibility to acculturate to their partner’s cultural context. Acculturation involves not only adapting to the host culture’s norms, values, and traditions but also demonstrating respect and understanding towards the partner’s family and their cultural background. This process of acculturation can be challenging, requiring patience, open-mindedness, and a willingness to learn and engage with new cultural practices and learn the language.

It is important to acknowledge that both partners in intercultural relationships face pressures and challenges stemming from cultural differences, family expectations, and societal norms. The host spouse may grapple with balancing loyalty to their family of origin with the needs of their new family unit, while the expat spouse may navigate the complexities of acculturation and integration into a different cultural environment, not to mention feeling misunderstood or invisible. These pressures highlight the shared responsibility of both partners to support each other, communicate effectively, and work together to find common ground that respects and honours both cultural backgrounds.


By recognising and addressing shared pressures, intercultural couples can cultivate a deeper understanding, appreciation, and respect for each other’s cultural backgrounds and navigate the complexities of managing relationships with in-laws in a foreign cultural context. Through mutual support, empathy, and a commitment to building a strong and united front, couples can strengthen their bond, overcome cultural challenges, and create a harmonious and enriching intercultural relationship that celebrates diversity and love.

If you need help, Therapy in Barcelona’s therapists provide both couples and individual therapy, to support you in managing tricky situations and mediate the process of working through the challenges together. 

Other articles you may find interesting:

Couples Therapy – Common Topics in Couples Therapy

Couples Therapy: Navigating the Unique Challenges for Expat and Intercultural Couples

Couples Therapy: Strengthening Relationships Abroad – A Comprehensive Guide for Expats

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“I Just Can’t Continue As I Am… As We Are.” When It’s Time For Couples Counselling.

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