Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-laws into Family
In-law relationships are tough. You marry a person and only later realize you married an entire family and all its obligations. Your parents are uncertain about their role, and your siblings feel pushed aside.
The two sets of in-laws vie for supremacy. The weapons of choice are time, money, and the grandchildren. Everyone knows the derogatory jokes about in-laws, but nobody knows their roles.
On my first book tour, for Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding relationships with your Adult Children, I learned that everyone was confused as they entered the new culture of another family.
You might ask: why do we care? You might see your in-laws just once a year if they live on the other side of the country, and you cope by gritting your teeth though the visit.
You might think that you don't need to do any more than that, but families, in-laws included, are each other's social safety nets.
Having a sickly newborn, a chronic disease, or an accident can lead to way more interaction than we ever expected.
Furthermore, in-law children may be picking nursing homes or deciding whether to pull the plug at end of life for the older generation, instilling in-law relationships with even more significance.
Besides, really learning about other's thoughts and feelings can broaden us, and help us see the world through new eyes. Complications in how we think about and interact with our in-laws arise frequently since both parents and adult children are often living in relationships that are not legally sanctioned.
Many wonder: who is really a relative? A long-term partner, who is not legally married? Is one still an in-law after divorce? And what about the surrogate mother or the sperm donor?
Legally related or not, if grandparents want to see their grandchildren or if ex-in-law children want help, they must work together. In many communities, in-law confusion is compounded by intermarriage between people of different ethnicities and faiths.
How do we give our grandchildren our cultural identity and still remain respectful of our in-laws’ culture?
How do we retain our own faiths and historical backgrounds, yet teach our children the beliefs and customs of our spouse’s family?
In my book tour for Don't Bite Your Tongue, at over 300 venues in six countries, I heard questions about all these issues over and over again.
We are all in a quandary. No one knows his or her role. Money often causes tension, as it can serve as either a bribe or a bonus. His family invites you on an all expenses paid vacation. You see it as a bribe to spend your free time with them. He and his parents see it as routine. Your own parents are jealous.
Money can buy temporary happiness, but its presence can create jealousy and animosity between different sides of the new family unit. Families are confused between helping and controlling when they lend money.
Money’s absence, meanwhile, can put one at a disadvantage, leaving a parent at the whim of family members or leaving an adult child feeling like a failure.
In-laws become convenient dumping grounds for blame: “he spends too much” or “she doesn't earn enough.” Money can complicate or facilitate in-law interactions. Breaking taboos against discussing money can mitigate the problems. And making clear the terms of any loan or any gift is essential.
Being a good in-law for both generations is a dance of sharing and cooperation. Positive relationships reduce aggravation. While they don’t guarantee complete satisfaction, they sure make the odds greater.
My new book, Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family, provides practical advice and constructive examples for both generations as they navigate the complexities inherent in a new family unit.
Don’t Roll Your Eyes suggests many ways to improve relationships with these people who are part of our families, although we may not have chosen them.
Here are five pieces of advice, for starters:
1) Reframe any negative behavior in a more positive light. If your daughter-in-law moves your cup of coffee, she may not be trying to kick you out of the house, but is simply clearing the table, for example.
2) Put a statute of limitations on slights. OK, so your brother didn’t make you best man at the wedding. Five years is way too long to hold that grudge.
3) Deal with the relationship that you have, not the one you want. You may have hoped your father-in-law would substitute as the perfect dad you always wanted. Forget your dreams and enjoy whatever your father-in-law has to offer, even if it’s just watching TV together. You may have thought your daughter-in-law would be a beauty queen and a rocket scientist. Find pleasure in the fact that she makes your son happy.
4) Remember, we are all new to this game of being an in-law. With our own children or parents we may be able to have disagreements with minimal fallout, but with our in-law children or parents, arguments can often feel cataclysmic because we haven’t had years of disputes, making up, and compromising. We are insecure, and they are insecure. It takes years to create a trusting relationship.
5) Be curious, not judgmental. We are all going to make mistakes. Expect them and minimize their importance. Contrary to popular opinion, many families do work out their differences.
Don’t Roll Your Eyes offers many examples of people who work with their in-law children, in-law parents, in-law siblings, and all the quasi in-laws that become part of our lives when our children or our parents couple.
Join the conversation: Have you had to work at your relationship with your in-laws? Do you have any words of wisdom for the recently coupled?
Ruth Nemzoff is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children, and a popular speaker on the topic of parenting adult children and family dynamics. Ruth was profiled or interviewed for many national and local papers and radio and television, including The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Jewish Advocate, and InterFaith Family. She is a resident scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center, and lives in Boston, MA. Find her ont he web at www.ruthnemzoff.com.