I recently came across an xoJane article called 6 Tips for Dealing with Your In-Laws, Because When You Marry Your Spouse, You Marry Them Too, and I had to write a rebuttal. I respectfully disagree with the author — for good reason.
The moment I announced my engagement in 2015, the "advice" started rolling in. One of my favorite post-engagement emails was accompanied by a calendar of suggested deadlines: when to book a venue, mail save the dates, go for alterations, etc. Parsing all the emails, posts, and pins was taxing, but I understood it was all from people who cared for me and my fiancé, Luke. So, as the comments and advice flowed, we kept listening and taking notes. A lot of what we heard was quite useful.
But one piece of advice that kept recurring was irksome.
“Do his parents like you? What about the rest of his family? They like you, right? Remember, you don’t just marry the man, you marry his family too.”
I absolutely understand where this sentiment comes from. Getting along with everybody is great. But is it universally realistic? No.
For the first two years of our relationship, Luke’s parents and I had a fantastic relationship. His mother and I were particularly close — I would look forward to holiday visits just to sit at a table and talk to her for hours. But when his sister, Sarah, moved back in late 2014, things began to sour.
I had always liked his globe-trotting sister and I thought the feelings were mutual. But when she moved back in with her parents after having her European visa revoked, it seemed she went out of her way to make me feel terrible. She would call me Luke’s “little friend” and scoff when I said I wanted to be a strong female politician. It was irritating, but livable.
The tension finally culminated in what we still refer to as the Great Thanksgiving Debacle of 2014. That Thanksgiving, Luke and I visited his parents’ house in Louisiana. When our cat, who was along for the trip, played with some of Sarah’s jewelry, she accused me of taking it from her. She told Luke I was only interested in the family’s money and, because I had an eating disorder, I was a sociopath. Her parents stood by, doing nothing, as she yelled and banged her fist on the kitchen table.
We eventually grew tired of the insults, so we grabbed the cat and left. Sarah sent Luke a seven-page email later that week that included a (self-taught) handwriting analysis of my letters to her parents, a critique of my “strange” ability to have aspirations, and a psychological analysis of my personality. When I showed it to my actual psychologist, he laughed about it for the entire session. Luke’s parents supported Sarah and, before long, they got as offensive toward me as she did.
Now, Luke and I talk to his family perhaps once a year.
So, in response to the initial question, do his parents like me? No, no they do not. But, in my mind, that wasn’t even the worst part of the question.
Throughout our engagement, we've noticed the ongoing perception that we are two souls merging as one, or something along those lines. It's an idea that I've heard at many weddings and engagement parties and, if that's how that couple feels, then that's fantastic. But some people, ourselves included, choose not to form one entity. We want to maintain each person's individuality because that it's that person we chose to marry. Part of that includes not being intrinsically tied to family.
Regardless of how other people might label me, I don’t hate family ties. Luke and I are very close to my family. But that closeness wasn't guaranteed because we're related; rather, my family respects us and demonstrates that respect. They work at maintaining a healthy and positive relationship, and we reciprocate.
Together, my family established boundaries for phone calls so we stay connected but don’t smother each other. We agree to always spend Christmas together in Arkansas, but every other holiday is open for whatever we want to do as a couple. But, most importantly, if we have a question or a misunderstanding, we are open and honest about it.
Some people have aptly pointed out it is easy for me to make these claims because it is not my family I am distancing from. Would I still make these claims if it were my family? I want to say yes, but the difficulty in doing so is not lost on me.
Luke and I have spent hours discussing what we want our individual relationships with his parents to look like. I was open to the occasional holiday, and he said he would make visits without me. We bought books and read articles that discussed different steps to take to reach a solution. I went through the steps, speaking directly to his parents and trying different tactics of reconciliation. Since Luke and I lived a state away, I tried discussing my feelings with them via email, but the emails were ignored. I tried just ignoring the situation and moving forward, but Sarah and his parents kept emailing or writing letters to addresses we never shared.
I finally asked to speak to his parents in person, but in the middle of me explaining why I was upset by their actions, his mother crawled across an end table, yelling and wagging her finger, “You better be quiet, Brittany Dawn Webb.” After I wiped the spittle from my face, I realized we wanted different outcomes that had no common ground.
As time progressed, our individual relationships with his parents changed with each interaction. When his sister and mother shared their “story” with other relatives, Luke became more and more despondent. I broke my silence to ask his family to stop, as it was hurting their son, but they said they could do whatever they wanted. I backed off again, and Luke worked to figure out what relationship he wanted with the parents he loved desperately but who were slowly chipping away at his happiness.
The only constant throughout the ordeal was respecting our partner’s choice. This past May, when we emailed his parents to ask if they wanted to come to our wedding, his father told Luke that he was not the same Luke he loved. After that, we just stopped answering. That choice was painful enough without also being reminded during our engagement bliss that our relationship with half of our family doesn’t resemble what society arbitrarily deems appropriate.
I think the idea of "marrying" your partner's family is also terrible because it doesn’t make any sense. Unless you choose a polyamorous or open relationship, there are only two people who should be directly involved with building and maintaining your relationship: you and your partner. We don’t live with our families. When I wake up in the morning, I am looking at Luke, not my mother-in-law. And when I pour a glass of wine and sit on a porch, it is with my partner of several years, not his dad.
In a more modern world, family members are often in different states or even countries. You see them at holidays and you might be Facebook friends. Even before we severed contact, I saw Luke’s friends more than I saw some of his family, yet nobody tells me when I marry Luke I am also marrying his high school friend Kevin.
I also think the saying is simply not healthy. In my opinion, focusing on your relationship with your future in-laws should not be a priority right after your engagement. Be it a good relationship or poor one, it's not going to change at the drop of a ring. Like most meaningful relationships, it's probably going to take some time and work and, sometimes, even then that may not work. No one should be forced to tie themselves to a fractured, possibly toxic relationship for the sake of tradition. I do what is best for my relationship with my partner and my own health.
Advice can come from a good place, but that doesn't mean we should always offer it. When I hear that one of my friends or family members have gotten engaged, instead of creating more stress, I wish the couple well and let them know I’m there to help and offer advice if needed. That’s it.
I will say, though, that there’s one piece of wedding advice we took to heart: We eloped.