“‘Dad, you were always there for me,’” I read. “Except when you weren’t,” I add out loud.
You can’t pick your family, or your extended family. Once you get hitched to your husband or wife, for better or worse, you are also taking on the relations of his or her parents/ step parents/ brothers/ sisters. Unlike your own natural family, with whom you’ve probably learned techniques to help you deal, conflicts with the in-laws are more complicated.
Extended family drama is often fictionalized in the movies with a new wife being tormented by a new mother-in-law. Some classic examples include when JLo played a gorgeous victim of boundary issues in “Monster-In-Law” (2005), or when Gwyneth Paltrow fought off her murderous MIL in “Hush” (1998).
Those are pretty over the top examples, but we constantly see portrayals of daughter-in-laws being undermined, criticized and annoyed by their in-laws. In today’s world, where families are more likely to be separated across state lines, there may be less room for everyday conflict, yet summer vacations and the holidays often carry some heavy baggage.
Let me state for the record that I have a great relationship with my in-laws. We recently just took a vacation to Mexico with my father-in-law, and my mother-in-law is coming this weekend to babysit. My husband would also agree that he gets along with my family.
Is it because we married into perfect families? Hardly! But, we realize that like it or not, they are now related to us, and will continue to be part of our lives (just like our own parents.)
Also, unlike these Hollywood portrayals of villains and victims, it’s important to empathize and know that all the members of our family are actually human. We can’t change them, but we can change the way we see and deal with them.
1. What are your expectations?
Often, it is not easy to see what your expectations really are. Clearing your mind and seeing if you’ve built unrealistic expectations is a crucial first step toward bridging your family relationships. Depending on your own rapport with your parents and grandparents, you may realize that you always wanted an in-law who knits baby blankets all day for your newborn, or a FIL who wants to spend the afternoon tinkering around on your broken down car.
One of my friends was shocked when her MIL revealed that she hated hosting Thanksgiving and wanted to stop. Another friend's new extended family constantly makes racist comments directed at him during family get togethers. It can be hard to realize that you were hoping for a Norman Rockwell painting, but you’ve got a Francis Bacon.
Stop fantasizing that your spouse’s family is going to change and be anything more than they are. Take a real look at the people in your wedding album, and let go of how you think things are “supposed” to go.
2. Have you set boundaries and limits?
Talk to your husband about what your “family values” are going to be. Do you like company stopping by unannounced? Are you OK with visitors camping out on your living room floor for a week? Whatever you and your husband feel is the limit, should be applied to all guests (including the in-laws.)
In one of my favorite current TV shows, “The Slap,” the mother-in-law comes to a party bringing platefuls of food. Thandie Newton is pissed, because she had already spent days preparing a banquet feast of nosh, and feels this undermined her abilities to throw a barbecue.
Instead of swallowing her fury, she could have just said, “Thank you so much, but this wasn’t a pot luck! I’ll try to make room in the fridge for this, and we’ll be so happy to eat it all tomorrow.”
Setting boundaries only works if you don’t keep moving the line. Every time my friend hears a racist “joke” over dinner, he strongly states his objections and leaves the table if necessary. If you wouldn’t sit idly listening to racism from others, don’t accept this behavior from your new family.
3. Are you empowering your in-laws too much?
One of my best friends lives across the country from her in-laws. She hardly ever sees them, but when she does, her mother-in-law is constantly criticizing her for the craziest things. The last visit, she would not let up on how much water my friend drank. Every time my friend reached for her water bottle, her MIL would start in.
Many in-laws give unsolicited advice about child rearing or home maintenance or job hunting strategies or retirement plans.
What we all have to remember under these circumstances, is that this is just one person’s opinion. Agree to disagree and move on without feeling berated or tortured. You don’t need to change their opinion or internalize their judgments.
Also, don’t look for approval from your in-laws. They have their own hopes and dreams for their child, whom you’ve married. The disappointments and successes of your spouse’s life (as well as their own lives) will hold influence on their ratings of you.
Your MIL and FIL raised your betrothed, but winning their approval won’t give you lifetime happiness with your spouse.
4. Do you take enough time off for yourself?
Often times around the holidays, we’ll spend a week or more in the same house with my family. Although it’s difficult for me, it’s more challenging for my husband.
Being a spouse in a new family means always needing to be “on,” and not getting as much of a chance to just relax. Even though my husband is reasonably comfortable with my family and has known them for over a decade, it can still be intense to drop into another family’s dynamic.
It’s important for any family member to make sure that they have enough time for themselves. Taking time alone to read, or go for a solo bike ride, helps my husband get through the in-law brain drain.
Other friends I know spend the holidays with one set of parents, but always take a night or two away at a hotel to reconnect with each other, and take a break from the family obligations. Whatever is feasible can help do the trick, even if it’s just a short nap or walk around the block.
5. How are you dealing with conflict?
In any family, conflict will often arise at some point. Maybe planning the wedding was stressful enough for the first fights to occur, or maybe you actually made it past the honeymoon phase.
Either way, it’s important to deal with disagreements right away and not let them fester over the years, leading to an inevitable explosion. Address problems as soon as possible, and ask for an apology for slights that occur. Don’t hold grudges, and don’t take things personally.
Never go behind your spouses back when dealing with his/ her parents (unless you are throwing a killer surprise party.) Also, communicate directly with your MIL and FIL, if you have an issue. Don’t ask your husband or wife to do the talking for you. This is the mature things to do, but also you want to be clear whose voice is doing the complaining, so in the future you don’t become the scapegoat for your spouse’s parental disagreements.
6. Are you thinking about the future?
I hate to be the one to say it, but we all potentially can become our folks. Think carefully before cutting parents off completely, as the head of one could sprout right onto you or your spouse.
I believe that we all meet people in the world to learn lessons from, and none more than our family members. They are part of your family tree now, and those roots go down deep, and the branches extend wide.
Once we have children, those in-laws become grandparents, with relationships that eclipse our own possibly strained relationships. No matter how dark the hour, remember that they raised the person you fell in love with, so they obviously did something right.
Author's Note: None of this applies to if your in-laws are truly psychopaths or toxic people, in which case completely disconnecting is the right move!