Should In-Laws Be Outlawed?

photo (50)An in-law is a person you’re related to by marriage.  Not by choice.  You choose to marry your spouse, with full awareness that your in-laws are a package deal. To be fair, the parents and inlaws also don’t get much of a choice regarding their child’s partner.  Many (on both sides of the aisle) rationalize that after the wedding issues will dissipate. Most times when starting out with difficult in-laws, the post-honeymoon portion of the show produces the most drama.

Am I talking about myself, you wonder?  Not necessarily.  Well, maybe a little bit.  In full disclosure, my mother-in-law is a subscriber to my blog, and has traditionally been proud of my professional accomplishments.  One of my favorite things about her is her ability to express herself, without compunction and the commensurate ability to agree to disagree. She also respects that like her, I’m outspoken and have strong feelings about most topics. We have had our share of arguments and may not always see eye-to-eye, but have learned over the years to avoid upsetting topics if at all possible.  My husband is a huge advocate of not engaging emotionally and not investing energy in issues that he cannot control or change.  Maybe it’s a guy thing.  But it took me a long time to get there. I’m still working on it.

During my twenty-two years of marriage, I’ve noticed that the topic of in-laws is a repeated theme within my near and far circles.  It is the subject of many movies and books.  Who can forget the extreme antics of Jack Burns, the infamous overbearing father-in-law in Meet The Fockers?  The topic must be serious enough in order to coin terms such as “monster-in-law.”

I have a friend who has not spoken with her widowed mother-in-law for over fifteen years. Her husband continues to see his mother, but she has no contact with her grandchildren, in retaliation.  Some trade-off.  I have another friend whose modus operandi is to have a few drinks before leaving her house for a visit to her in-laws.  She also brings a bottle of wine as a “gift,” to be opened and consumed within minutes of arrival.  Another friend recently expressed that God-forgive-her, she is glad her mother-in-law is finally deceased, as it was clear that only death would save her marriage.  What is it about this legally forced relationship that makes us so crazy?

Writing has taught me that no matter what opinion I share, I will inevitably miss the mark for someone.  Our experiences and viewpoints are different, and I suspect that on this topic, there are lots of different angles.  I welcome your comments and hope that you post them. Remember that you can post anonymously, should you fear marital or extended-familial repercussions.

I believe that the two root causes of contention are elevated levels of expectation and differences in upbringing.

When we have a level of expectation that is not met, disappointment is inevitable.  The real question is what is a reasonable level of expectation on both sides?  Is it reasonable to expect to be treated EXACTLY the same as your mother-in-law’s own daughter? Is it reasonable for your father-in-law to expect to be called “dad?” Whatever the issue, the answer lies within personal presumptions, which can be hard to meet given that each of us was born into a different set of norms.

Differences in upbringing and family dynamics are a contributor to in-law strife on both ends.  I was raised by parents with high hopes for their children, male and female alike. My parents were sticklers for achievement and academia, and encouraged outspoken children who take a stance on most issues.  Our holiday dinners are dominated by raucous debates, requiring a loud voice, a strong opinion and facts to back-up your position.  My siblings and I didn’t participate on the debate team.  We had practice every night at dinner.  That doesn’t make my family right or good.  It’s just how I was raised and what became ingrained in my fiber.  Don’t get me wrong, my parents drive me nuts, but it’s the kind of nuts I grew up with and know how to navigate.  Twenty-two years of marriage have still not primed me for my in-law family’s dynamics.  Not because it’s worse than my own, but because it’s different, and I wasn’t groomed from birth to negotiate that particular set of rules.  The law made me part of another family but my inherent training has not caught up to the law.

I will be attending four weddings in the next three months.  I wouldn’t dare offer advice to other couples, but as I reflect on my friends’ experiences and my own, what would I say if I could?  I think my husband is right.  I would advise all parties not to invest energy on issues that cannot be changed.  Smiling more and not taking things so seriously, can only help (my own dad is chuckling right now, congratulating himself that his words may have finally stuck).  I would tell newlyweds to mentally step into their in-laws shoes and try to empathize with their points of view.  I would also advise parents-in-law to step into the shoes of newlyweds and try to understand their perspective.  This would help both sides comprehend the place from which some of the perceived insanity hails…  Luckily, I have the luxury of pontificating for now, and have a few years before I’m writing about my own failures as a mother-in-law.

7 thoughts on “Should In-Laws Be Outlawed?

  1. I have thought long and hard about this topic since my last post. I am convinced that it has been addressed too narrowly. In-laws include not only the parents of the newly acquired spouse but also the brothers and sisters which are soon in-laws, too. Not to be forgotten are also the in-laws that each set of parents acquires as a result of this marriage. All these relationships are dejure (by law) as a result of a marriage ceremony. The evolution of each relationship, i.e., sister to new brother-in-law) will also become de facto (what in actually develops between them). Let’s face it, we would probably never choose any of these people to become friends with! That said, having had a lifetime of squabbles, animosity and RAGE because of these relationships, I have become more generous (probably since more of life is behind me than ahead of me) and I believe that we need to ‘make a place at the table’ for these people and remember as I used to tell my children: They weren’t raised in my kitchen, so give them a break!

  2. Having had a mother-in-law, now recently deceased at age 98 who thought that after raising two sons that I walked on water, I have really no major complaints. Although she wasn’t always tactful (to say the least), I learned an important lesson from her. Perhaps because she didn’t have to share me with my mother (usually a package deal) who lived 6,000 miles away, there was just the two of us to develop a relationship. She was my role model for how a mother-in-law should support a young wife and a budding marriage. Even when I was wrong in a fight with my new husband, for her, I was always right. She was so kind and generous to me that the concept of a mother-in-law being an outlaw was alien to me. My children’ spouses may not always see me the way I view my relationship with them, but my husband and I have always tried to give them the respect that they are due. If these people are good and kind to our children, they deserve our love and devotion.

  3. Being a mother-in-law is HARD!!! I agree with everyone else who believes that in general, pick your battles. That was always our philosophy in raising our boys. Both of my boys were married eleven months apart. I acquired two lovely young ladies into our family. I have always looked forward to having girls in our family and I do feel very blessed that my sons both chose such generous and caring women. I do feel that the past few years have been ones of adjustment to say the least! I’m sure not just an adjust for my husband and i, but for the couples as well. I do think the root of a lot of the adjustment definitely comes from families being raised differently. Not that we did it all “right” and they didn’t. It’s just different. And HARD!! In two short years, i have become a “holiday hater” (including birthdays)! I am not use to, and do not believe i will ever become use to, sharing my boys!!! I hate it. And it’s HARD! Holidays have always been such a happy time for our family. I go to way too much trouble and enjoy every minute of it. I continue to go to way too much trouble and enjoy every minute of it, WHEN IT’S MY TURN! The “off holiday”, when it’s not my turn, is terrible! We are trying to make new traditions for those years, just for the two of us. That is very hard to do after 33 years of it being all about our kids but we are working on it. I realize that I am not in this alone. I am not the first “in-law” to find this, and a million other situations, all very difficult. For some reason, I just never thought it would happen to me! Ha! Silly me! Holidays are just one of the many challenges for in-laws and the couples. But with September 1 just around the corner, I can tell you that I am already getting excited……because this year IS MY TURN!!!!

  4. Great points all the way through. It can be such a complex dynamic. I lost my mother-in-law to cancer (at the age of 48) 6 months before I got married and my husband, my kids and I all have a huge hole in our lives. I wish I would have had a chance to have a disagreement or two with her.

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