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.