I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “You’re not just marrying him, you’re marrying his family.” If you cringe and bite your nails to the quick when you hear it now, we really need to talk.
When you said “I do,” you were just referring to the blushing bride across from you, right? Her family was in the audience (sniffling or sobbing or wringing their hands), but you only agreed to marry that one individual, the one you chose. So why are you now bound to these other people, people you wouldn’t sit next to on the subway if you had your choice?
Marrying “into” a family is both true and not true. Certainly, when you join your life to someone else’s, the things that are important to him become important to you, too. And family is at the top of the list. (Just because you see his mother as a three-headed guard dog doesn’t mean he sees her that way.) However, it’s important to remember that you and your spouse, in getting married, have begun your own family. And for most people, that new family healthily takes precedent over the other.
When both families are living in harmony, no one gives much thought to a loose sort of co-existence. But when personalities clash, it might feel like your in-laws are there with you all the time—in the bedroom (ugh…), in the kitchen while you attempt your first soufflé, in the family room when you insist that your child observe her bedtime (“But Grandma says you make me go to bed too early!”).
Despite all the tension that can arise between the spouse and the in-laws, most people agree that even the most Attila the Hun in-laws aren’t reason enough to abandon your betrothed at the altar.
So what do we do?
Take a step back. In a hurry.
As with almost any aspect of this Tilt-a-Whirl we call life, level-headed examination and a fresh perspective can do wonders.
If you examine your feelings from a safe distance (i.e., safely removed in time from the situation your in-laws last destroyed or, better yet, thousands of miles and a couple of continents removed from the in-laws themselves), you might see that it’s not really hate that you’re feeling, but rather strong annoyance, heavy dislike, or the I wouldn’t want to ask them out for drinks or outlet-shopping syndrome.
Okay, so maybe you do hate them. There might be several reasons you feel this way:
~You get the sense they hate you.
For example, they never miss an opportunity to remind you that their son/daughter foolishly passed up so many excellent marriage prospects before s/he regrettably settled on you.
~They’re the heavily meddling, interfering variety (think Marie Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond), have already determined how many children you should have and where they’ll go to school. Hell, the kid isn’t even a twinkle in your eye yet and your mother-in-law already booked the church for the first Holy Communion. And you’re not even sure if you’ll raise your children Catholic.
~They’re not likeable (Need I say more?).
~They make you feel incompetent, inadequate, or just generally a mess.
~And maybe—just maybe—the problem is more yours than theirs (bear with me for a minute). They may be sweet, loving and appropriately-boundaried and the core issue is that you feel your spouse is overly connected to them, that he loves them or idealizes them too much. Jealousy can masquerade as righteous indignation.
So now that you have some ideas about why you have these strong feelings toward these people, what on earth do you do with them? (The feelings, not the people…)
Picture this: you’ve spent another grueling ten-hour day at work and yet you’re still gracious enough to agree to fixing dinner for the in-laws. You set the plate before your mother-in-law, she sniffs, wrinkles her nose, and pushes the dish away, announcing, “I can’t possibly eat pasta sauce from a jar.” Or you overhear your father-in-law putting the kids to bed, telling them stories about when your husband was a lad. He ends the stories with, “And you two take after your daddy, don’t you know. Thank goodness for that!”
Even in times like those, especially in times like those, you need to hold onto a very true thing: these same maddening people did at least one thing right. Whether you attribute it to the accident of nature or the deliberateness of nurture, they created and raised the person you adore and respect and have chosen to hitch your star to.
And then count to ten, take deep breath, and remind yourself of this again.
Another crucial thing to remember: you can’t change someone else’s behavior. You can’t. No matter how gallantly you try, no matter how much those people need changing. The only behavior you are in complete control of is your own. You can only change how you react to people. And many times your new behavior shifts the dynamic enough so that it either forces or coaxes people to respond differently, in a way that squeezes out the behavior that originally made you pull your hair out.
Despite how adorable Doris Richards is in Everybody Loves Raymond, and how appealing it may be to have someone with the stamina of a team of oxen cleaning your house or cooking your meals over your insistence that she stop, you need to set healthy limits and acceptable boundaries around your marriage. It’s easier to do this early in the marriage, before patterns have become entrenched. The irony is that sometimes you don’t fully realize a situation needs an overhaul until you’ve lived with it for a while and until it feels unbearable.
The first step is asking your spouse for help in approaching your in-laws. After all, they’re his/her parents and s/he has a history with them, one that should make communication easier and more fluid. However, your mate might think this is all your problem. Time and time again, you might hear, “I don’t know what you’re talking about—my parents are super!” Without accusation or name-calling (try hard with this one), communicate your feelings about your in-laws to your spouse. Use specific examples rather than general feelings, and try to get your mate to walk—even a few baby steps—in your shoes.
Be sensitive to your spouse’s dilemma. After all, s/he is in the middle and in the unenviable position between a rock and a hard place and getting squeezed: s/he loves the parents, loves the spouse, and has to somehow mediate these warring factions. A thankless job.
If speaking to your spouse fails, you need to advocate for yourself with your in-laws. HOW? Very diplomatically. Arrange a time for a chat. And call it that—“chat” is so much nicer than “I’ve had it up to here with you and I’m laying down the law.”
Some advice to remember during that talk:
~Don’t offend. Don’t attack, don’t provoke.
And, while you’re there, avoid politics, religion, and how much happier your wife seems now that she’s left her childhood home.
~Don’t ever, ever, ever compare your mate’s parents to your own.
Trust me: no good can come of this….NONE.
~Keep it short, keep it simple.
This should feel like a sane conversation between adults, not a wrestling match where the ref is MIA.
~Use I statements.
“I feel hurt when you reject the meals I prepare…and when you go into the kitchen and make your own meal with the groceries you sneak in.”
~Use we statements.
You and your spouse are a team now, so talk like a team.
“We know you love the children, but we decided 7:30 is the right bedtime for the kids their age. And also…um…our pediatrician said espresso really isn’t the best drink for them.”
~Accentuate the positive.
Oh, c’mon…you can find something positive if you dredge the lake. Perhaps your spouse speaks fondly of his childhood. Pass that on to your in-laws. Or maybe they’re an important part of your children’s lives. “The children adore you. They tell everyone about their Gran and Grampie.”
~As all good negotiators do, give something so you can get something.
“We love sharing meals with you, but, since I’m getting the sense you don’t enjoy my cooking, why don’t we pick a restaurant next time?”
Try to voluntarily include your in-laws in situations that feel palatable. For instance, you’re organizing photo albums, and you’d love to put baby pictures of your spouse with your children’s. There isn’t a better expert on your mate’s childhood than the people who raised him. Call on them for that, and their gratitude at being needed may shift things in a positive way.
Through it all, try to remember that, just as you feel a connection to your spouse, they have a connection to that same person. They may feel more vulnerable than you do in the face of your mate’s new life, a life where you are now central and they are marginalized. Much of the behavior that annoys you may be driven by your in-laws’ attempts to keep a firm foothold in their child’s life, even when that child is thirty-eight years old. You should never allow yourself to be trampled upon, but when you understand that love might be the reason for some of their actions, you might see them in a softer light. And someday—if they accept you as an addition to the family instead of someone competing for their child’s attention—they might be crazy about you, too.
Is your relationship worth protecting? Are you ready to make your marriage everything it can be?
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Rich Nicastro, Ph.D. is a relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples protect the sanctuary of their relationship.