Dr. Romance: Marriage means relating to in-laws and extended family. This is what "cleave to each other, forsaking all others" in the old marriage vows meant: Once married, you are now each other's primary relationship, and your relationship with your original family has to change (this is why parents cry at weddings.) So you and your partner may have to let both sets of parents know that things are different now, and come up with an arrangement that works for you, and still gives each family some time.  With the pandemic in full swing, that time may be via video chat, especially if some family members are especially vulnerable.

Fairness is key. If you start thinking of these people as your own extended family, your frustration level and resentment level will go down. The future of your marriage depends on getting along with your husband's family, and him getting along with yours.

Successful couples learn to accept and appreciate each other's holiday celebrations, foods, and also the more subtle emotional style of each others' family. One family may think being loving is exactly what the other family sees as terribly intrusive. One partner may value sharing and intimacy, the other may value respect and privacy. Blending these styles is not easy, but the rewards are great.

Getting close to your in-laws can feel awkward, at first, Most people want to get along and have a good time, but if both families' customs, habits and expectations are not taken into consideration, problems can arise.

This is particularly important in families that are culturally religiously or regionally mixed -- when the bride and groom come from different traditions, cultures, areas of the country or ethnic backgrounds. While the bride and groom may enjoy each others' differences, their families are often very uncomfortable with each other. Also, different regions of this country have different customs, so a southern family might feel quite foreign to a northeastern daughter-in-law.

It's very important for the partners to talk about their families: Is there an uncle who gets embarrasing when he has a few drinks? A grandmother who's getting a little spaced, and says odd things very loudly? A political difference? Some very traditional religious branch of the family who will be upset if certain customs or diets aren't followed? Clarifying what you want to do now can set patterns that serve you for the rest of your life together.

Here are some suggestions:

1) get a clear agreement with spouse about the boundaries you're going to set with his/her parents. How will you handle holidays? Does one family like to "drop in" and is that OK?  These boundaries may have changed with the pandemic, but be sure you both know each others' preferences, with and without social distancing.  There may be travel issues, and the pandemic can change what you usually do; which gives you a chance to correct habits that aren't working any more.

2) learn to give "adult time-outs" to family members who behave badly or pressure you. (that is, withdraw to extremely polite but distant relating -- no personal interchanges, but no rudeness.)

3) If certain family members are difficult, learn to treat them as members of someone else's family -- with whom you'd not react to obnoxious things, but just politely ignore what they're doing or saying, and maintain a pleasant demeanor.

4) Be a grownup, whether they are or not. If you have to treat them as misbehaving children, so be it -- just don't let them drag you into bad behavior of your own.

5) Find out what your in-laws like most, and try to do some of that. If Mother-in-law is a good cook, ask her to teach you some of your new partner's favorite recipes. (you can do this together in video chat with some planning.) Sharing informal, productive activities is very bonding, as is allowing others to mentor you.

6) If you want to be closer as a family, invite both moms to a video chat, lunch or to get a manicure with you -- another bonding experience.

During and after this pandemic, you will all still be family, and if you set reasonable boundaries and expectations, your holidays will be warm and enjoyable.


adapted from How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together

Happy Partners cover

For low-cost phone counseling, email me at tina@tinatessina.com

Author's Bio: 

Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again; Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage, and her newest, Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter.