Friday, April 20, 2012

This Relationship Corner: The In-Laws

Nothing can send people into a panic faster than seven little words: "I want you to meet my family." Meeting the family is a serious step. First, it means that this relationship has reached a new phase in its development. You two are more than just casually dating, you are now an Item. And once you reach Item stage, you are serious enough to be introduced to you partner's family for poking, prodding, intense scrutiny, and overt hints about getting married and having babies.

Unless they don't like you.

On the plus side, it's doubtful you'll be bombarded with hints of weddings and babies. The down side, it's because the thought of their relative marrying you and procreating makes them ill. Nothing personal, it's just that you are completely unsuitable as a partner, completely beneath them, and likely a failure as a human being in their eyes. They can't imagine where they went wrong that their son or daughter wants to breathe the same air as you, let alone contemplate a future together.

If you date or marry someone, you must understand that they are a package deal. They come with a set of friends and family, and you're going to have to deal with them. Hopefully, you all get along and you feel welcomed into each others' lives. In fact, if you find yourself completely at odds with every other relationship in your partner's life, that might be a sign that you have deep compatibility issues. It's also possible that a family of psychopaths managed to accidentally produce a decent human being, and that happens more often than you think.

No matter what the situation, though, there's going to be tension, and that's the nature of being human. There's nothing wrong with differing points of view, with growing and adjustment pains that accompany any change. The key is how to deal with them and understand where they might be coming from. It's not at all simple, and at times you'll have to be the bigger person if you value your relationship. Here are a few tips to help you get along with your in-laws, and to help your spouse get along with your family.

Understand where they are coming from

The first thing to realize is that, even if these relatives like you, you're still an interloper, and invader stealing their precious family member away. It can be especially hard when you're dating/marrying a first-born, because they've never had to deal with this situation. It's not even a knock on you, it's having to accept change and deal with a person they didn't have a hand in raising. You're an undefined variable in their family equation.

The key is to be patient and understanding. If you're serious about this relationship, you're dealing with potential new family members. It may take time for them to warm up to your presence, but if they see that you make their child happy, if you do your best to be a part of their group, then the tension will slowly, but surely, dissipate.

Dealing with well-meaning advice

Another cause of the tension is when they are well-meaning, but annoying. Naturally, if you are getting married, they'll be full of relationship advice. To be fair, if they've been married a good, long time, it's probably advice worth listening to. (I feel like I'm going to be that in-law someday.) But while they mean for it to help you, because they want your relationship to succeed, it can still be annoying and stressful. They might also have advice for how to raise your kids, again coming from a well-meaning place.

It's even worse when you don't think it's good advice. They might have their own ideas on marriage, relationships, child care, and anything else, and it's the worst advice you've ever heard. Sadly, there's no one surefire way to deal with that. I'm just letting you know what you're in for. A tried and true strategy is simply the "smile, nod, and ignore." However, before you dismiss any advice, try to think about the message, not the messenger. Would you still ignore the advice if it came from a friend? That might help you figure out whether this is or isn't solid advice.

What if they hate you?

Then again, it's possible they aren't well-meaning. They might actually hate you. You might be too different for their tastes, perhaps your politics, religion, race, or orientation is something they don't want to deal with. Now that gay marriage is becoming more common throughout the country, in-laws now have to deal with the face that their family member has a same-sex spouse. It could get pretty awkward if they voted against same-sex marriage. Of course it might not be anything like that. Perhaps they have no problem with different races, religions, or orientations. They just don't like you.

Whatever their reason for not liking you, it's important to realize that they still mean a lot to your spouse or partner. If you have to limit your time with them, that might be a good idea. There's no need to subject yourself to constant abuse. However, when you do have to be around them, it helps to try to be the bigger person. You'll only make things worse if you instigate things. Don't let them drag you down to their level.

What if it's your family who hates your spouse/partner? Remember that your first priority is this long-term relationship, and your family needs to know that. If you aren't willing to stand up for your spouse, if you don't see a problem with how they treat your significant other, then you are part of the problem. When you committed to this person, you chose a side, and it's not fair to side with your family against your partner. Nor is it a sign of a healthy relationship. If you want your relationship to stand the test of time, the two of you need to be in it together.

Always side with your spouse

If there's ever a situation in which you must choose between your spouse and your family, and this applies to both of you, the choice must always be the same. You choose each other every time. As Dr. Phil says, "There can be no divided loyalties." Both of you need to commit to making each other a priority. If that ruffles feathers with other family members, and it will, you need to consider that a small price to pay for a strong relationship. You two also need to realize that you both must side with each other and not with your own families.

If there's one thing you never do, it's to compare your spouse to your own family members. Don't tell your wife that she's not as good a cook as your mother, for example. It's the spousal equivalent of "Why can't you be more like your brother?" It's a low blow. besides, if you miss your mother's cooking that much, go live with your mother. Otherwise, realize that you married this woman and need to commit to her. (And if you don't like her cooking so much, do it yourself.)

Another mistake people make is to constantly vent about their relationship issues to their family. Sometimes the family gets a bad impression of your partner because all you ever tell them are the bad things. How are they supposed to see the good side to your spouse if you never say anything positive? Don't nurture your family's dislike.

When you have children

Things can get extra stressful when you start having children of your own. Sometimes this can help mend some fences with the in-laws as they realize that these petty disputes are only going to keep them from their grandchildren. Other times, this can put a healthy in-law relationship at odds when it becomes clear that you aren't raising these children the "right way." Again, you'll get a lot of well-meaning advice, well-meaning but hurtful criticism, and criticism that is in no way well-meaning, just a way of calling you a bad parent. And that could all come from the same person.

One the one hand, you're hearing from people who've raised children already. It would be wise to pay attention to some of what they're saying. After all, their child-reading helped produce the person you fell in love with, so they probably did something right. However, you are not obligated to pay attention and follow everything they say because these are your children.

It can be tough at first, but many times a couple needs to set specific boundaries with the grandparents and other family members. You know how you want your children raised and you should expect that those wishes are followed with your relatives. If you have a good relationship with your in-laws, you might have to give a little leeway to the grandparents when it comes to your kids. It does tend to be the job of the grandparent to spoil their grandchildren, and a little bit of that is usually all right. As long as your kids don't start expecting the same from you, you should be fine.

However, there's a little bit of spoiling and then there's putting your children in danger. When your in-laws' behavior puts your children at risk, that's when you draw the line. If they don't buckle up your kids or keep them safe, that's a big problem. If they don't feel they need to be sober when watching your children, or if they allow your children to be exposed to very unsafe things, that's something you don't let slide. If you think there may be a risk of abuse, then remember that your child's welfare comes first.

When it comes to money

The biggest issue to come between you and your in-laws might not be the kids. It could be money, especially if you decide to borrow money from your in-laws. I would highly recommend never borrowing money from your in-laws. If you thought they were annoying before, just wait until they feel like a shareholder in your life. Nothing can ruin a friendship quite like a debt; imagine how bad it could be with in-laws. Whatever happens, do your very best not to borrow money from in-laws.

The same can usually be said for lending money to them. There are many reasons not to lend money to people you know, and that's just to your own friends and family. Loaning money to in-laws should follow the same rule of thumb as loaning to a friend: don't expect to see that money ever again. If you can live with that, do what you feel is right. If not, remember that as stressful as it is having them ask for money, it's going to be even more stressful when they owe it to you.

What if you prefer them over your own relatives?

Of course, when we think of in-laws, we assume that putting up with them is a burden and source of stress. What if you like your in-laws better than your own family? Sometimes you know how awful your own family can be and you'd prefer to spend every holiday with your in-laws. That can open up a whole new set of problems, especially if you still want your family in your life. Your family might feel betrayed and hurt, and if that's the case they likely take it out on your partner/spouse. You'll need to be ready for this and, as I keep saying, side with your partner. Ultimately it's about you setting boundaries and needing your family to respect them.

Perhaps you came from an abusive or dysfunctional background and want to see as little of your family as possible. You are allowed to do that. There's no law saying you have to keep putting up with the abuse, especially if it causes harm to your relationship. If you decide to only spend time with your in-laws, that's your choice, and you shouldn't let anyone judge you for it.

There is so much more I could say about in-laws, and I know I've left a ton out. If you've got a great relationship with your in-laws, consider yourself fortunate. Not everyone is so blessed. If you do struggle with in-laws, or even your own family, remember that in the end, your relationship, your marriage, is your first priority. Yes, these people will always be in your life, but they come second. Your relationship, your family is what matters most, and if everyone is clear on that, it will be easier to deal with.

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1 comment:

  1. Hi. You don't know me but I have some questions I'd like to ask you. I know your mother in law and I feel she is misleading me on a lot of things about her and I want the truth. It will kept in my confidence. I have some suspicious feelings and this person, I feel, is lying to me. I have been reading through your blog and feel you are a good person and would tell me the facts. My email is, help me out. I will not tell her anything we have discussed and I will not let her know we've spoken.I just don't want to be scammed. Thanks in advance.