Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Dealing with In-laws
In-law problems were the last thing that Tony and Maria (not their real names) thought that they would be dealing with in their marriage. Tony explained, "We're both from the same background, Italian-American New Yorkers. Our families both liked each other and us. How could this happen?"
Maria continued, "I should have seen the signs even before the wedding when Tony's mother called the wedding registry at Crate and Barrel to remove the gifts she had purchased from Wal-Mart for her friends to give us for our wedding. Now she is constantly interfering, calling us every time she watches one of those scary TV shows about child safety to check on whether our kids' equipment needs recalling."
The issue of in-law families is one of the eleven common couple conflict issues. Researchers at Iowa State University have found that your relationship with your partner's family may indeed matter when it comes to marital success. They confirmed the common perception that conflicts in extended family relations erode marital stability, satisfaction, and commitment over time. In addition, they found that by nurturing your relationship with your spouse's family members, you will not only increase your circle of social support, but you will also strengthen the bonds between you and your spouse.
Family does not happen overnight. Families go through the same developmental stages as other human groups: forming, norming, storming, and performing. Attention to what happens in these stages will help couples and their families prevent in-law conflicts for both generations.
"Forming" Family During Dating
During the forming stage while you and your dating partner are forming a life-long bond with each other, you are also forming one with each other's families. Families, like different countries, have distinct cultures. A married couple eventually creates its own culture, bearing some resemblance to the two original cultures but having its own distinct features.
Tony and Maria might not have been so blind sided by the family differences if they had studied the family cultures while they were dating. Tony's family, third generation New Yorkers, all grew up within blocks of each other in the city. His grandfather owned a small corner grocery store and his kids worked in the store. Maria's family had arrived from Italy many generations before. Her grandparents had left the city for Long Island when the family hardware store chain grew into a national business.
During the forming stage, get to know your in-law family. Observe and listen to their culture. Match their level of friendliness, asking them questions if they ask you; hanging out with them if that is what they do.
"Norming" During the Engagement Period
Here are some questions for dating/engaged couples to ask as you study the norms of the "foreign" culture:
- How do the natives of the culture communicate? Do they talk frankly about conflict or do they avoid conflict as much as possible?
- How do they handle advice giving, being forth coming or holding back?
- How do they celebrate birthdays and holidays? One family has a ritual celebrating birthdays on the actual date no matter how inconvenient it is to anyone.
- What rituals do they use to stay connected? Sunday dinners every week like Tony's family or phone and e-mail like Maria's? How often is enough or too much?
- What is the money history, the parenting philosophies, etc.?
- What are the expectations of participation in the family, ranging from visits to financing each others' businesses?
"Storming" and the Transition to Marriage
"…And the two shall leave their parents and cling to each other." Forming your own culture does not all happen on the wedding day. Rather it is a gradual process that starts during dating and continues throughout the marriage. Maria and Tony were comfortable planning a formal Long Island wedding in a modern church with an outdoor reception on the water. Tony 's family weddings had all taken place in an old-fashioned city church with receptions in the VFW hall. The storming started when Maria overheard her mother-in-law refer to the wedding plans as "snooty."
A couple's new culture should represent their own personalities and preferences while at the same time respecting the cultures of their first families. Maria could have seemed more like a "regular person" if she would have gone along with her future sister-in-law's planned bridal shower complete with toilet paper bride costumes.
At this stage accept that conflict will be the inevitable result of family cultures being redefined by the newly married. The use of conflict management and negotiation skills will help you and your families calm the storms.
"Performing" as a Family
At their best families offer the rewards of support, love, and friendship when they include:
- Spending some good time enjoying each other.
- Accepting each other's differences and not interpreting those differences as insults.
- Using good communication skills to state needs, listen to others' needs, and negotiate common goals. The reward for this hard work is support for yourselves and your children.
What if all does not go well in spite of your best efforts?
- Emphasize couple unity. See the in-law challenges not as one partner's problem but as a couple problem.
- Develop plans for handling expected problems especially before visits.
- Appoint a liaison to handle limit setting (sometimes the best one is the child, sometimes it is the in-law child).
You can help your children and yourselves have fewer in-law conflicts by accepting that unless you live in a culture of arranged marriages, your children will pick partners that are a good fit for their needs, but not necessarily yours. Tony's mother was disappointed, "Maria is not like us, she's fancy."
Your time to influence your children's mate selection process is early in their lives. The twelve year old who asks, "How do you know when you're in love?," deserves better answers than "You just do."
- Make your home a welcoming place for all your children's friends, including their dates.
- Be very cautious about forbidding your child to date someone. Don't create the Romeo and Juliet effect of making the date more desirable by nagging too much. Instead, invite the date over so your child can see how this person interacts with the family. If you see major character flaws, point them out once and then step back.
- Accept that no matter how much you would like to pre-select the "one," it is not your job.
- Study the culture of the "foreigner." Starting early will make the wedding planning period and the whole future go better.
- You may have some things to learn from your child's in-law family. Be open to new information.
- Offer your support but don't force it upon the young couple. Tony's mother could ask if the couple needs child safety information before she offers it.
- Plan mutually enjoyable activities. Build memories for the whole family. Plan how to be a wise and fun grandparent.
Our audiotape series, Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages, covers communication and conflict management skills.
- Horsley, Gloria Call. (1997). The in-law survival manual: a guide to cultivating healthy in-law relationships.
- Forward, Susan. (2001). Toxic in-laws: loving strategies for protecting your marriage.
Copyright 2002 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information: