Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Winter 2002

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:

"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:

What if all does not go well in spite of your best efforts?

Parents of Young Couples

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."


Our audiotape series, Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages, covers communication and conflict management skills.

In-law books:

Copyright 2002 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information:

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