For Better, for Worse . . . for In-Laws
It was a typical day in Los Angeles, five months into our first year of marriage. Les was helping me put groceries in the cupboard when he told me about a conversation he had with his parents back in Chicago earlier that afternoon.
“Anyway, they’re expecting us for Christmas dinner.”
“What?!” I exclaimed. “Aren’t you forgetting something here?”
“No, I know,” Les confidently retorted. “Your parents are invited too.”
“That’s not the point,” I fired back. “My mom and dad have already planned a Christmas dinner for us and want your parents to join them.”
In-laws. They do the darnedest things. Looking back on all our years of marriage—in addition to counseling countless couples—we’ve learned struggles with in-laws are almost inevitable.
Common In-Law Issues
Someone once observed Adam and Eve got along as well as they did because neither had any in-laws to worry about. Maybe so, but they still had their problems. One can only imagine how having in-laws might have compounded them. Or would they have lightened their load? Perhaps their seemingly impossible babysitting problem would have been solved. Who knows?
Most married couples know, that’s who. It seems some couples couldn’t be happier with their in-laws, while other couples feel their in-laws are the source of most of their problems. If you tend to identify more with the latter group, don’t think you are alone. Experts believe three-quarters of all married couples have problems with their in-laws.
Some of the most common in-law problems include keeping a son-in-law or daughter-in-law at a distance, giving them the cold shoulder, and treating them as a person who has invaded the family or is not good enough for their son or daughter. Another common in-law problem is gift-giving with strings attached. This occurs when they offer some kind of help (monetary or otherwise) and then treat it as a license to tell you exactly how to use it. Of course, criticism is also a major in-law complaint by couples. Some in-laws constantly critique each and every choice a couple makes.
An extreme in-law problem appears when parents intrude. They may smother and hover over the marriage without making room for the couple to have privacy, dabbling in things that aren’t their business. Winston Churchill’s “darling Clementine” learned early on that she had married not just her husband but his strong-willed mother as well. When she and Winston returned from their honeymoon, the young bride discovered Lady Randolph Churchill had completely redecorated the couple’s new home in a style far fancier than Clementine had planned.
If you do not identify with Clementine or anyone else having in-law problems, count yourself blessed. Most couples struggle to some degree or another with their partner’s parents. We certainly did.
Fortunately, neither of us has ever felt particularly smothered or criticized by the others mom and dad. Our major in-law problem had more to do with how we behaved around our parents when we had the chance to be home.
It used to be, for example, that whenever we went to Les’s home, he shifted into pre-marriage mode and forgot I was his wife. Rarely checking in with me, he’d go visit his buddies, take off with his dad, and so on—leaving me to fend for myself. He didn’t mean to do it, but it felt like I was invisible, a mere tag along at best. And it felt terribly lonely. Thank goodness, things changed. Let me tell you how we resolved this problem.
First of all, after I noticed how predictable this pattern was becoming, I spoke up. In private, I asked Les if he realized what was happening and, possibly like your husband, he didn’t. He was having a good time at home and just assumed I was too. I can understand that, and I was careful not to blame him or lash out because I felt wounded. However, I told him how I was feeling, and he began to see the situation from my perspective. This would have never happened if I had accused him of deliberately ignoring me (that is guaranteed to lead to a defensive position and solve nothing). But by focusing on what was going on inside me when he took off without my input or didn’t include me in discussions, I helped him put himself in my shoes. And it worked.
Next, I asked him for his perspective on what it was like for him to be at his family’s home. He hadn’t really given it much thought before my question, but soon confessed that being home caused him to regress a bit to a more carefree time. He simply enjoyed the fun of being a “kid” and not having to worry about much of anything. This discussion helped me not to take his behavior personally, as I was tempted to do. Anyway, the lights went on for him when he realized how this kind of mode made me feel left out.
Signaling a Solution
As we talked more about it, we devised a very simple action-plan together. This included, at Les’s suggestion, a commitment on his part to include me in discussions and keep me informed of what he was up to. I suggested I would bring a book for times when he wanted to go off with his dad or somebody else. But one of the most important parts of our action-plan was to have a few secret signals only the two of us would know about. Quietly touching our partner’s elbow or even making simple eye contact, for example, became our way of staying in touch (we’ll keep the messages to ourselves, thank you). It became our own marriage “Morse code,” and after years of being together we still use it in a variety of settings. We have a signal that means “rescue me,” which I’ve used more than once at his home when I was on my third round of Monopoly with his nephews.
We certainly haven’t solved every in-law problem in our marriage. But things look very different from our first married holiday. The biggest lesson we’ve learned is that the problem most often isn’t with our in-laws but with the way we respond to them. And it’s that basic attitude shift that has helped us build relationships with our in-laws we wouldn’t trade for anything.
Written by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott
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