My in-laws are coming to town this weekend, and I am excited for them to finally see Baltimore in spring! In honor of their visit, let’s talk about in-law relationships, which for many people can be one of the most fraught and difficult relationships in their lives. It is not easy to join someone else’s family, and be immediately thrust into all new traditions and conventions. In-law relationships can really be a breeding ground for conflict, and even when the transition goes smoothly and you get along well with your in-laws, finding your footing in a new family dynamic can still be a major source of stress.
Let me start by saying that I have been very lucky to have wonderful in-laws. I have known them for a long time and really do think of them as my own family. My brother-in-law, who was a shy and quiet preteen when my husband and started dating, and with whom I communicated primarily in Simpsons references, has grown into an incredibly talented, interesting and wonderfully funny man. I adore him and really do think of him as a younger brother, and a friend. My sister-in-law has a very sweet and soothing presence. She is smart and really strong despite her quiet manner. She used to live in New York City and when my husband and were up there one weekend, my sister-in-law and I spent the afternoon together alone for the first time ever while my husband was working, and it was one the best days I’ve ever had with a friend and I so wish she had moved to Baltimore instead of all the way across the country. My mother-and-father-in-law are very warm, welcoming people. They are really easy to talk to and I love that we are all adults now and can sit around the table for hours talking about politics, relationships, life. It is really nice and I am looking forward to it this weekend.
I have had the advantage of lots of time, proximity and maturation to form strong relationships with my in-laws. Not every gets so lucky, and many in-law relationships are tense, uncomfortable and even adversarial. Sometimes these relationships are just destined to be difficult, but here are a few tips that may help you reduce conflict and make the most of your new family connections.
1. Recognize and appreciate that all families are different.
Every family has its own traditions, habits, and quirks. The family you marry into is not going to be just like the one you grew up with. Accept from the outset that your in-laws will do things a little differently than your family, and that while some of those differences will be wonderful additions to your life, others will be new sources of irritation and stress.
My husband’s family is late to everything. Do not go to the movies with them if you like to catch the coming attractions. They can plan to leave for a family trip sometime before noon, and not actually hit the road until the sun has set and evening is well on its way to night. They have stories about racing to the airport that make them sound like the McAllister family in the Home Alone movies, and I’m always impressed to hear that no one ever got left behind.
My family is the opposite. I can invite my parents to dinner at 7, and they’ll show up around 6:45, and apologize for being late. My husband’s family is fine with leaving at nightfall and arriving at their destination at 2 in the morning and falling straight into bed, whereas my family prefers to get up before dawn breaks and get on the road. If you ever see my family running through an airport, it’s only because we got restless waiting the two hours until our flight takes off and needed to do something to fill the time.
It took me many years to reach a point where this particular difference in family styles didn’t make my blood pressure shoot up every time I traveled anywhere with my in-laws. And it is still the case that when my mother-in-law says, “we’re leaving in 10 minutes,” I’m the only one who starts to shift out of her seat while my husband and his siblings stay firmly planted, knowing full well that 10 minutes doesn’t actually mean 10 minutes. But I have grown accustomed to their particular style of scheduling, and now I find it to be a rather endearing and amusing family quirk. It is such a quintessential part of their family style that everyone who knows them simply expects and accepts that they will be late to things. It’s nice when families have these kinds of specific and defining characteristics that set them apart from other families, even if they take some getting used to. The Taylors are always late, and I am always late with them, because I am part of their family now.
2. Partners should act as each other’s ambassadors.
It is important to take a hard, careful look at your own family from time to time and try to pick out the idiosyncrasies that could be the greatest source of frustration or conflict for your partner. When it comes to holidays or other events that include specific family traditions, give your partner a thorough synopses of what he/she can expect from the experience. Big family events can be very daunting. Arm your partner with as much knowledge and insider information as you can to help reduce some of the stress.
The first time I joined my husband’s family for Passover, he made sure to let me know how his family’s Seder tends to go: it’s pretty loud, they tend to jump around through the story, skipping some parts, and really elaborating on others, and at some point his grandfather would toss hardboiled eggs to everyone at the table as sort of recognition of springtime and the start of baseball season. I went in knowing that I wouldn’t be able to follow or understand anything that was going on, and I would suddenly be expected to catch an egg when it came flying through the air at me. Got it. Knowing what to expect made the experience much easier to enjoy.
3. Let the past be the past.
My husband and I started dating in high school, which means I have known my in-laws for a very long time, and said and did a lot of dumb, foolish, childish things around them. I could continue to be embarrassed by those early experiences, but instead I’ve simply let them go. If things didn’t go so well the first time you met your partner’s family, or there was a period of time early on in your relationship or marriage where interactions with your in-laws felt tense, or full of conflict, try to let those experiences and memories fade into the past as time goes on. Relationships need time and space to grow. They can’t do that if you are holding on to past slights and confrontations. My connection to my in-laws when I was a 16-year old hanging out on their couch after school every day and eating all of their bagels (they always had the best bagels) could not be more different than my relationship with them today. I am a different person. My husband is a different person. They are different people. The bagels are still the same, thank goodness.
Allow each other to change and grow, and take on new roles in each other’s lives. If your relationship with your in-laws isn’t great right now, that doesn’t mean that it can’t get better in the future. But it can’t improve if you’re keeping it trapped in past grievances and conflicts. In both marriage and in-law relationships, it is often better to simply let things go and move on.
4. Don’t assume conflicts that don’t actually exist.
My husband and I got married pretty young. There were several instances during our wedding planning process when my mother-in-law made note of how young we were. She never said it with any malice or judgment really, but more as an observation. We were young. Fact. Although I never told her at the time, I took her comments to mean that she didn’t want me to marry her son. We were young and she thought we were making a mistake, I assumed she meant. We were young and she hoped that he would get a little bit older and meet someone else, I convinced myself. We were young and this was not the life she had envisioned for her boy. She wanted something better for him. Someone better than me. These were thoughts that kept running through my head in the year between our engagement and our wedding day.
A couple of days after our wedding, my husband told me that his mom came up to him during the reception and said to him, “you seem really happy.” I realized then that my mother-in-law just wanted what all parents want for their children: for them to be happy and safe. If she had any concerns about us getting married, they likely weren’t about me as a woman and partner for her son, but simply about wanting to be sure that her child–the person she had loved and raised, and had to let go of despite every instinct to hold on to him and protect him–was making a choice that he felt secure in, and good about. She wanted him to be happy. My mother-in-law and father-in-law didn’t even meet until they were in graduate school, and here we were, two 22 year-olds, just finishing up undergrad and planning our wedding. We must have seemed very, very young to her. I could have gone on convincing myself that she didn’t want her son to be married to me. But she never said anything to that effect. It was a conflict that I had created in my own mind and one that I had to let go of. She is a warm, nurturing woman who wants her children to be happy. And she is a warm, nurturing mother-in-law who I believe wants me to be happy as well.
One other note about conflicts. If you are married without children, and your in-laws have not actually told you that they are desperately waiting for you to give them grandchildren, do not assume that they are. I mean, the definitely are. There is no doubt about that. But just do not think about it. That road only leads to madness.
5. Pick your battles.
From wedding guest lists, to holiday planning, to childrearing, to religion, and politics, and family gatherings, and health, and aging, and finances: nearly everything in life can be a source of conflict. It is not worth fighting with family (your own or your partner’s) over every little thing. Choose your battles wisely. Stand up for yourself, your opinions and your choices, but also accept that sometimes it will be preferable to back down and just go with the flow. Not everything deserves to be a fight and you don’t have to constantly assert yourself and stand up for your principles. Decide what matters most to you and really go to bat for those things. You’re not going to agree with everything your in-laws do or say, but you also don’t need to constantly call attention to those disagreements or proclaim your differences of opinion. Get really good at doing a polite head nod, and just file away all the zany things your families do so that you can talk about them later with your partner and laugh about how nutty your families are.