The In-Law Survival Guide
You’re not just marrying each other; you’re marrying each other’s families too. Advice for getting the in-law relationship off on the right foot.
The In-Law Survival Guide
What’s more difficult than planning a perfect wedding? Getting off on the right foot with your future in-laws—and keeping it that way. Follow our guide to family harmony.
By Diana McKeon Charkalis
When Katie S.* got married, her father-in-law went missing from the reception. It turns out he was stationed in the parking lot, complaining about the bride to anyone who would listen. “I’m not gaining a daughter-in-law,” he declared. “I’m losing a son.”
Although few in-laws make their displeasure so public, the underlying sentiment is not uncommon. If it were, the movie Monster-in-Law never would have been made. In fact, experts say, many parents do find it difficult when their adult children decide to tie the knot. And this can lead to escalating tension.
“Newlyweds have a lot of issues to contend with, and in-laws are right up at the top,” says Jamie Greene, a clinical psychologist in Mount Kisco. “How you as a couple incorporate your families is one big negotiation, and once you establish a negative pattern, it’s difficult to change. It’s not something that just goes away or quietly resolves itself.” Greene and other Westchester experts offer the following survival tactics to keep your in-law relationships out of trouble.
Look at things from their perspective. Don’t rush to judgment with your in-laws, and assume good will until proven otherwise, suggests Ona Robinson, a clinical psychologist in White Plains. Think about how your mother-in-law and father-in-law are feeling, adds Greene. “When a child gets married there is a sense of losing that child. In loss, people often have some degree of jealousy or mourning,” Greene says. “Mothers-in-law may feel they’re being put out to pasture, that they’re not included or are losing their influence. There is scrutinizing and competition, particularly with mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.”
Although it’s common for a new bride to feel intimidated by her mother-in-law, at the same time, she can also afford to feel compassion, says Robinson. “Few brides recognize how much power they really have over their mothers-in-law,” she says. “Brides need to realize they essentially hold all the cards. They are the ones starting a new life with the son.”
But sometimes, in-law criticism can get out of hand. That was the case with Loren V.*,
who found that, as soon as she and her fiance began making plans for their wedding, her prospective mother-in-law switched from being kind and supportive to critical and snippy, ultimately even admonishing the bride as she was preparing to walk down the aisle.
When a mother-in-law finds fault with you personally, “discuss things first directly with her —without a third party,” says Gloria Batkin Kahn, a clinical psychologist in Hartsdale.
When an opinion is offered that is not sought or appreciated, such as a mother-in-law criticizing your way of dealing with the caterer or your choice of gown, be firm, says Kahn, but acknowledge her opinion by saying, “I hear what you’re saying, but here’s what I’ve decided to do.” This advice will come in handy over the years, because criticism of a wedding gown can eventually morph into criticism of your interior decorating and child-rearing. Setting a tone of respectful independence from the beginning can help in the long run, experts say.
Create your family plan. The amount of time new couples spend with each side of the family is often a bone of contention. Nip it in the bud by talking to your partner about how much time you envision spending with each family. For example: Is there a tradition in your family of having Sunday meals together? What would you like to do on holidays? Once the two of you are on the same page, communicate this clearly to each of your families.
For Sarah B., visiting her in-laws became a nightmare because they dictated how long she and her husband could stay and what activities they could do while they were there. This upset both her and her husband, but she didn’t feel it was appropriate that she be the one to speak up.
Experts agree that when a problem affects the bride and the groom, each adult child should be the one to address his or her own parents. “The boundaries need to be set by the child of those parents. If not, then the in-laws can quickly become the outlaws,” Greene says. “Remember that you’re creating your own value system as a couple and your goals and aspirations may be quite different from your parents’.”
In addition, be prepared to come up with creative solutions along the way. Many couples alternate major holidays to cut down on the competition for time: Thanksgiving with his family, Christmas with yours. If you want to spend Thanksgiving on your own or with friends, there’s nothing wrong with that. Just let everyone know in advance, and throw a bone if you can. “Schedule Thanksgiving the weekend before or after,” suggests Robinson. “Does it really matter what day you eat the turkey as long as your
family is together?”
Show respect. Practicing restraint is never a bad thing, and this is particularly true when it comes to in-laws. “It’s usually a good idea to use more polite and cautious ways of communicating, especially at first,” says Greene. “They’re not your parents, so one way to think of them is like a respected aunt and uncle who you wouldn’t necessarily initiate conflict with.”
A little flattery doesn’t hurt either. “We all like to be recognized,” Greene says. “Ask for your in-laws’ opinions”—when you really are open to hearing them—“and let them know you appreciate their input.” Include them in activities, and even schedule time to be with both families together if you can, she suggests. “If it’s geographically possible, try to include both sets of parents together in a casual setting, like a barbecue.”
Time and attention can go a long way toward making in-laws feel they’re important, says Kahn. “Invite your mother-in-law to lunch. Chat with her on the phone. Try to make a friend out of that person.”
Above all, give the relationship—and your in-laws—a little time to settle in. The results may surprise you. “It took me a while to realize why my son married the woman he did,” says Robinson. “Now I see it really makes a lot of sense. She’s actually a very lovely human being who just goes about life differently than I do.”
Diana McKeon Charkalis is a writer and daughter-in-law in Sherman Oaks,