Your in-laws are a crucial part of your spouse's life. This makes them a crucial part of your life as well. No one ever said it was easy to balance your needs with the needs of others -- especially the needs of an entire new family. But creating family harmony is possible — and it's very much worth the effort.
You realize it won't be easy to build bridges -- and rebuild some that have been burnt — but you also realize that it's a valuable way to spend your time. The return you get on your investment will last the rest of your married life. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Work with your spouse. This is the key rule, numero uno, the whole enchilada. As my wonderful husband reminded me last night, dealing effectively with in-laws all starts with first working conflicts through with your spouse. Remember, you're in this together.
Never put your spouse in a situation where he or she has to choose between you and a relative. If you do so, you're putting your spouse in a nearly impossible bind. Instead, try to understand the bond your spouse has with his or her grandparents, parents, and siblings. If possible, try to support that relationship. Even if your spouse has parents from hell, they are his or her parents.
- Set boundaries and limits. No candy before mealtime for the kids? No loans for in-laws? With your spouse, decide what's important and what's not. For example, we let our kids eat anything they want anytime. Want ice cream ten minutes before dinner? Fine by me
as long as you eat a reasonable dinner. But we're really, really picky about school work. I don't think it has dawned on my kids yet that there is a grade below "A." Working as a team, set your family values. Then communicate your values to your in-laws. All of your values and all of your in-laws.
Speaking of boundaries, don't make promises that you can't keep. Remember Neville Chamberlain, Hitler, and Poland? In an attempt to achieve "peace in our time," British politico Neville Chamberlain gave Poland to Hitler as part of the British appeasement policy. Remember how well that worked? Hitler just kept right on seizing chunks of Europe. Placating people to keep the peace rarely solves the problem — especially if your in-laws are tyrants.
- Enforce the boundaries and limits. Without being as inflexible as a teenager, stick to your guns. For example, if you don't want drop-in company, tell your in-laws that you'd prefer that they call before they show up at your doorstep. If they ignore you, don't answer the door the next time they just happen to drop-by. Even if they do have a lemon meringue pie.
- Communicate directly. Whenever possible, avoid communicating through a third party. Don't ask your spouse to talk to his sister about something she did that hurt your feelings. Talk to your sister-in-law directly.
If something bothers you, address it as soon as possible. Sometimes it's a genuine problem; other times, it might be a misunderstanding. Tori married into a family whose members had been born in Germany. Every time a family member went into the kitchen, he or she shut the door -- often leaving Tori out. For years, she stewed over the situation. Finally, she got up the courage to ask her mother-in-law why she closed the kitchen door. "Why, to keep in the heat," she answered. "We always did that in Germany." Closing the kitchen door had nothing to do with Tori. A cultural misunderstanding had caused years of distress for her -- which neither her in-laws nor she ever realized.
- Know yourself. Shakespeare said it a zillion years ago, and the advice still holds today: Don't try to remake yourself into the person your in-laws want. For example, what if they're looking for little Susie Homemaker and you're a high-powered corporate attorney? You're under no obligation on your day off to bake Swedish rye bread and churn your own butter. Get a manicure and call for some take-out instead.
- Get with the program. Not every father-in-law lives to snake out your kitchen sink; not every mother-in-law dreams of baking cookies with her grandchildren. Put away the stereotypes and adjust your thinking to the reality of the situation. Don't expect what people can't deliver.
- Learn to cool off. I tend to jump in where angels fear to tread. It's always headfirst, too. Fortunately, my husband is far more levelheaded. Many times, the best thing to do is nothing. Time heals many wounds -- and wounds many heels.
While we're at it, play nice. Spare your in-laws the insults and character attacks. For example, Jack's father-in-law once called his son a knee-jerk liberal. "I had it on the tip of my tongue to call him a "bloody fascist," Jack said. "Fortunately, I bit my tongue-even though he really is a fascist."
- Be mature. Your parents have to love you; it's in the contract. But your in-laws don't. Accept the fact that your in-laws aren't your parents and won't follow the same rules. Try to think "different" — not "better" or "worse." To make this work, give in on small points and negotiate the key issues.
Learn to see the situation from your in-law's point of view. And even if you don't agree, act like a big person. For example, I hate pork. I never eat it; I rarely cook it. Nonetheless, for years my mother-in-law would make a pork roast when we came to her house for dinner. After wallowing in more pork than Congress produces, I came to see that she was trying to please her poor pork-deprived son. Big deal: I learned to have a salad before we ate at her house. My husband porked up in peace and the only one to suffer was Babe, the poor porker.
- Be kind. Even if you have to grit your teeth, try to say something nice. And if you really can't say anything nice, shut up and smile.
- Keep your sense of humor. A very dear friend tells this story: "When I was pregnant with my first child, my father-in-law bought me a special gift: My very own funeral plot. 'Why a funeral plot?' I asked him. 'Well,' he replied, 'you might not make it through the birth and I thought you should be prepared.'" I probably would have slugged the codger upside his head; my friend, in contrast, laughed and thanked him for his gift. P.S. She and all her children are fine.
A happy marriage is not like football; there are no successful end-runs in this game. Never go behind your spouse's back when you deal with in-laws. And don't tolerate it if your spouse does.
Don't Go There
Don't confuse listening and responding. You're not obligated to do something just because your in-laws want you to, but you should acknowledge their input. People get pushy when they feel you're turning them down without really listening, so they tend to scream louder. Maybe then you'll hear them!
Think of your in-laws as a potential resource to expand your support network. You can accomplish this by approaching your in-laws the same way you would any potential friend. Respect them, be interested in them, and listen to them.
When the going gets tough, the tough often stay neutral. Even if the situation has gone Bosnian, try to be civil if you can't be silent. Switzerland has the right idea; patient restraint. No one held a caucus and made you the family spokesperson.
You and your spouse are more powerful than you think. You're adults; you're a family unit. You can control visits, holiday celebrations, and access to grandchildren. Don't assume that you're powerless. No one can push you around if you don't let them.