The In-Laws

The wedding is over in a day, but family relationships last a lifetime, including the relationship with in-laws. To help the new marriage succeed by removing one potential stressor, invest as much in nurturing the in-law relationship as what went into planning the wedding. But actually, a healthy in-law relationship must begin before tying the knot, otherwise the many decisions related to wedding planning and execution could doom any chance at one.

A fundamental rule of thumb is to not expect one’s in-law to be the same as one’s family and to not judge them for being dissimilar. Families have different values concerning closeness, money and work. It is best to try hard to not criticize a partner’s family as this will cause stress. One should also not expect to become close to an in-law immediately. A relationship with a parent or child took a lifetime to develop, and marriage won’t miraculously create this closeness. Patience, respect and time are needed. Don’t feel resentment if one’s in-law doesn’t express closeness immediately, and it’s possible that an in-law (or oneself) will never feel the exact closeness as to a parent or child. It is wise to not make comparisons.

As a future parent-in-law, delicate conversations (like who is paying for the wedding and how family time will be divided) should first be with one’s own child—alone. The child can relay the conversation to their partner and together they will decide how to handle the topic smoothly. This holds true when one has a problem with a parent-in-law. Letting one’s partner talk to his or her parents is the strategy most likely to result in a positive outcome and preserve the in-law relationship—this strategy should continue throughout the marriage.

Even when this technique is employed, it is possible that some parties will be dissatisfied. As a parent-in-law, one may feel on the losing end of a situation (they are spending their first joint holiday with “the other side”), but as long as the couple handles family matters fairly, it will be easier for all to embrace compromise. Neither side will, or should, get it all. It can be a difficult but necessary adjustment if the marriage is to be strong, and voicing disgruntlement to the couple will only cause tension in their marriage.

Having a close (at least civil) relationship with in-laws can be a wonderful addition to the core family, but this only happens when both sides work toward it. A foremost priority is recognizing that the couple’s first allegiance must be to their partnership and not to their parents. Parents should expect boundaries on when to visit and how much advice the children will take. This means the couple will form their own married identity that may differ from their parents’. A good parent-in-law will not take this personally and will recognize that “no thanks, I don’t need your help with this,” does not mean that one’s child-in-law is hostile. A good child-in-law will recognize that it is hard for a parent to see that they are no longer their child’s number one person. This struggle can be mitigated by including in-laws when appropriate, asking their opinion or advice (even if ultimately it isn’t taken) and making them feel valued.

Despite best efforts, disagreements or frustrations may still occur. If so, remain calm, civil and respectful—no matter one’s feelings. This is not a time for confrontation; walk away if need be.

The more thoughtful in-laws are of each other, the better the chance that it will be a positive relationship. Remembering birthdays, celebrating and simply spending time together will nurture the new relationship. All relationships take work—this one is no exception—but the efforts are well worth the return, both for the new marriage and for the whole family.

dr. susan bartell

dr. susan bartell

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally-recognized psychologist and author practicing in Port Washington. She also speaks throughout the country on a wide range of topics to help individuals and groups improve emotional and physical health and life balance.