In-Laws or Outlaws?
Dr. Paul | January 16, 2019 |
I was fortunate, my in-laws and I got along famously. Over the years, we became close as we got to know each other. I think they were very happy that I married their daughter. They thought I was a “catch”. I didn't want to disappoint them.
My wife wasn't so fortunate. My mother didn't appreciate Diane. Maybe they were too similar—both strong willed and opinionated. Not long after we had children, sparks started to fly. Over the years, it got worse.
Diane didn't trust my mother with our kids, which my mom resented. My wife didn't want to attend my extended family gatherings. My mother was passive aggressive and didn't take responsibility for her behavior. It was a mess. It caused me a great deal of pain.
In-law friction is a challenging problem for couples. Children, including adult children, have long standing loyalty to their parents. It’s hard when their partner and their parent is at odds. Their loyalties become divided. Do they support their spouse or their parent? How do they navigate these turbulent waters? It can be a source of big conflict in marriages. They feel caught in the middle of a conflict between two people they love. And, in some instances, it can feel hopeless.
About 15 years after we were married, my mother was visiting our family. Diane spontaneously approached my mom and said “Helene, let’s bury the hatchet. We have a lot in common—we both love Paul. Let’s jump the broom.”
“Jumping the broom” was how slaves got married on the plantation. They held hands and jumped over a broom and were married.
Diane put a broom on the floor, held my mother’s hand, and they jumped over the broom, giggling like two school girls. From that moment on, they became fast friends.
When my mother passed away, she gave Diane her most valuable piece of jewelry—a beautiful pearl necklace given to her by the love of her life. Twenty-five years earlier I could never have imagined how their relationship would change! Not everyone is so fortunate.
Important points to remember if you have in-law problems.
Remember your partner is the most important person in your life.
It’s not your parent—it’s your spouse. I know, this is hard. But the person you need to support is your significant other. It doesn't mean that you don’t love your mom or dad. It just means that your partner is the most important person in your life. Don’t ever forget it.
Talk to your parent.
I did talk to my mother about her behavior and insisted that she be polite to Diane. She was—but there was still tension for many years from past injury. When you do talk to your parent, do it alone. Bring up specific examples of how their behavior or actions may be contributing to their relationship conflict with your partner. Share how this impacts you. It’s not possible to make two people like each other. But you can insist on polite, thoughtful behavior.
Keep your children out of it.
Kids, especially as they get a little older, will feel the tension between family members. They know something’s wrong, but they may blame themselves. It’s helpful to acknowledge the obvious—but it’s important to keep your own feelings out of the conversation.
Keep other family members out of it too.
Don’t vent to others in the family about your feelings or about the conflict. That can create even more strain. You don’t want to involve other relatives who may end up taking sides, which intensifies conflict.
Over the long haul, change is possible. Things can always improve, even if they don’t ever become what you would hope for.