I met Sue* at the entrance to the hospital on my way out, watching her children play as she concluded an angry phone call. After exchanging greetings we sat down for a brief chat and she shared what was bothering her. She was very disappointed that since they relocated home after having lived abroad for a while, their marriage was falling apart. She was concerned that she was losing her husband who previously adored her.
The couple has three year old twins who had fallen sick that morning, and as Sue dressed them, her mother in law came to help. She noticed that one’s temperature was getting high and started to comment negatively to about the baby being heavily dressed. Sue was already tired because she had been up all night attending to the babies and felt that her mother in law didn’t appreciate her parenting skills.
Her husband Ted had dropped them at the hospital, left to report to work and then to drop his mom at his sister’s home. Sue was very disappointed with Ted and felt that she and the children were not his first priority because if they were, he would have stayed at the hospital until they were treated. Why did his mother come first? Why couldn’t she wait?
Her mother in law was aging and often had checkups and treatment that Ted paid for. And even if that was okay with Sue, she did not appreciate the fact that she often arrived and left their home as she wished without informing her in advance. She would get home from work and find Ted’s mom already settled comfortably in their house. This made her feel so violated, like she was not important in her own home. Worse still during school holidays, when she would visit with her two grandchildren in tow. Although they always brought food enough for everyone, her home felt invaded and her children denied their privacy because they had to share their bedroom.
Sue felt her hubby favoured his own family because he would take time off, drive his mom when she was around to the hospital but when her family was around, they would use a cab. When she asked him why he treated them differently, he said his mom was not able to walk comfortably and so he preferred to drive her but her family were all healthy so it was ok for them to take a cab. His mom would also wake up early to prepare for him his favourite childhood dishes, and when she complained he would take it very lightly and consider it a good opportunity to relieve her of some her duties. When she insisted that she could do her wifely roles, the husband begged her to bear with his mom as it would be for a short time and he did not need any drama. This made her feel unimportant and like his mom was taking her place. Her mother in law when around, would do as she pleased as Sue watched
I asked Sue how Ted’s family had been raised, and she mentioned that his father died when he was 13 and he had to grow up fast to take care of his five younger siblings as he was first born. He became his mom’s best friend, confidant and helper. As he’d since explained this history to her even before they got married, he hoped Sue would understand when he related very closely with his family. Sue on the other hand had expected that with his getting married, this would automatically change and that he would give his family first priority. Many times Sue had found herself angrily shouting at Ted that he put his family before her. During happier times though, he assured her that no one would take her place. And indeed Sue acknowledged that he really treated her well and cared for their children except when the in-laws ‘invaded’ their space.
As I listened to Sue, I could just see how different people feel about their in-laws and the different perspectives at play. Parents often feel their sons and daughters in-law are not considerate whilst the sons and daughters feel just the same way about their spouse’s parents and siblings. People often get caught up between accepting and treating in-laws as family or foregoing individual needs and feelings in order to please and not offend them. In all this confusion, each party views the other as a burden and many things hurt when relating to in-laws including:-
• When one is expected to compromise all the time and do things the way their in-laws want it.
• When it is expected that nothing should change in relation to one’s family after getting married.
• When one spouse takes sides with his/her family.
• When an in-law disrespects one spouse’s parental role
• When a spouse is not assertive with their own family and lets them control the home.
• When one set of parents is favoured over another.
• When there are no boundaries between the couple and any of their families.
When two people come together in marriage, it is important to know that one does not just marry one person. The spouse’s family form part of the marriage and one has to acknowledge that they are a part of the family. That said, what can then be done to improve the relationship between in-laws and to ensure there is harmony?
Know your own needs. Examine the relationship you had with your own parents. If you had a poor relationship with any of them and your in-laws have similar traits, the possibility is high that you will treat the in-laws in a similar manner. If it was poor and the in-laws are very pleasant, you are likely to be a dependent on them. If your parental relationship was good and in-laws share similar traits, you may have a good relationship while if the in-laws traits are not pleasing, you are likely to keep comparing and be unhappy. Please take note that good or bad relationships are judged by the person involved and not by the world in general. Knowing accepting that no two families are similar is important. Making a choice to treat your in laws as part of your family doesn’t mean forgoing and sacrificing your feelings and needs to meet theirs. It doesn’t mean putting your life on hold and stopping to live your own life to live theirs. It only means creating space for them as they are without expecting them to change and having dialogue with your spouse to agree on the way forward.
Understand your spouse’s family:
From Sue’s case, it is clear the kind of support Ted had been giving his mom was a replacement for what his deceased father would have offered in terms of decision making and care. To his siblings he was a ‘dad’, a father figure. This background was important as Sue understood that marriage was not a reason enough for the husband to drop all the responsibilities towards his original family. They needed dialogue where he needed to see that Sue’s family was different from his and their view of all things family are from very different perspectives. He also needed to know that Sue wasn’t against him supporting his family but would have preferred that he balanced it out and also involved her. Sue needed him to speak with his mom to announce her visits to ensure everything would be well managed. In a span of three months, they had saved their otherwise strained marriage. Ted would listen to Sue’s concerns because he felt she too was concerned about their marriage and his family. Sue made a point to call Ted’s mom enquiring after health and her next appointment. She also made the effort to ask her to teach her how to make the traditional foods she usually made and encouraged her to rest. She also changed her previous stand, and now encouraged her children to eat the indigenous foods when her mother in-law was around, thinking to herself that it didn’t really matter, given that it was the same food her husband ate whilst he was young that made him healthy. She also took advantage and left the kids with grandma to have time out with Ted. Sue made a deliberate effort to change her attitude, acknowledging that this was her husband’s family and that he will be part of it for as long as long as she stayed in marriage. Ted also committed to making changes and started to put Sue and their children first then his family after. The most important part is they talked a lot, learning about how each of their families operated and rather than judge and blame each other, they adjusted and decided on a continuous basis how to live peacefully. People easily listen when they don’t feel judged and blamed….
An important discussion couples need to have before marriage is to talk about how to handle in-laws. If for some reason it wasn’t discussed in advance, then it would be important to address it as early as possible in the marriage. It is essential to exhaustively discuss: how far the two families involved can be allowed into the marriage; what kind of support is healthy and can be provided; if and when they can visit and stay; if the two families are to be treated equally; how much time will be given to them away from family; if they will be allowed to make any decisions in marriage, and if yes, to what extent their involvement would reach. After understanding each other’s families, making the deliberate choice not to act in the areas of dislike will form part of the boundary making.
Decision making with regards to in-laws is best done together. A decision needs to be made in advance on what measures will be taken if the in-laws go beyond the limit. Assumptions should not be made and an agreement needs to be reached that if certain things happen, what the intervention will be. One may not necessarily like their in-laws, but one can decide to respect self and also treat them with respect.
Each spouse has their set of expectations and when not met, they cause hurt and a feeling of failure. It’s not just the in-laws that cause hurt, it emanates from one’s spouse too. We generally tend to imagine that our spouses will ‘protect’ us against our in-laws when they hurt us. When one partner acts neutral and doesn’t take the other’s side, it is seen as siding with their own family. It is an important thing to know that the families we come from and the ones we get married to will hurt us. Sometimes very deeply. They are however our number one and most immediate support. So if we level the playing field where we usually acknowledge that we are only human, and allow ourselves to make errors once in a while, and we don’t expect people to judge us on the grounds of our one or two mistakes, then it is only honorable to extend the same grace to even our in-laws. Accept in advance that the other party has the capacity to hurt us, and when they do, it is because it goes against our expectations. Letting go of the past hurts and aches, helps to rebuild the relationship and move on. This is where forgiveness becomes important for the hurting party, allowing self to walk free from our self-made prisons. Part of learning to manage expectations is by going out of the way once in a while to do something for the in-laws with expectation that they may not appreciate the efforts made, but doing it anyway.
As Sue worked on her relationship with her mother in law, she began to appreciate their significant differences. While her own mom rarely visited and when she did, she was forever busy and preferred to take the kids out once in a long time, her mother in-law would help with the cooking, play with the kids and babysit when she needed time out with Ted. Initially, she’d found this very invasive of their privacy and a discredit to her efforts of being wife and mom. When she made a conscious effort to acknowledge their differences, she identified just how different their families and stopped comparing. Her own family was totally independent and they almost didn’t need each other. She also realized that she as a mom was a little detached and wasn’t the type who’d listen to every single word the kids were saying and just spend lots of time being there just to bond with them to. She was slowly learning to connect with the kids emotionally. Ted on the other hand had grown in a family where they cared for each other and would sit and listen to each other and then decide the way forward. The acknowledgement of these difference mad a big difference in their marriage, parenting and relationship with the in-laws.
There’s a general feeling that in-laws are very difficult people who create problems in marriages and make life difficult. This is not necessarily the case. There are some very challenging in-laws to deal with that require more focus and effort. Everybody is unique and different and have their own individual ways of seeing things. The trick is to remember that there is always a good side of even the worst person, only if we choose to see it.