Latest update: March 5th, 2012
You may think you said “I do” to just one person on your wedding day, but the reality of married life is that you actually vowed to honor several people. Marriage comes with new challenges; some of which you had no idea were waiting for you. Maybe you’re lucky enough to adore your in-laws instantly and consistently, but unfortunately many people will come up against some roadblocks on the way.
In our culture, people tend to joke about the classic in-law relationship as being difficult and burdensome. Despite our tendency to speak disparagingly about a mother-in-law who is pushy, controlling and always critical, our in-laws are an important part of marriage and the development of our family.
When you marry someone, you marry his or her family, too. For some, that can require a major adjustment, so it may be helpful to review tips for getting along with your in-laws. That way, you can avoid or head off serious conflicts before they damage your marriage. As many of us would agree, getting along with your in-laws is almost as important as getting along with your husband or wife.
Take Leah, 27, who had considerable difficulty dealing with her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law constantly criticized her and she felt that no matter what she did, disparaging comments would be made in front of Leah’s husband and other people. For example, if Leah would give her daughter some ice cream for dessert, her mother-in-law would say, “Don’t you think she has had too much sugar today?” And if Leah decided not to give her daughter a treat, her mother in-law would probably say, “Do you really think it is fair not to give her one, when the other kids are having one?” No matter what she did, Leah felt she couldn’t win. She chose to be quiet, but inside she felt like she was about to explode.
No one is saying that in-law relationships are easy. The Torah describes conflicts between Yaakov and his father-in-law, Lavan, where each accused the other of being a swindler. Of course, marrying two daughters of the same man compounded Yaakov’s problems! We don’t have to deal with that level of trouble today, fortunately. Still, getting along with your in-laws could be one of the toughest relational situations you will ever face.
Married people typically have to deal with a mother-in-law, father-in-law, and any number of sisters- or brothers-in-law, not to mention the in-law grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Holiday celebrations and family get-togethers can be fraught with the difficulties of trying to figure out whom to invite or not invite. And it can be even worse, when the two sides of the family don’t get along.
While getting along with your in-laws might not be your number one priority right after getting married, over time you will come to realize the value of maintaining positive interactions with extended family. Your spouse will appreciate the efforts you make to get along with his relatives, and that can only improve your marriage overall. Look for the positive traits in members of your new family by marriage, and no one will be disappointed.
The key to in-law relationships is to be respectful while at the same time ensure that your relationship with your spouse takes priority over theirs.
In truth, although that situation may at times be painful to deal with, remember that you are married to your spouse and not them. Don’t expect them to be loving and sensitive to your needs, they may not be able or willing to do so. Focus on your own behavior, which is all you really can control. Always act respectfully and stay focused on the relationship with your spouse.
Deena, 26 and Yaakov, 27, came to speak with me about the way Yaakov’s mother treats Deena. She explained that, “The last time Yaakov and I visited her it happened again. Just trying to be nice and helpful, I washed all the pots and pans after dinner. No sooner had I finished than she (her mother in-law) rewashed them all over again!”
Deena is not a newlywed. She has been married to Yaakov for five years. That whole time, she and Yaakov’s mom have silently struggled with being civil to each other. When Yaakov’s mom comes to visit, Deena really tries to get the house clean and comfortable for her. But after arriving, her mother-in-law pulls out the cleaning supplies and shines the bathrooms and kitchen. Deena assumes she’s doing this because she thinks Deena is a slob and lives in filth.
After the last pots-and-pans fiasco, Deena spilled her frustrations to Yaakov’s older sister, Rivkah. “I know your mother hates me and thinks I’m a slob and a bad person. I can’t seem to do anything to please her.”
Rivkah replied, “Deena, it’s not about you. It’s about Mom’s compulsion to have everything spotless. I grew up with her. I know her. She was like this before you and Yaakov even met. When she rewashes the pots and pans, it’s not condemning you. It’s simply that she has different – and what most would consider absurd – standards of what is acceptably clean.”
While Deena couldn’t really forget it and totally let it go, she did begin to look at her mother-in-law in a different light. She began to try to find ways to help that didn’t involve meeting her mother-in-law’s high standard of cleanliness – like running to the grocery store for milk, or dropping off the dry cleaning and laundry. Deena will probably never have a close relationship with her mother-in-law, but these days they are much more civil to each other.
Chana, 28, and Shlomo, 26, have a similar story to tell. They were married for almost four years and each claimed that the relationship with their in-laws has always been strained, and has placed a lot of pressure on their marriage. The dynamics between Chana and her mother in-law, for example, have never been good. Chana feels that Shlomo’s mother is overly critical of how she parents their children. She was also upset about her mother-in-law’s persistent and nagging comments that Shlomo works too hard. Chana saw them as attacks on her choice to be a stay-at-home mom.
On the other side, Shlomo, who is a quiet bookworm, has great difficulty connecting with his father in-law, who seems to live for sports. When Shlomo and Chana visit his in-laws, Shlomo is especially disturbed to see Chana share her father’s sports mania – leaving Shlomo feeling like an outsider.
It’s normal to want to be accepted by your in-laws. But feeling that you need to be accepted can bring complications, causing you to be uncomfortable and unnatural around them.
Unrealistic hopes cause problems, too. Many parents are initially overprotective of their own child, or have expectations that no spouse can meet in the beginning.
Often new husbands and wives assume they’ll be loved and accepted by in-laws, simply by virtue of having married the in-laws’ child. This may be the case, but it usually takes time to establish trust and respect. Just as it takes time to build other close relationships, gaining acceptance into a family doesn’t happen instantly.
After all, you’re stepping into a family with a long history of established bonds. Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t expect too much. If your relationship with your own parents is wonderful, the one with your mother- and father-in-law may never measure up. If your relationship with your parents isn’t good, you may be too needy and demanding in trying to make up for it.
Next week, Part 27 – Refocusing Your Perspective
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is the executive director of Shalom Task Force and author of a “First Aid for Jewish Marriages.” To order a copy, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com. For more information about Shalom Task Force, please visit www.shalomtaskforce.org. You can e-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Marriage and Family Therapy, is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Flatbush, Cedarhurst, and Crown Heights. He is a certified PAIRS instructor, and trained as a Level 1, Emotionally Focused Therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and is a member of AASECT. He is the author of At Risk – Never Beyond Reach and First Aid For Jewish Marriages. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723
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