Latest update: March 5th, 2012
The number one factor in resolving problems of acceptance by in-laws is your spouse’s support. As with all close relationships, it’s an art to support your spouse without jumping into the fight or feeding his or her discontent.
Let’s say that Chana and Shlomo have just returned from an extended visit with his parents. She declares: “I never want to stay with your parents again! Why doesn’t your mother like me? Why does she seem to criticize the way I am bringing up our children? She told me that she had you potty trained by the age of 2 and that you obeyed her without question.”
In this case, Chana is being a little overdramatic and overly sensitive. How can Shlomo support her without reinforcing her exaggeration or condemning his mom?
He could say something like this: “Honey, I’m so sorry that you feel hurt by the things my mom says. But I know you’re a terrific mother, and she’ll come to see that, too. She also seems to remember me as much more perfect than I was. I can remember giving her plenty of frustration and grief, but it’s probably good that she doesn’t remember all the tough times. I’ll always support you in finding a time to share your feelings with my mom. I really think she likes you and won’t be able to help but love you as time goes on.”
Or imagine that Shlomo has the complaint, “I don’t want to spend more than one day at your parents’ house ever again,” he says. “I always feel like a third wheel. I know your dad hates the fact that I don’t enjoy sports. You and he seem to be in your own little ‘sports world.’ What am I supposed to do – spend my time helping your mom in the kitchen?”
Chana might respond by reassuring Shlomo by saying something like: “I’m so sorry that I haven’t been more sensitive to your feelings of being left out during those times. You’re right – enjoying sports has been the major thing Dad and I share. I know even Mom has felt a little left out when we obsess about it. Let’s see if we can think of ways to connect when we’re at my parents’ – all of us, including my mom. I know my dad primarily cares about how I’m loved and taken care of, and there’s no question about those things in my mind. Please give me a little sign if I forget it next time.”
For couples like Shlomo and Chana, I suggest that they work on the following points:
1. Work with each other. 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 difficult parents, they are his or her parents.
2. Communicate directly. If 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.
3. Set boundaries and limits. With your spouse, decide what’s important and what’s not. For example, you want to spend quality time together on the weekend, independent of what your in-laws expect. Or, you may decide that you will not take any loans from your in-laws, period. Some parents, for example, let their children eat anything they want, anytime. Others establish mealtime rituals such as: if you eat a reasonable dinner, then you can have some dessert. Working as a team, you should set your own family values, and then communicate your values to your in-laws.
Putting It All Together
Michael, 29, came to speak to me about the difficulties he was having with his future mother in-law. He began by describing to me the positive feelings he had for his kallah:
Michael: First, let me start by saying that my kallah, Rachel, is a wonderful, beautiful and unique person. We are a perfect match, and both find strength in being together.
Daniel Schonbuch (DS): Tell me more about your personalities.
Michael: I think our personalities are very different, but they complement each other very well. I’m more dominating. I think I am a dominant Type A. I love to be in control and make decisions. I can be stubborn at times, but my objectivity balances that out most of the time. I think I know when to give in and when not to.
DS: What about Rachel?
Michael: Rachel is very loving and her strength lies in her nurturing, caring personality. But, at the same time, she has not developed a more decisive personality, which I have developed with more life experience. I make some of the decisions that require my strengths, and she makes those that call upon hers. The rest of our decisions so far have been made together.
DS: It sounds like your complement each other. How are you getting along with your future mother in-law?
Michael: I knew from the beginning that she is a very strong Type A personality, who has a lot of influence over Rachel and the rest of her family. Because of this, her mother feels that she must be involved in every aspect of her Rachel’s life. This means knowing everything that goes on with us; and because she knows how to work her daughter, Rachel has an extremely difficult time resisting the constant pressure her mother puts on her to know every intricate detail about her life.
DS: So, you believe Rachel can’t resist her mother’s pressure.
Michael: I think so. I am trying to build a family unit and this is extremely difficult to do when her mother continues to have such a negative and overbearing influence on her. Rachel and I have spoken many times on this subject, and each time, I try to guide her to stand up to her mother and say no to her when she does not agree. I’ve explained that we cannot build a family for ourselves when her mother has such a major influence on her. We cannot take the chance that the decisions we make in our future are so influenced by what her mother thinks. Rachel has tried, but she cannot seem to overcome this pressure.
DS: How do you get along with your future mother in-law?
Michael: Now, as you can guess, her mother and I often clash with one another. I have had to step up many, many times to fight for us; but I cannot do this forever. I just don’t have the strength or willpower to spend a lifetime battling her mother’s control.
DS: What do you think Rachel can do?
Michael: I think Rachel needs to step up and start making her own decisions. In fact, they both have to make adjustments and come to the realization that Rachel will no longer be living in her mother’s house, and that soon we will be married and we will need the time to build our own family.
DS: It sounds like you’ve got a great basis for a marriage there – you’re very lucky. This is normal to a certain extent, especially if the daughter and mother are close.
Rachel by nature does not seem to be a Type A, so it’s believable that her mother would somewhat dominate her in situations. Type As have a tendency to do that. She has followed her lead just like she follows your lead to a certain extent.
I think you need to sit down and talk to Rachel about this. Explain to her that you’d like to set some type of boundaries as far as what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable for you, for her to discuss with her mother. Come up with a list of things that might come up, and then the two of you can discuss what’s acceptable to both; there may have to be compromise.
Once a person is married, I fully believe that a person should let go of their parents and become one with their spouse. That’s impossible to do if there is a parent in the middle. I’d also let your kallah know that you’re trying to be proactive in stopping what you feel could be an issue further down the line, that may cause problems.
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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 email@example.com.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, LMFT is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, treating anxiety and depression, and helping teens in crisis with offices For more information visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 646-428-4723.
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