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.