Dealing with the in laws can be confusing and confounding and the cause of many arguments around the dinner table. I’ve often wondered why is it that the two people who created the person you love can be so hard to understand.
Why do we and our partners change personality as soon as we fly into parental orbit. No wonder the in-laws are a favourite source of jokes among comedians while also being of great concern for many couples. It can be disconcerting to partners to see their loved ones revert to the irresponsible baby sister or brother, or bossy oldest sibling. Often we hold our in-laws responsible.
Falling back into old patterns
The truth is that when we are back in the heart of our original family unit, the child in us instinctively wants to fall back in line and behave in accordance with the ‘rules-of-belonging’, including the role within a sibling peer group. Even if this person in everyday life is quite independent of their family, they quickly take on their allotted part; becoming the ‘family clown’, the ‘peacemaker’, the ‘responsible one’. Add to that different cultural influences and conditioning (for example, the Dutch preference for strong opinionated discussions versus the British ‘no sex, politics or religion’ at the dinner table) and you have the perfect recipe for arguments about whose family or culture is best.
There are often three aspects to these fight. First of all, dealing with parents, whether your own or your partner’s, means tolerating the ‘child’ that your partner becomes under his or her parental roof. Secondly, we must stop expecting our partners to be the communicators of our grievances to their parents. After all, being on the receiving end, we all know how painful it can be when our partners point out what’s wrong with our family, even if we agree. And thirdly, we cannot and should not try and change any family system other than the one we are building with our partner.
Let them be the child
A good friend of mine works in the media and conducts live broadcast interviews with steely determination. However, his girlfriend felt that whenever they visited his parents, he would revert back to his childhood self. His father would dictate the agenda for the day and my friend would put up no resistance, not even on her behalf, despite expressing to her that he didn’t really like the day’s activities either. As an adult he was wilful and strong, but back under the parental umbrella, he become passive and accommodating. “It’s just for the day” he would tell her.
Some parents abdicate gracefully, while others never quite accept that their time as the no.1 person in their children’s lives is over. Bearing that in mind, it might be a kindness to let them have their ‘little boy or girl’ for the day or even the week, knowing that you have them for life.
All families have their own set of unwritten rules and codes of conduct. These make absolute sense to them and are often deeply rooted in the unconscious. For your in-laws, their family rulebook is as entirely ‘normal’ as your family’s is to you. My friend’s girlfriend found it hard to see her partner become weak-willed around his parents, but, for him, this was a survival strategy born out of his formative years. To behave in any other way would endanger, at the deepest level of self, his sense of belonging to his primary family. Showing an understanding of that deep need to be accepted is often more helpful than trying to attack it and thus create even more defensive behaviour.
The parental loss of status once our children have grown up is one that I can begin to feel more keenly as I see my own son grow into an adult man. Some parents abdicate gracefully, while others never quite accept that their time as the no.1 person in their children’s lives is over. Bearing that in mind, it might be a kindness to let them have their ‘little boy or girl’ for the day or even the week, knowing that you have them for life.
Be your own advocate
To most of us it seems logical, even respectful, that each partner communicates with their own parents. This just doesn’t work when speaking on behalf of partners, especially if it is about deep rooted family dynamics where phrases such as, “your family never talks” or “your family is always telling each other what to do”, are used. If you ask your partner to take ‘your side’, you are asking them to step out of their role in the family system and they may, at heart, not even agree that your way is right. Such communicators make apologetic and ambiguous advocates.
This doesn’t mean you have to accept everything that your in-laws throw at you, especially if it infringes your personal boundaries.
Begin by explaining to your partner that you don’t hold him/her responsible for their parents’ behaviour and that you neither expect your partner nor their parents to change. But when his controlling mother decides everyone has to wear a yellow hat to the party, don’t try and make your partner change her mind on your behalf; do the job yourself. Tell her gently and firmly that yellow is not your colour and you will be wearing green. And, most importantly, choose your battles; maybe you can give way on the yellow hat, but stay firm on not spending every Christmas at their house.
This is especially important for international couples. It’s one thing dealing with your own or your partner’s family’s idiosyncrasies on the odd Sunday afternoon visit, but when they come to stay for extended periods of time, due to travel and distance, irritations can grow uncomfortably high. Or when you have married into a Swedish family, expectations to spend more time with the in-laws, speaking Swedish, and constantly reassuring them about how well you’re settling in, can also create additional stress. It’s fine in these situations to make a joint decision to spend more time alone with each family; who knows, maybe the parents will even enjoy having their child to themselves too.
Polite requests, which set out the ground rules and clear and calm management of expectations go a long way to preventing battles. A bit of humour and counting down the days makes the situation bearable, even enjoyable. We stand so much stronger as a couple when we don’t hold one another accountable for the irritations caused by our respective parents. After all, in the end, it’s you and your partner that get to spend your lives together, while the parents will be on the next plane home.
Giving up on right or wrong
Finally, many couples end up arguing about whose family dynamic is ‘normal’ and try to get the other to change theirs accordingly. But when it comes to relationships and family systems, there is no ‘one right way’ of doing things.
Each generation deals with changed circumstances and trends, especially in relation to bringing up children. What we can do is take what we think is best from our original family dynamics and use them as building blocks to create our own. Sometimes we need to compromise when our partner’s building blocks differ greatly from ours, but we need to remind ourselves that, unless we’re talking about physical or emotional abuse, there is no objective truth about our own system being better than our partner’s. This is an important process where, through dialogue and understanding, a new and improved family unit can be created between the both of you.
It is important to realise that these discussions are only applicable to the new family unit that you are creating together. Criticising a partner’s parents through comments like “your mum and dad should also learn to…..” proves to be unproductive at best and destructive at worst, since it puts people into loyalty conflicts between their original family unit and their partner’s. You may think that your own family’s way of communicating and relating is the ‘best’ one’; you may have successfully helped your family where things needed to change, but that doesn’t give you permission to try and rewrite another family’s rule book.
If all else fails, it helps to remember that however infuriating your in-laws might be, they are still the people who produced the person whom you love so much. They can’t be all bad.