Ever since I was very young, nothing has mattered more to me than family life. I had imperfect, loving parents, and I am an imperfect, loving mother. In my professional life, as a therapist, I am dedicated to the well-being of family members from an array of varied households, assisting with interpersonal relationships, as well as intrapersonally-helping others manage conflicts within one’s self. Each individual is an entity like no other. I savor the virtual heart-to-heart dance between client and therapist. Navigating our world can be painful, challenging, or dare I say, traumatic. How gratifying is it to be listened to, to be understood and accepted, to be provided with a treasure chest of tools, and to be gently guided?
People come into my office for help with relationships that are parent-child, adult-sibling, friendship, pre-marital or marital, and not uncommonly, what comes across my “desk” are the struggles of the in-law relationship. Whether the strains are attached to a father- or mother-in-law, or a son- or daughter-in-law, (i.e. one who is controlling, who offers unsolicited advice, who is or is not appreciative, who is or is not included, who is warm or cold-hearted, or who is more or less kind/giving than expected), I have come to appreciate that the in-law relationship is often one of the most important within a family circle. It is like a launching pad, that once catapulted, determines the quality of so many of the other familial relationships.
When working through these problems, there are many factors to consider:
-What is the strength of the relationship of each partner/spouse with their parent(s) and their nuclear family of origin?
-Are there tendencies toward jealousy and envy?
-The differing definitions of the expression of love, care, and concern
-Relationships between sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law
-Ages and stages of life
-Are there geographical ramifications? How far apart does everyone involved live? What is their digital closeness or distance?
The list is, of course, as unique as each of the people involved.
Erik Erikson, one of the renowned developmental psychologists and psychoanalysts of the 20th century, looks at each life stage and unravels the developmental struggles from birth to end-of-life that all individuals universally endure, and hopefully, overcome. For example, at birth, the need is to develop trust toward caregivers. “Give me what I need soundly, consistently, and flexibly, as a loving authority,” each newborn asks.
As we grow older, we enter into a series of challenges, as we encounter questions and conundrums regarding our identity. The teenager asks, “How am I like and not like each of my parents? Who am I and how do I balance the need for parental approval and attention with the priority of pursuing social relationships?”
And as we approach our 20’s and 30’s, we are asked the profound question, “Can I love?” Can I forge a connection with fidelity and intimacy with one other, as if the relationship with the spouse is without context and other complex connections. But as we have heard often: we do not marry (just) a person, we marry into a family.
While the couple is adjusting to this new phase, we have to realize that parents/in-laws are actually simultaneously adjusting to a new phase themselves—a developmental challenge of their own. Erikson refers to this stage as Generativity vs. Stagnation. This challenge takes place approximately between the ages of 40-64.
At this stage, parents of adult children have been encouraging their children to be responsible. Now they are expected to accept their child’s partner (and friends) and to relinquish their central role in their child’s life. This can come as a sudden shock to this age group, even if their child’s marriage is the answer to their prayers. They must learn to accept, and ideally to embrace, that there is another person who is now, and for hopefully many years ahead, the priority in their child’s life—the child that they raised. There are a new cast of characters on both sides of the aisle, and the relationships have a new tenor, and above all else, new expectations.
We raise our children to share, but then we are asked to share them—with another set of parents, but especially with their life partner. Our parents are often shared with siblings, but suddenly we may feel we are sharing them with our spouse.
Ideally, in order to make the most out of this period of life, and to do so effectively, it is helpful to see if you can approach it with a sense of composure and calm, thoughtfully endeavoring to respond, as opposed to reacting, to whatever surprises comes your way.
Here are some suggestions – a system – that you or a friend/family member may find helpful. Please reflect on these ideas, which can be applied to the in-law relationship and to all other connections of importance. They are as easy as the very vowels of our alphabet.
A-From feeling Anger and frustration to internalizing Acceptance:
When angry, it pays to identify the source of the anger, to consider how one manages frustrations, and to determine if, why, and how anger and frustration are being projected onto a spouse’s parents or onto a child’s spouse. Since it is considered legitimate to complain about in-laws, as it is almost an accepted norm in society, one runs the risk of displacing anger that may belong elsewhere onto this more fragile relationship. Here is a tip and a tool:
Practice something new called “On Second Thought”. First, get ready to reflect flexibly by using self-soothing techniques, such as slowed breathing or grounding, so as to calm emotional reactivity. This gives you the opportunity to reflect more rationally about these emotional issues. Ask yourself, “Is there any other way to think about this?” The developer of DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), an evidence-based treatment, Marsha Linehan encourages a balance of emotion and reason called “The Wise Mind”. While anger is of course a legitimate emotion, if uncontained it can spill over. According to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), it is necessary to rethink one’s stance and position. By the way, it is helpful to tell oneself that just because I think it, doesn’t mean it is true. Indeed, even if your assessment of the situation is “right”, it still may not benefit the relationship.
Sue Johnson, an expert in this field says that being right in a relationship is the booby prize. It is not about being right— it is about being connected. Be slow, soft, and pace your response. To protect the connection, sometimes genuine acceptance is called for.
Acceptance is not necessarily legitimizing a position you disagree with. It is embracing what you accept about the other. This can result in a wiser, more neutral, and measured fashion of engaging and even disagreeing.
E- From having Expectations to internalizing Empathy:
We tend to presume, whether consciously or from outside of our awareness, that our new family will, to some degree, be similar to the one we came from, in terms of roles and patterns of interactions. This is where expectations and disappointments may come into play.
Each of us is entitled to decency and respect, and yet, the way even these fundamentally basic (human) rights are defined varies from family to family and from person to person. When expectations are not met, it can confuse and hurt. Ill-intent is often assumed. Asking yourself some of the following questions can ironically bring about a shift, if you are open to it. They may bring you to a more loving state of empathy and warmth toward the other party:
-Are my expectations fair?
-Can I be satisfied and temper my disappointment?
-What expectations and standards have I set for myself? This is particularly worthy of contemplating; not meeting the standards of behavior set for yourself can be more profoundly painful, and as we all know, we can only control our own responses.
-Can I practice a gentle empathy for the one who may have disappointed me?
I—From feeling Insulted, and perhaps Injured, to growing Intrigued:
What one family views as acceptable, another can find unacceptable, or even rude and tactless. These same people might have no idea that they have insulted you. A rethinking technique that might work is asking yourself, “In what way did they mean it?” Unless it was clearly uncalled for, and perhaps embarrassing, see if you can shift your thinking to that of being intrigued and distantly curious. “Can I go so far as to even joke about this?” Can you shrug your shoulders with, “Oh well, this is their style. Not mine. But I need them in my life, so I will chalk it up to them being them.” Might you also nip this in the bud, and delicately respond with something like, “Ow, that hurt…” Or, can you address the “insultor”, noting that their style is a little offensive or abrasive, explaining how they make you feel, tactfully and maybe with a bit of humor, so they are not insulted in return?
O—From feeling Offended (and put-off) to Open-Hearted:
It is not easy when others are off-putting and downright offensive. No one deserves that.
So much good comes from giving yourself the space, time, and distance in the event that that has happened “to” you. It isn’t easy. But in doing this, you may shift from feeling offended to being open-hearted. Via a gentle self-speak, ask yourself where the offensiveness stemmed from. “Should I see what I may be communicating? Have I, in fact, been offensive? If not, can I open myself up to address this constructively for the overall good of our families?”
U—From Upheaval to the achievement of Understanding:
Sometimes, our physical being can get so shaken as a result of a comment or a seemingly negative interaction with another family member, which can lead to familial upheaval. A question to ask yourself is: “Did I take the bait? Have I overreacted?” When we grow easily distraught, we are not able to enjoy life or the people around us. Eggshell relationships can be borne out of this, and strange as it sounds, one’s best and most beautiful self is concealed. Pause, and then pause some more, and once your thinking becomes clearer, ask yourself, “Is there any room for understanding this family member’s perspective?”
Life is a beautiful thing, and we have to take on a strength-based approach above all else, and so…
One of my favorite words is “nice”, and I am going to share with you examples of kind-hearted and simply nice gestures some people I know have done for their in-law child or in-law parent (either child to parent, parent to child, or parents to parents):
A friend sent her son’s mother-in-law flowers for Mother’s Day, thanking her for being a second mother to her son.
Calling each other just to see how everyone is doing. No special reason. Similarly, ritualizing when you call and talk, before holidays or Shabbat.
When a wife encourages her husband to call his mother or father, and other variations of this theme
Creating picture memories via a calendar, etc. for birthdays/anniversaries
Babysitting and giving parents a night out, if living close by
The list is endless, and I would love nothing more than for you to send in some more “simply nice” ideas. After all, goodness is contagious.
May your inner resources, fortitude, and resolve help raise yourself and those in your life toward the developmental achievement of generating love, compassion, acceptance, and optimal success in your in-law and other family relationships.
Wishing you imperfect, loving connections, and if it gets tough, may you ride the wave gracefully, with support and the confidence to resolve it.
**If you are interested in a weekly support group in Baltimore for parents of married sons or daughters that I am forming, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The group will be held Wednesdays at 8 pm.
I dedicate this article to my daughters-in-law, my son-in-law, and their life partners, and to my dear mother, who referred to her in-law children as daughters- and sons-in-love.