A priest officiating a wedding once enumerated the three things that can break a marriage: money, unfaithfulness or infidelity, and in-laws. Unfortunately, not many enter marriage with a full understanding that in-laws can make or mar the marriage. It therefore becomes important that everyone learns how to handle the ropes, early and fast, as far as in-laws are concerned.
Now, marriage does not only bring two people together, it also joins families as well. Culturally, that is just the way things are, particularly in this side of the world: marriage blesses a couple with a new family – the in-laws. As your in-laws are an important part of your spouse’s life, marriage makes them important people to you, too.
The problem usually is: it is difficult adjusting to a new set of people, more or less strangers who have their own established lifestyles, hence their needs and requirements. As is expected of any relationship, there is bound to be occasional rubbing on the wrong side, arguments and, if care is not taken, resentments. You may find yourself in a situation where you do not know how to handle your in-laws. You want to be in their good books but at the same time, you also want to secure your own space. To maintain family harmony, it is necessary for you to put in extra efforts and build a bridge between you and them.
It is therefore no wonder that, for most couples, handling in-laws can be tricky. Let us face it; you are an outsider to a family system that has very established rules and dynamics. But to be fair, your spouse has the same battle with your family.
I remember the story of a young man who was deeply in love with a young lady. As much as she loved him, her stand was that she could never marry anyone with parents or siblings. And it was all because of the terrible things, whether real or imagined, she had heard about in-laws.
“Do you have parents?” the young man asked her.
“Yes,” she responded.
“What do you think we should do to yours after we have got rid of mine?” he asked, tongue-in-cheek.
Of course, she had no answer. As much as she did not want her husband to have parents or siblings, she wanted to keep hers.
The truth is, some are blessed with great in-laws. But this usually does not happen by chance. A lot of people learnt the necessary skills at one point or the other. Many spouses often feel like they must compete with their in-laws for the time and attention of their spouse. This is especially true during the first few years of marriage.
The other part of the story that is not often told is the fact that we are usually blind to our own faults. Some of us can be selfish and haughty or have major character flaws, and this can constitute a major problem in relating with people generally and our in-laws in particular. Our troubles with in-laws then become self-inflicted; the problem in that case is not our in-laws but our lack of people-skills and our unwillingness to learn acceptable behaviour and change our attitude.
Now, the complaints about in-laws are many and varied:
- My in-laws barge into my home without notice.
- My parents-in-law are spoiling our children silly.
- My husband is mummy’s boy and this is getting at me.
- My brothers or sisters-in-law eavesdrop on my discussions with my husband/wife and report to my parents-in-law.
- My mother-in-law comes to pitch her tent in my home without any indication as to when she is leaving.
The list is endless.
The question is: Can a good relationship with in-laws be beneficial to a marriage? The answer is obviously yes. A negative relationship with your in-laws can put undue strain on your marriage.
In a survey by Helium, 92% of the respondents said that a good relationship with in-laws has a positive impact on marital life. So I ask you: In what ways has a good relationship with your in-laws benefitted your marriage? On the opposite side, in what ways has not being in a good relationship with your in-laws affected your marriage?
Whatever your answers, you will agree with me that it pays to know how to navigate the murky in-law waters. And it is often with a mix of tact, straightforwardness and some consideration for others.
Whether the relationship with your in-laws is great or could do with some improving, here are some practical tips that can help:
Spouse comes first.
When you get married, it is time to grow up and leave your parents. This does not mean you emotionally kick them into the dustbin or cut all ties, but you do need to establish your own family. By putting your spouse first, you are choosing the adult role of being a husband or wife over the role of being a child in your parent’s family.
Making a list of ‘non-negotiables’ can help a young couple deal with an extended family. There are many things that happen in marriage that are none of your parent’s business. If you run to mummy or daddy every time you have a disagreement with your spouse, how are you going to learn to handle life with your spouse on your own? Avoid sharing your household’s secrets with your parents. However, where the issues are becoming dangerous to your well-being or inimical to the progress of your home, you will have to seek counsel and/or get your parents involved. Discuss with your spouse what topics and areas of your lives are off limits to others. Setting clear ground rules for handling extended family will improve your marriage.
Recognise the culture.
Our culture and upbringing plays a major role in how we handle our marriage. Recognise the cultural aspects of your spouse’s upbringing and handle her and her family accordingly.
Do not become critical of your spouse’s relationship with his/her parents.
You can always bring complaints about your parents-in-law to your spouse, but never come across as criticising them. Nothing can raise a spouse’s defences faster than criticism. Seek to understand more about their relationship rather than criticise, as this can lead to bitterness and resentment.
This does not mean you have to change your personality to please your in-laws. Simply respect rules and traditions that are important to the older generation. This will go a long way in improving your relationship – not only with your in-laws, but also your spouse.
Spend time with your in-laws.
Develop a better relationship with your in-laws by doing things together. Find out what they enjoy doing and try joining them. This could be shopping, playing golf, cards, whatever. You may find you have more in common than you thought. Also you need to remember their birthdays, wedding anniversaries and special occasions and give them a call. Buy them gifts when you can but never give the impression that your spouse does not care. Treat your father-in-law and mother-in-law as your father and mother.
Treat your brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law the same way you would treat your own siblings or even better.
Someday, maybe in the not too distant future, you will be someone’s father or mother-in-law. How would you want to be treated?
If you have wonderful in-laws, give them a big hug and celebrate them as often and as much as you can. But if you do not, remember that you are not alone. It will pay to remain positive and try making the best of your situation. Who knows, you may be able to win them over in no time through a change of attitude, prayers, constant forgiveness and courteous actions.