Heather and Steve have been married almost four years. They love each other very much, but relationships with their in-laws have always been strained.
Heather feels Steve's mother is overly critical of how Heather parents the children. She also gets upset over her mother-in-law's statements about how Steve works much too hard; she sees them as attacks on her choice to be a stay-at-home mom.
Steve has great difficulty connecting with his father in-law, who seems to live for sports. When Steve and Heather visit his in-laws, Steve is especially disturbed to see Heather share her father's sports mania — leaving Steve feeling like an outsider.
It's normal to want to be accepted by your in-laws. But feeling that you need to be accepted can bring complications, causing you to be uncomfortable and unnatural around them.
Unrealistic hopes cause problems, too. Many parents are initially over-protective of their own child, or have expectations that no spouse can meet in the beginning.
Often new husbands and wives assume they'll be loved and accepted by in-laws on the merit of having married the in-laws' child. This may be the case, but it usually takes time to establish trust and respect. Just as it takes time to build other close relationships, gaining acceptance into a family doesn't happen instantly.
After all, you're stepping into a family with a long history of established bonds. Don't be too hard on yourself and expect too much. If your relationship with your own parents is wonderful, the one with your mother- and father-in-law may never measure up. If your relationship with your parents isn't good, you may be too needy and demanding in trying to make up for it.
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 Heather and Steve 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? She told me that she had you potty trained by age two and that you obeyed her without question."
In this case, Heather is being a little overdramatic and overly sensitive. How can Steve 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 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 can't help but love you as time goes on."
Or imagine that Ken 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?"
Heather might respond by reassuring Ken along these lines: "I'm so sorry that I haven't been more sensitive to your feelings of being left out during those times. You're right — 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 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."
When it comes to dealing with an in-law who doesn't seem to accept you, here are the main principles to remember:
- Learn to support your spouse without getting hooked into taking sides.
- Encourage your spouse to share his or her feelings directly with you.
- Keep a sense of humor.
- Show your spouse that he or she is number one in your eyes.
- Don't take things too personally.
- Remember, building a relationship takes time.
- Forgive, forgive, forgive.
- Remember that you're loving your spouse by honoring his or her parents.
One more idea: When confronted with what feels like a no-win situation involving an in-law, use the "drop the rope" theory. Imagine a rope, the kind used in a tug-of-war. If you find yourself provoked, see that rope in your hands. You can choose to continue yanking on it — or drop it. Dropping it may sound as though you're giving in or giving up, but it's actually very empowering. It's also much more effective than tugging back and forth.
For Ken and Heather, a solution may look something like this:
- They discuss the things their in-laws say and do that tend to trigger anxiety and anger.
- They agree to act as "buffers" for each other against possible hard spots.
- They commit to forgiving any offense quickly.
- They plan to give the relationships time to develop.
- They start working as a team.
- They can even see some humor in learning to drop those "invisible ropes."
As a result, each of them feels more loved and supported. That helps them enjoy getting to know and appreciate each other's parents.