The people. The flutters in my belly. Walking down the aisle looking into the eyes of the man waiting for me. Seeing the excited faces of family and friends. New life. New hopes. New dreams.
Ah! The glorious wedding day.
But that one 24‐hour period (no matter how spectacular it may be) is just the beginning of a lifetime commitment — one that involves your spouse and his or her entire family. When we marry, we not only become connected with the love of our lives, we join our lives with in-laws — near strangers we will call family.
As a wife and therapist, I can attest personally and professionally that you can be significantly disappointed if you’re expecting an instant sense of connectedness with your in-laws. Establishing these relationships at the beginning of a marital journey can be complicated and, very frequently, problematic.
Maya Angelou said “People know themselves better than you do. That’s why it’s important to stop expecting people to be something other than who they are.” Whew! That’s wisdom you may wish you’d have heard before being introduced to your spouse’s family.
But it’s not too late to start using strategies so differences with your in-laws don’t dismantle your future with your spouse. Together, you can face in-law issues and use healthy methods that will foster peace and togetherness in your marriage.
How do you do that?
1. Realize you joined a system
When you joined this new family, you joined a system. This system was an established structure long before you entered the picture. It includes rules, norms, traditions and language. These relationships have history and context. They have memories. They have an agreed-upon perspective, healthy or unhealthy.
Your opinions about this system will not likely bring enlightenment or epiphany. Be careful and respectful as you inquire within this system. You could be misunderstood and labeled as dismissive and disrespectful. Your actions could insult what this family structure holds valuable and close.
You must also realize that your own family system lives in you, and how you view the world (and your in-laws) is influenced by it. The ideals, traditions and norms you learned in your family of origin may be challenged by the experiences of your spouse. You, too, can feel minimized and dismissed if your spouse and his or her relatives don’t view things in the same way you do.
2. Know that different systems lead to conflict
These differing systems can inevitably lead to conflict and disillusionment. My pastor often says that marriage is more than two people joining together as one. It’s two worlds clashing together to become one. Many things will be destroyed in the process.
You can expect some conflict in this process, and it can even be healthy as you both work to merge your lives. For example, David and Melodi had been married for five years. They were surprised that they could not reach a compromise when David’s family insisted that he be available to his parents and siblings as needed. This included his time and whatever tasks they were requesting. He was raised to put family first above everyone and everything. Melodi loved her in-laws and understood the importance of family, but she wanted David to prioritize her and their home.
This was a difficult conflict since they didn’t want to disappoint family members or each other. All the same, it’s critical that David and Melodi develop a system together that prioritizes their relationship. They need to revisit their established goals as a team and individual family.
3. Identify and confront your own expectations
“For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:5).
Expectations can be tough to challenge and change, but it’s possible and imperative. The first step to this change is to become aware of the fact that you have expectations.
Don’t worry. We all do.
Once you recognize the expectations that you’ve brought into the relationship, you can more clearly detect how you’ve placed them on other people (including your in-laws) and made them a requirement for your own contentment and for your marriage.
Unspoken expectations are the most sinister, because sometimes you’re not aware of them. Your expectations can be as simple as where to spend holidays and birthdays. Or they can be as complex as plans of care for aging parents or what information you and your spouse share with other family members about each other. These expectations live in your subconscious but bubble up when what’s happening around you doesn’t meet your inner assumptions.
As you wrestle to build your version of a healthy family system, you must identify if your expectations are from the Lord. Are you hoping in family traditions and your own personal goals? Or are you hoping in the Lord and seeking what He has for your family? Asking these questions can be unsettling, but addressing them is important.
You might find that the Lord has a story to tell through your family that may be different from the story you wanted to tell.
4. Seek peace with your spouse
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Life presents challenges. When there are ups and downs, we long for the familiar. If you and your spouse aren’t agreeing about chores or how you’re disciplining your children, for example, you both might find comfort in the way your families of origin handled these issues. Avoid the temptation of seeking validation or approval from extended family during disagreements with your spouse. Unfortunately, doing that can end up alienating your spouse.
Instead of seeking your extended family’s opinion, seek peace by turning toward your spouse so you can find common purposes and goals.
5. Extend grace to your in-laws
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
Moving. Kids. Career changes. All of these things can be overwhelming. The life you envisioned may not be your current reality. Remember that this is not only happening in your life but also in the lives of your family of origin and your in-laws. You need grace from them as you come to grips with your reality, and they need it, too.
Give grace, compassion and margin in the same way that you hope they will give it to you. You can demonstrate grace by not assigning motive to their actions or words and instead assuming positive intent.
6. Seek understanding of your in-laws
“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Proverbs 4:7).
Having a lot in common fosters connection and intimacy in a relationship. When everyone agrees and has similar beliefs and feelings, it’s easier, but when two families join together this is rarely the case. It’s imperative that you seek understanding when opinions and ideas differ from your own.
Today’s hot topics — politically and culturally — are polarizing families. Try to understand the experiences of other generations before imposing your own opinions and judgments. You’ll need to take time to ask questions. You’ll also need patience and a keen listening ear. Knowing your in-laws and their experiences will give you context as you pursue closeness and fellowship with them.
7. Keep seeking wisdom
Even if you do all of this, an active relationship with in-laws may still not be possible. Being aware of family systems, examining your expectations, seeking peace and understanding while also extending grace does not guarantee you’ll have uncomplicated relationships with your new family. But your efforts will help preserve your own peace of mind.
Relationships are complex, so seek the wisdom of mental health professionals and those you trust as you work to build a marriage that’s healthy, peaceful and fulfilling.