In-law relationships need a touch of civility. Consider the story of Stephanie, who complained, “My mother-in-law never approves of the way I do anything. The last time Joe and I visited her it happened again. Just trying to be nice and helpful, I washed all the pots and pans after dinner. No sooner had I finished than she washed them all over again!”
Stephanie is not a newlywed. She has been married to Joe for 15 years. That whole time, she and Joe’s mom have silently struggled with being civil to each other. When Joe’s mom comes to visit, Stephanie really tries to get the house clean and comfortable for her. But after arriving, her mother-in-law pulls out the cleaning supplies and spit shines the bathrooms and kitchen. Stephanie assumes she’s doing this because she thinks Stephanie is a slob and lives in filth.
After the last pots-and-pans fiasco, Stephanie spilled her frustrations to Joe’s older sister, Connie. “I know your mother hates me and thinks I’m a slob and a bad person. I can’t seem to do anything to please her.”
Connie replied, “Stephanie, it’s not about you. It’s about Mom’s compulsion to have everything spotless. I grew up with her. I know her. She was like this before you and Joe even met. When she rewashes the pots and pans, it’s not condemning you — it’s simply that she had different (and what most would consider absurd) standards of what is acceptably clean. Let it go. There are bigger hills to die on.”
While Stephanie couldn’t really forget it and totally let it go, she did begin to look at her mother-in-law in a different light. She began to try to find ways to help that didn’t involve meeting her mother-in-law’s high standard of cleanliness — like running to the grocery store for milk or dropping off the dry cleaning and laundry. Stephanie will probably never have a close relationship with her mother-in-law, but these days they are much more civil to each other.
Civility Tips for Relating to In-Laws:
- Be proactive. Do what you can to build the relationship.
- Don’t compete with other family members.
- Refocus your perspective by looking for the positive.
- Accept reality.
As you keep civility a high priority in your extended family relationships, it becomes easier to focus on another effective way of dealing with anger and frustration — remaining calm. What 1 Corinthians 13 says about love can also be true for civility. This really works: Try reading the love passage and substituting the word civility or civil. If you can succeed in remaining civil, you also up your chances of remaining calm even when you are so upset you could just spit nails.
The ABCs of Family Civility
Adapted from Pier Forni, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct.
- Smile. People respond better to those who are positive.
- Be considerate. Ask yourself, “Is what I am about to say going to encourage and build up the other person, or tear him or her down?”
- Practice restraint and don’t yell or raise your voice.
- Have the courage to admit it when you are wrong. Avoid ridicule and don’t humiliate or demean the other person. You can express your anger without attacking the other person.
- Accept kindness from others and let others be nice to you.