Bridal 2000

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb. 9, 2000

IIn-laws or outlaws? Keys to developing good relations with your spouse's parents

by Jocelyn Dong

For some newlywed couples, in-laws come on the scene like a built-in welcome wagon. Supportive and easy-going, they make every effort to get to know their child's mate. For other couples, though, getting along with their in-laws feels less like a lovefest and more like a gunfight at the OK Corral.

But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way, say local experts on marriage and family relationships. Newlyweds can try several strategies for making their marriages "outlaw proof." For starters, they should focus on their own relationship as a couple. Once they are in agreement with one another, their in-laws' wishes will be easier to handle, say the counselors.

"What's most important is to have a solid relationship between the bride and groom," asserts Jeanne Labozetta, CEO of Family Service Mid-Peninsula in Palo Alto. "Newlyweds need to develop a sense of who they are as a couple."

Holidays, for example, tend to be a great polarizer, according to Ellyn Bader, co-director of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park. "You wouldn't believe how many marriages have fallen apart over that," she says. Among the couples she's counseled, feelings have run high over whether to spend Christmas with his or her parents, or whether to throw out the old family rituals in favor of creating new ones.

Ms. Bader says that although the best solution often is to compromise, alternating celebrations each year, people have deep attachments to their family traditions. As a result, instead of being able to unite as a couple, she notes, they wind up in opposite corners.

In some ways, the resistance to change is understandable, says Ms. Labozetta. Each person brings his or her background and ways of doing things to a marriage, and it's easy for people to feel as though their history, ways or culture are the "right" ones. The first year of marriage, therefore, is one of getting "in sync" with each other and learning to compromise, she says, adding, "Good marriages create something new."

Then, too, one of the biggest reasons couples find it hard to accept differences with one another and their in-laws is because they fear rejection, Ms. Bader explains. "If you differ from me, you're rejecting me" goes the thinking, says Ms. Bader, whose organization sees about 100 couples a week. She encourages her clients to understand that they can feel differently about something but still accept one another, she says.

As with so many endeavors in life, Ms. Bader notes, healthy relationships are helped by a positive attitude.

"Attitude makes all the difference in the world," the psychologist says. Among the couples she's seen, attitudes regarding in-laws have ranged from supportive -- giving one's spouse free rein in relating to his or her parents -- to competitive -- fighting with in-laws for attention and control over the spouse.

At one end of the spectrum, a person will encourage his or her mate to spend time with family and will go along if asked. With this relationship between spouses, Ms. Bader says, "There's room for a lot of good things to develop."

On the other hand, spouses can put their partners in the awkward position of choosing between their "old" and "new" families. "It becomes a huge test of 'How much do you love me?'" Ms. Bader says.

With the Bay Area's increasingly diverse population, cross-cultural marriages have become more common and created new challenges as well, says Sylvia Johnson, a marriage and family therapist in Mountain View.

For example, in a number of non-American cultures, the family expects to play an active role in a couple's life. When a native-born American marries an immigrant, Ms. Johnson says, adjustments may need to be made to accommodate their respective cultures. While an American bride may have to get used to having her in-laws present in her life, her immigrant husband may need to make a conscious effort to affirm that his bride comes first. "There has to be a balance between the honoring of parents and of the new relationship," says Ms. Johnson.

On the positive side, however, Ms. Johnson has seen couples come to cherish the presence of extended family, after a period of adjustment. "It has some drawbacks, but it also has benefits," she says, such as learning from the wisdom of elders and receiving help with raising children.

Although welcoming new people into the family takes time, the effort is worth it, the experts say. "Better relationships with in-laws enrich your relationship (as a couple)," asserts Family Service's Labozetta.

To help in the process of building healthy relationships, the counselors interviewed here offer the following tips:

  • Be patient. Allow your in-laws to go at their own pace while getting to know you or your culture, religion or ways.
  • Be inviting. Ask your in-laws to participate in your cultural or religious events so that they can understand you better.
  • Be flexible. When children come along, allow your in-laws to care for them in their own ways, as long as they aren't harming the children. Kids are flexible.
  • Be united. Discuss and decide issues with your spouse first; then approach your in-laws. Let the spouse who is related to the parent(s) be your spokesperson.
  • Be a planner. Think ahead about holidays and how you will celebrate them. Families hold their traditions deeply; allow plenty of time for talking over changes to these rituals.
  • Be open. Describe to your parent(s) how you went about becoming familiar with your spouse's culture, religion or other customs.
  • Be encouraging. Help your spouse to develop a direct relationship with your parent(s).