I so wish I could take credit for the title of this week’s post. Come to think of it there are a whole bunch of famous quotes I wish I could take credit for, but I best protect whatever credibility I might have and not do that. This one I’m fairly certain comes from DR John Van Epp, author of How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk and other relationship books. By the way, the Four Corners Coalition for Marriage and Family partnered with Knowledge Equips to bring Dr Van Epp to Farmington a few years ago to help high school students, in particular, learn to make better decisions when entering a relationship. If you have a young person about to enter the dating realm, Dr. Van Epp’s book would be a wonderful gift to give him or her. It’s not limited to young people. If you are considering a 2nd, 3rd or higher re-marriage, you might just want to pick up a copy for yourself.
As the holidays are rapidly approaching I want to share with you some thoughts on a common source of irritation in what should be a joy-filled time of the year. Holidays are typically times when we get together with family members we do not see regularly throughout the year. Many travel long distances to re-connect and enjoy each other’s company. Unfortunately, that enjoyment too often is short-lived.
In-laws are a vital component of most every marriage. According to marriage and family expert Dr Kevin Leman “it’s not just two people who get married when they walk down the flower-strewn aisle, but at least six. And in the case of a stepfamily, it can be ten”. He goes on to explain “the reason is that the person you marry is a result of how they were raised, good or bad. The influence has been from their parents, and perhaps more parents if they were part of a step-family”.
First off let me state for the record that I truly love and appreciate all of my wife’s relatives. Some are easier to love at times, but look who is talking. People are people and they are bound to get under your skin from time to time. In-laws just seem to have a special ability to do that more often than others. They can do it with such expertise you might think it was their goal in their life to make yours miserable.
A basic tenet for dealing with in-laws is actually identical to that when dealing with anyone else. Most people find that respect and the Golden Rule go a long way towards improving and maintaining healthy relationships. It would also help to realize that while these folks are not your blood relatives; they are to your spouse. I absolutely agree with Dr Leman that he or she is who they are largely due to the influence of these others. In my book in-laws deserve a special place of honor within your home.
Having said that, may I make an earnest plea that you and your spouse come to terms on exactly what their place should be. Once you make a commitment in marriage to forsake all others and to cleave (or join) only to each other you are committing to putting your spouse and his or her needs above your other family members.
I’ve heard it said that a major factor in marital discord is the failure to establish boundaries with family of origin and not make the couple the priority. A huge mistake so many couples make during their marriage is to run back to mommy or daddy when they are in conflict. This often happens in the first year of marriage, but whenever it happens it is likely a huge blunder. The wise mother or father will gently, but firmly, close the door and encourage their son or daughter to back home and work it out with their spouse.
Balance is also a positive component in dealing with in-laws. I’ve dealt with many divorcing couples where one spouse forbade the other from having anything to do with his or her family. I’m at a loss to think of a good reason for this, but I can sure come up with a whole lot of bad ones.
You’ve heard the old expression that before you judge someone you should walk a mile in their shoes – that way you’ll be a mile away from them and you’ll have their shoes. Ok, bad joke, but it is good advice when dealing with in-laws. Take some time to see yourself as they might see you. Might they see you as a thief who has stolen their son or daughter or brother or sister away? Might they see you as an intruder into what had previously been a happy, cohesive family?
So here’s a thought for you in dealing with your in-laws, especially the mom and pop variety. Take a few moments and write them a thank you note for the incredible person they raised. Thank them for their sacrificial giving and nurturing and training which resulted in the incredible person who has become your life partner. You don’t need to go over the top, but the letter need not be skimpy either. Since your spouse knows his or her folks better than you do, you might invite him or her to read it before you send it. This just helps to make sure the letter comes across as you intended, plus it might just earn you a point or two with your spouse – if you get my drift.
And one last thought on dealing with in-laws. Be respectful, but be united. If you are to succeed as a couple it is vital that you not let anyone drive a wedge between you – as in-laws will occasionally try to do. It is likely best for each spouse to address their own family if they are out of line in some respect. It is too difficult and awkward for one spouse to tell the other’s parents that they are intrusive and/or offensive. But if your family attacks or demeans your spouse in any way your immediate response should be to come to the defense of your spouse and let your family know such treatment will not be tolerated.
And just one more last thought. Practice AGI with your in-laws. I write about AGI in my book PLAY NICE in Your Sandbox at Work. While I believe the entire book has good information for healthy relationships at work and at home, you don’t need to buy the book. Send me an e-mail and I’ll send you the chapter on AGI, which by-the-way stands for Assume Good Intent. When you practice AGI you give someone the benefit of the doubt that while he or she just hurt you they likely didn’t intend to. AGI allows you to stay calm and not automatically react and attack when someone does or says something you don’t like.
As I said earlier, people are people. You have to admit there have been times in your life when you hurt someone inadvertently, but the damage was done. Would you have appreciated the other person giving you the benefit of the doubt that you just messed up but didn’t mean to hurt them? We both know the answer is yes so please make it a point to extend the same courtesy to others – including and perhaps especially your in-laws.
Ron Price is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a 501-C-3 organization dedicated to strengthening and equipping marriages and families in the Four Corners Area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505 327-7870.