Beyond the First Dance
Handling Parents and In-Laws with Care
Among the top four stressors in a marriage is our relationship with in-laws. Unlike the other three stressors – money, sex and religion – this one involves third and fourth parties. And not just any party, but the ones who have had the most impact on you and your spouse's lives. Remember, these parents reared the person you have chosen to spend the rest of your life with, and the positive and negative effects will forever have a bearing on your marriage. Conflict over in-laws has contributed to many a divorce. Prevention calls for some ground rules.
Engaged couples have been advised, “Take a good look at your partner’s family; you are marrying them, too.” Even if you do not live geographically close, your in-laws’ influence will be felt by you and your spouse. The exciting reality is that you no longer need to live under the dictates of your parents, but now have the freedom to define what you want for yourselves and your marriage. The sooner you establish your independence, the less conflict will occur between you two and your in-laws.
If you are familiar with the television sitcom “Everyone Loves Raymond,” you only need to change Ray’s mother’s hair color and add a brogue and you will have a good picture of my beloved mother-in-law, Molly. Raymond’s character was a classic example of a man who never cut the apron strings, often intimidated and manipulated by his perfect homemaker mother Marie. Debra, Ray’s wife, was often left feeling inadequate about her cooking, housekeeping and parenting skills: a demoralizing and dangerous way for any spouse to feel. This was, of course, written as a sitcom, but even its exaggerated comedy gave an all too realistic portrayal of the very real and harmful stress in-laws can cause.
Fortunately for me, my husband Patrick was far more supportive and assertive than Raymond when it came to issues that arose with his mother. We were married for 31 years before we lost my mother-in-law, at age 88. I can recall having only one minor confrontation with her, which happened when Patrick was absent from the room. There were likely several reasons that she and I did not experience more frequent conflicts. Certainly, living 135 miles apart played a role. Not having regular contact with my in-laws meant that visits were less frequent and more special. There has never been a doubt in my mind, however, that Patrick deserves the major credit for smooth sailing in the in-law department.
I never questioned my mother-in-law’s love and appreciation for me, but sometimes her comments were so cleverly phrased they could slide over my head, before slamming me on the backside! Like the time she and my father-in-law were visiting and she opened the fridge to get something, lingering for a few seconds to survey the interior and then commented to my father-in-law, “That reminds me, Jack, when we get home, I need to clean the refrigerator.” Now one might surmise that mine was so sparkling that it was in direct contrast to her fridge. Let me assure you that was never the case. Before I could even grasp the meaning of her comment, Patrick responded with, “What did you mean by that, Mom?” After she muddled through some response on the state of her own fridge, he concluded with, “Oh good, because I am sure you would not be insinuating that ours is not clean.” And so it went.
Patrick would call his mother to task when she made any comment that might be construed as insulting or critical to me or the household. Whenever she made a remark that could be viewed as demeaning, he respectfully, but firmly, clarified it on the spot. I felt so supported that I could move past it and enjoy her many redeeming and loving qualities. After all, I only needed to remind myself that she did raise a son who is a good and loving husband and I thanked her for that on many occasions. What better accolade can a mother receive?
Patrick provides an important lesson for married couples and one that newlyweds would be wise to institute from the start: your first responsibility is to your spouse. While it is important to be loving and respectful to one’s parents (it is the sixth of the 10 commandments after all), it is essential to be loyal to each other first. When issues arise or comments are made that are critical or undermining to your partner, you must lovingly, but firmly, intervene. Doing this early on can prevent hurt and discord and set a supportive tone for your marriage. Otherwise, you risk having a marriage that is constantly under attack. Raymond and Debra faced frequent conflicts instigated by Marie because limits were never set. It kept the episodes coming, but none of us wants to live in a sitcom.
Your spouse is the person you are sharing your life with now, and with whom you are building a family. In the natural course of life, your marriage will outlive your in-laws. If you allow cracks to occur that leave your partner feeling hurt and inadequate, you will, in the end, be the victim of your spouse’s destroyed self-esteem. Stick up for each other. Such loyalty will reap huge benefits for both of you and keep your dance smoother and more fun! Until next time, be present to one another, and to God, and remember to speak with care and listen with love.