In-law relationships can be thorny. Virtual strangers are suddenly family. When your child marries, you may be dreaming of gaining the son or daughter you never had.
But your new child-in-law may not share the same enthusiasm for being part of your family as you do. Worse yet, you may not like or approve of your child’s new partner, and this judging gets you off to a bad start—no one wants to be seen as unworthy. Or you may feel competitive with your in-law child and fear that you might lose the affection of your own flesh and blood.
It takes time to build a relationship, particularly because so many adult children live far away from their parents so there often are fewer opportunities to talk and bond today than in the past. Example: As landlines have disappeared and individual cell phones have proliferated, spontaneous conversations and check-ins between parents and in-law children have become less common since calls typically go directly to the child.
Here’s how to build a great relationship with your child-in-law in today’s world…
Deal with real life, not your hopes and dreams.
Examine the hidden expectations you are bringing to your in-law relationship…and discard them. Except in rare instances, they can create only friction and disappointment. You may expect your in-law child to hug you, but he/she may not be the hugging type. Or you may expect him to love your offer for a cruise in the Caribbean, and he prefers climbing in the Rockies. Questions to ask yourself…
What expectations do I have for this relationship? Does everyone have the same expectations, or might others see my wishes in a different light?
What worked well in my relationship with my in-laws, and what could have gone better?
Does my partner have a different relationship with the in-law child that works better than mine? If so, can I adopt a similar relationship?
It’s easy for misunderstandings to occur between in-laws because you don’t know one another or your respective family’s traditions. Be open to learning about your child-in-law’s interests and background. As in any other relationship, respect her opinions even if they are different from your own. Build your relationship with shared experiences such as going for walks…out to dinner…or to the movies. Don’t take offense at behaviors that you don’t understand. Different families have different expectations of family members, which affects their expectations of in-laws.
Example: Carl’s mother never let guests lift a finger to help in the kitchen—it was her domain—so Carl never offered to help his mother-in-law in the kitchen. Carl thought he was being respectful, while his mother-in-law thought he was being lazy.
Don’t expect to be a parent.
Many in-law children already have their own parents and aren’t looking for more. They may be close to their own parents, or they may be suspicious of their inlaws if they have a poor or complicated relationship with their own family.
Don’t compete with your in-law child’s parents.
You may feel resentful that your child-in-law’s family spends more time with the children than you do. But if you make a fuss, you will place excess pressure on the couple and may lose out on seeing them at all.
Better: Rather than waste your energy comparing the types of activities your family does versus your child-in-law’s family, do what your family does well. Their family may like to hike and kayak, while your family likes to go to football games and shop at flea markets. Invite the couple to come along. If they decline, accept their choice but don’t stop trying.
Don’t expect your daughter-in-law to be responsible for your relationship with your son.
In years past, women took care of the family relationships. In today’s world, if your son isn’t calling you, it’s usually his doing…or not doing.
Listen without judging, criticizing, confronting or giving unwanted advice.
Being critical is the fastest way to sink a newly forming relationship.
Example: When I had my first child, my own mother was ill and couldn’t help me. My mother-in-law came to visit and saw that I was holding my baby by his neck like a chicken. She said, “That’s so interesting how you’re holding your baby. Did they teach you that at the hospital?” She asked this question with love and curiosity, not judgment. I was feeling very insecure and unknowledgeable about babies, and I would have gotten defensive if she had told me I was doing it wrong. Instead, I said, “Oh no, how should I hold the baby?” She set me straight and I was grateful instead of resentful.
If you cannot change a situation or if your child and his spouse don’t want your advice, find a way to understand and accept it. Continuing to push will only drive a wedge in your relationship, and maybe even force your child into choosing between spouse and parent—a battle that you’re likely to lose.
If things go wrong, make amends and ask if you can start over.
Example: Sarah and Henry frequently babysit for their grandson when their daughter-in-law Mildred has to work. Mildred came home one day to find that Sarah bought her son his first Halloween costume. She was disappointed, hurt and annoyed. She wanted to do that important task with her son. Sarah recognized that she unintentionally stepped on her daughter-in-law’s toes, but her efforts to apologize were met with silence and coldness. They were no longer asked to help out with their grandson.
What to do: Situations like this may arise that you don’t anticipate, and you will need to create new rules. If you can, talk things out with your in-law child directly to agree to roles and boundaries. Or write a nonconfrontational letter to ask forgiveness and clear the air. A third option is to ask your child for advice on how to fix things.
Take the long view.
Relationships grow. You may not be close today, but if you continue to work on it, friendship and love may blossom. Think back on your relationship with your own in-laws and how it likely deepened over time as you became more comfortable with one another.
In addition, young couples often don’t need or want to see their parents often, but later in life—when they have kids of their own or become ill or injured—they may need your help.
Example: Marlene was cordial to her in-laws as a newlywed but often turned down invitations from her motherin- law, Andrea, to meet for lunch or shopping. Andrea was hurt, so she took a step back. Years later, she was thrilled when Marlene welcomed her help as a grandmother to her children. Marlene never disliked Andrea—she just didn’t need to be as close to her as her mother-in-law had hoped.
Maintain your relationship even if the couple splits.
If you want to see your grandchildren, stay cordial and neutral with your in-law child.
Example: Charlene and Phil, Jake’s parents, tried to stay close to their grandchildren after Jake and his wife Irma went through an acrimonious divorce when Jake cheated on his wife. Irma blamed her in-laws for Jake’s behavior. Charlene and Phil never took sides—although Jake wanted them to— and continued to call their daughter-inlaw offering to help with the children, sent presents and invited the children and their mother to holiday gatherings. Eventually, Irma came around and saw that Charlene and Phil were good people and she allowed her in-laws to see the children.