This post was written by our friend, Jenn Uren
In-laws. You’re about to get some. And what you do before you say “I Do” will go a long way toward determining if they will be “out-laws” or “in-loves.”
Ask 100 married people about their in-laws and you will get 100 different experiences. Some bordering on fairy tale happily ever after and others sounding more like horror stories.
Why? Because each in-law relationship is as unique and different as each marriage.
As you and your fiancé embark on marriage and becoming a family, figuring out where the parents fit can be a challenge. But there’s good news! In the same way that you are carefully preparing for your lifelong relationship with your future spouse, you can prepare for your lifelong relationship with your future in-laws.
Losing a Son or Gaining a Daughter?
There’s an old Irish saying that “A son is a son ‘til he gets him a wife, a daughter is a daughter all of her life.” Even in our culture now, I notice this played out where family life tends to revolve around the wife’s family and the husband’s family often takes a back seat.
In reality, there are no losers; everyone is gaining. You are gaining another set of parents (with all the joys and complications that brings) and your in-laws are gaining another child. But here’s the thing – more often than not the losses occur because of unmet expectations early in the relationship.
The funny thing about expectations is that we often don’t recognize them for what they are. It’s once we experience disappointment or conflict that we can even begin to identify them.
Communication can go a long way in identifying and setting expectations. Especially expectations with your new in-laws. For example, if you invite them for dinner, but know you work the early shift the next morning, tell them your expectations around the start and end time of dinner. This way, their feelings aren’t hurt when you indicate it’s time for them to leave and you’re not mad because they overstayed their welcome. Maybe you have a “it’s not Thanksgiving without” tradition. If so, ask if it can be implemented (and then be willing to do the work necessary).
The easiest way to get a “no” is to never ask the question.
So what can you do?
Here are some things (in no particular order) to help you in building these new family relationships while creating reasonable expectations.
1. Think in terms of preference rather than right or wrong.
Your fiancé’s family always celebrates birthdays with a big family dinner, but downplays gifts. Your family always sends gifts and cards, but doesn’t gather in person. What are you going to do once you’re married?
Instead of looking for the “right” way to do it (which totally depends on expectations) look for the reason behind it so you can understand their preferred way to celebrate. Maybe your family is more scattered geographically so sending gifts and cards became the way in which they could share their love and engage in celebration, while your fiancé’s family all live within a 20-mile radius and find that these special occasions are really the only times they all get together.
Knowing why let’s you adapt to the situation. As a couple, talk through what is feasible and reasonable for your new family. Maybe you’re starting marriage as poor college students living 3 states away from any family. Could you compromise by mail birthday cards with a $5 Starbucks card and make a special dinner when you are back in town?
Once you have a plan, share it with your parents and in-laws to get their feedback and buy-in.
2. Remember that no one likes change.
When you don’t see eye-to-eye with your in-laws, don’t take it personally. No one likes change, and your marriage represents lots of change. Permanent change.
Change for you as a couple right now is exciting because it is a new beginning, a fresh start, a future full of potential. For your in-laws it is the end of a chapter, letting go of a season, and a reminder that life is passing quickly. It’s also a fear that the change will lead to losing their child to your family.
As you all navigate these new changes, be patient and gracious. You’re going to discover that this first year will bring a lot of them!
3. Foster a direct relationship with your in-laws (whenever possible).
It is easy to default to communicating through each other. “Hey, when you call your mom next would you please ask/tell her ______?” This is ok (and often expedient) as long as it is not your primary way of communication.
How you communicate in these early years sets the tone for down the road. And when you each only communicate with your own family, it can begin to draw a dividing line between “your family” and “my family”. Decide now that those labels no longer exist. From here on out it’s “our family”. (Your future children will thank you!)
Now is the time to put in the effort to build a relationship directly with your new in-laws. Text them. Call them. Meet them for coffee. Visit them on your own. Include them.
Treat them the way you would treat your own parents. Share exciting news and ask advice from them just the same as you would with your parents.
4. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone.
No two families are the same. I remember one of my first Easter’s visiting my in-laws. One of my mother-in-law’s favorite traditions was to make Easter baskets for her boys and hide them. She very thoughtfully made me one and included me in this tradition.
But I hadn’t looked for an Easter basket in since I was a little girl and I felt silly.
I also leaned into my own expectations on what this would look like. One of the cardinal rules in my home was that whenever hiding an Easter basket it had to be somewhere you could find it without opening a cupboard or a door. So with this in mind I hunted high and low. I looked everywhere in the common areas and couldn’t find it. It was uncomfortable and I gave up quickly.
Turns out, it had been hidden behind the closed bedroom door of my youngest brother-in-law’s room behind his (also) closed closet door.
I was frustrated and embarrassed. My mother-in-law’s feeling were hurt (and, by the way, she never made us Easter baskets again).
I could have changed the entire experience by asking clarifying questions (those pesky expectations again) and setting aside my discomfort.
From something as silly as an Easter basket to something big like deciding to call them “Mom and Dad”, know that the weirdness will wear off. The longer you wait the harder it is to start.
5. Choose your battles carefully.
In your first year of marriage, you’ll face many things for the first time that will feel huge. Vacations. Holidays. Financial challenges. Friends. All of these things will present opportunities to make choices that will impact your families. And as you struggle to create autonomy for your new family unit, be careful about where you decide to draw the line in the sand.
It is easy to make mountains out of molehills. The disappointment over not receiving a birthday card or the sting of being chastised for having not sent one can feel very important now. But it’s really just another way that expectation rears it’s ugly head.
So before you respond, ask yourself “Is this a principle or a preference?” Then think about what you want your relationship to be 5-years from now. 10-years from now. 20-years from now.
Your in-laws are your future children’s grandparents. Make sure it’s worth setting the boundary. (Hint: drawing the line around a preference is rarely worth the cost of the battle.)
6. Be flexible.
Two of the best pieces of advice that I have been given about making decisions are these:
make decisions based on what you know at the time that you make it
make decisions for a shorter, defined period of time (i.e. this year, this summer, etc.)
With in-laws it can be very easy to get stuck in a cycle of obligation. We will always trade holidays. You will always come here. Every summer we will spend a week at the cabin as a family.
At first it works well enough. But it is long-term planning with short-term information. Things start to change. A sibling gets married and the holiday rotation is thrown off. Someone moves out of state and visits are no longer drivable and flying isn’t in the budget. The new jobs won’t allow for the week off this summer. And someday kids may be added to the mix and even as tiny people they have their own schedules and needs to consider.
It eventually stops working.
By being flexible you set short-term expectations which all you to enjoy this visit, this holiday, this gathering. By being flexible, you can be gracious when someone else’s circumstances changes. And by being flexible you create space for understanding when your circumstances change.
7. Recognize that it takes time.
You might not think it’s working at first. Any new relationship takes work. But most things worth having do, right?
It’s not going to be perfect the first time you try to communicate and set expectations. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying again. And again. And again.
It takes time to settle into a good rhythm of communication and expectation.
And you need to be the one to keep at it.
Remember when your parents told you to treat people the way you wanted to be treated and not how they actually treated you? This is that!
Love and treat your in-laws the way you want them to love and treat you.
It’s not really about you
At the end of the day, it’s not about how you feel you’re being treated. It all boils down to this: it’s about how you honor your parents. As a couple, together, honoring all your parents.
It’s a strange shift that happens as you “leave and cleave”, moving out from under the authority of your parents and shifting your focus and priority to your new spouse and the family you have become. Doing this in a way that honors your parents is important.
And your in-laws are now your parents.
Honor them well.