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May 26, 2011

A Letter to Mothers and Fathers-In-Law

IStock_00motherinlaw(2) With the most recent royal wedding, I seem to have new marriages on my mind.  I’ve been thinking, in particular, about the new family dynamics that occur whenever a new marriage takes place.  We’ve all heard horrifying in-law stories throughout the years and some of us may have experienced some of these hardships up close.  Too many people have no idea how to maneuver these in-law waters with any skill.

Below is a little cheat sheet for the parents of the brides and grooms of the world on how to start their relationships with their daughters/sons-in-law off on the right foot.

1.    Be the first to reach out a welcoming hand.  Remember that your son/daughter-in-law is entering your family—not the other way around.  They will be anxious, hopeful and on guard about you so help put them at ease.  They will feel like the outsider and will be waiting for your lead.  Lead…and do so in a positive way.
2.    Go out of your way to make your child’s spouse comfortable with your family.   Keep an eye out for them at family gatherings and make sure you’re inclusive.  Introduce them to other family members, talk with them when you notice they’re off by themselves and treat them as you would want their parents to treat your daughter/son.

3.    Know it’s your job to help your son/daughter-in-law feel at ease—it is not their job to make you feel at ease.  Ask about how they’re doing, what’s going on with their life and get to know them.  Be interested in them.  Check in directly with them every now and then rather than having all communication going through your child.  Do not wait for them to contact you...and then get angry if they don’t.  You are the parent—model what you want them to master.
4.    Be a resource, not a critic.  It’s easy to think that your daughter/son-in-law is not good enough for your child and to focus on their negative traits.  Resist this at all cost.  Let go of the little things and save your concerns for the serious issues.  If you critique everything, your words will not be heard when it comes to major issues.  Offer help when warranted or asked, work to have a balanced perspective (your child is no more perfect than their spouse) and be relational.
5.    Mentor -- don’t be intrusive and don’t duck.  Many parents struggle with their adult children’s marriages.  Some parents go out of their way to stay out of their child’s marital business while others are forever intruding.  Neither approach is healthy.  If there is a serious concern (e.g. verbal/physical abuse, disrespect, contempt) it is your job as a parent to address it.  My rule about this is: if it happens in front of you, it’s your business.  Address the poor treatment either individually or in the moment.  Don’t preach/lecture or be punitive…mentor.  Discuss the issue and offer help in the form of resources, paying for their therapy or the wisdom of your own experience. 

The wedding of your son or daughter will create a lot of changes in your family.  These changes do not have to be negative.  Do your best to welcome your adult child’s spouse into your family with open arms.  S/he will be anxious for your approval—be sensitive to this reality.  Don’t wait for your daughter/son-in-law to reach out to you.  That is too difficult a weight to put on them.  Reach out yourself and put them at ease. 

Challenge: If you’re a parent-in-law, look over the tips in this post and start to implement them to the best of your ability.  Even if you’ve been in this position for many years—reach out on a consistent basis and see what happens.  You may be pleasantly surprised.







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Lisa, this is brilliant. It does seem to be such a tricky transition for people to make and no one seems to provide any quality information on it. Just between you and I this has not been my experience of my mother in law who would do well to read Step 4 ;-)However if you wrote an article about how to behave as a son in law I'd be a long way from perfect.

Great stuff here! I have a situation with my partner where I cannot be upset, disappointed, worried, certainly not depressed, about anything. I don't tell him when something 's happened during the day that upset me, because he'll fly into a rage, or he'll lecture me. He becomes like a drill sargeant with me, and refuses to comfort me in any way, physically, emotionally. He goes the other direction and becomes cold, and refuses to touch me. What is this, and is it fixable? He doesn't realize, almost all the conflict we've had in our relationship is due to this.

Dear J: It sounds like his upbringing and perhaps trauma. However, that's not as important as what you do about it. Be clear with him that this is not okay for you. Let him know you need his support, not his harshness in these moments and that if he continues to choose not to give it then you will need for both of you to seek couples help if you have any chance of making it. Don't grow silent and silence yourself. Step in and teach him how to respond.
Take Care-Lisa

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