- “HEAR ABOUT THE CANNIBAL who got married? At the wedding reception he toasted his mother-in-law!”
- “My mother-in-law’s away on holiday, but three times a week I have a woman come in and nag me!”
- “How many mothers-in-law does it take to change a light bulb? 100: one to change the light bulb and 99 to say ‘I told you so!’”
Pity the poor mother-in-law, butt of all those awful jokes!
For thousands of years, henpecked sons-in-law have swapped similar stories, portraying her as the most fearsome of all creatures … a monster weighing as much as two elephants … a nightmare in curlers with a personality that would make Saddam Hussein look like a choirboy!
Where does all this aggro start? And is it only half the truth?
WHEN YOU GET MARRIED or move in together, and begin sharing life as a couple, you don’t just get a partner. You get a not-so-mystery free gift: IN-LAWS!
Chances are, they’ll prove to be just that: a GIFT, and a hugely appreciated one. But, just as likely, your in-laws will prove to be more than you bargained for. Suddenly, unwanted advice pours in: where to live, when to have kids, how to stock the kitchen cupboards, who should visit who and how often. The silliest little things spark World War III. And try to get away on your own? Forget it! You must take her mum along for company – or spend every holiday with his parents!
JAN remembers feeling jealous as her only son started dating. But when he met the woman of his dreams, Jan found she could let go. “It sounds like a cliché, but instead of losing a son we’ve really gained a daughter!”
Not so for MAUREEN: “I’m sure it wasn’t just me. I don’t think any woman would’ve been good enough for her son!” Which is one reason the couple left Australia and set up home in New Zealand. “Now she blames me for taking him away!”
But wait! Let’s be fair. In some families it’s not the parents-in-law who cause a stink … impose or interfere … get all jealous, demanding and ‘thingy’ – it’s the CHILDREN-IN-LAW!
Okay. If such hassles sound unfamiliar, count yourself lucky, and go and make a coffee. You probably don’t need this article. But if mother-in-law jokes are all-too-true for you, you’d better read on. Because, be warned: in-law tensions can lead to headaches, arguments, divorce – and (gulp) even murder!
They don’t have to, of course. There are tracks through the minefield, work-it-out ways to build bridges instead of barriers. You’ve just gotta know where to start …
In the olden days, marriage was all about “leaving and cleaving”. Not a bad idea, either. Because it’s hard to connect in a new relationship (husband/wife) if there hasn’t been a break from the previous relationship (parent/child).
However, throughout history, some cultures have pushed that maxim to the ridiculous. For example?
Amongst some Australian aboriginals, a newly married bloke who even spoke to his wife’s mum risked being put to death!
In parts of the South Pacific, if a man talked to his mother-in-law before the wedding, both parties were supposed to commit suicide!
A Yucatan man would take a lengthy detour rather than cross paths with his mother-in-law – because such a meeting might’ve make him sterile!
Navajo mothers weren’t allowed to attend their daughters’ weddings – and the husbands-to-be used to fear they’d go blind if they even caught a glimpse of the old lady!
Fortunately, western attitudes aren’t quite so bizarre. Although many of us are still programmed to view in-laws as meddlesome troublemakers.
But listen to PAMELA: “I’m one of several women I know who wish they lived closer to their mothers-in-law! Until I met my husband, I never dreamed I’d enjoy a close family. My own upbringing was ruined by internal warfare. And I figured married life was easier without a bunch of relatives to muck it up!
“Enter my husband-to-be, complete with seven siblings and two wonderful parents who ran the family business. Could this big, bonded brood be for real?”
The answer: YES! “My mother-in-law is fun, helpful, indulgent – and the fact that we’re related makes our friendship even better. Disgusting, isn’t it?”
THE TROUBLE WITH PARENTS-IN-LAW
All new relationships require some adjustments. And some parents find it hard to untie the proverbial apron strings. Handing their ‘child’ over to someone else to start a brand new family can give rise to very mixed feelings. Mum, especially, can feel threatened by her son’s new wife. Devoted children can feel torn between partner, parents, and in-laws.
And the process is even worse if the folks back home are …
Controlling Parents: Kids in this home aren’t encouraged to spread their wings or make their own decisions – in case they screw up. Result? They often fail to break free, and even within marriage may still be trying to win Mum’s or Dad’s approval.
Perfectionist Parents: These guys are hard to please. Criticism is common – praise is rare. And this
pattern often continues long after their child is grown up with a partner – leaving him/her defensive and angry.
Rejecting Parents: Children who’ve experienced abuse or the withholding of love will often enter marriage and in-law relationships with baggage – and a desperate need to be accepted.
Protective Parents: They’ll often deny their child the chance to fend for herself – setting her up to come running back home after marriage. Especially if hubby doesn’t want to play ‘bodyguard’.
Indulgent Parents: These kids don’t learn to work for what they want. They expect life to be handed to them on a plate – which can be a real pain for partner and in-laws.
Permissive Parents: When someone who’s grown up with no rules marries someone from a much stricter background, the result can be fireworks! Especially when grandma lets the grandkids run wild.
Not surprisingly, many young wives are nervous: Can I cook as well as his mum? Is the house clean enough? An unfair contest, of course, between an apprentice and one who’s been meeting this man’s needs for at least 20 years.
LYNDA got an invitation that felt more like a summons: “My mother-in-law asked us over for roast dinner once a week, right through that first year. It’s like she was making sure her son got at least one decent meal a week!”
BOB rolls his eyes when his wife’s mother makes her dreaded daily phonecall: “All we ever hear about are her latest aches and pains, her shopping hassles, and the dreadful state of the world!”
SARAH feels she’s at her in-laws’ beck and call: “They ring up and say they haven’t seen us for a while, and always expect us to go to them – now!”
JESS gets tired of unwelcome advice: “His parents are always telling us how to live our lives. The other week, when we mentioned some friends of ours, they said we shouldn’t see those friends anymore. It’s like their opinion is always right!”
In the face of criticism or opposition, a young couple must work out their differences and present a united front – because their first loyalty should be to EACH OTHER, not to his or her parents.
And if the in-laws aren’t happy? That’s their problem!
PAULINE didn’t know how to react when her in-laws declared that they weren’t being strict enough on their children: “John and I felt disappointed. It’s meant they haven’t had as much to do with the kids as we would’ve liked. But we’ve kept raising our kids our way.”
It’s not a case of choosing AGAINST anybody. It’s a case of choosing FOR the marriage and their No.1 commitment: each other.
THE TROUBLE WITH CHILDREN-IN-LAW
Mother rocks the cradle, but mother-in-law rocks the boat! So says the old joke. But, in real life, the boot is frequently on the other foot. Young daughters-in-law and sons-in-law can be just as mean-minded, big-mouthed, and meddlesome as the wicked mother-in-law. And many parents are made to feel neglected, unwanted, and exploited by their married offspring.
Face it, adult children can be selfish, insensitive, rude, and even cruel when it suits them – failing to recognise that their parents have lives of their own … taking babysitting or hand-outs or financial help for granted … neglecting to keep in touch … withholding affection or gratitude or grandchildren … making the oldies feel left-out.
Says father-in-law CHRIS: “It’s not that they overstay their welcome. But we sometimes feel used. They just walk in the door and dump their kids on us while they blob-out and play on their cell phones!”
The hard question is this: when do parents stop being parents? When does the tide turn and begin to flow back in their direction?
Parents-in-law are human beings – just like children-in-law. They still have hopes and dreams for their family. They welcome a bit of TLC. They like to feel useful, valued, appreciated. And what seems like ‘interfering’ or ‘meddling’ may simply be an attempt to help.
IN-LAWS CAN BE ENJOYED!
Are you already facing in-law problems … the odd skirmish, perhaps … or all-out war? Well, don’t lose heart.
RONA & PAUL can’t speak highly enough of the relationship they enjoy with their in-laws: “We go and visit them most weekends, and spend hours talking and laughing,” says Rona. “I really hang out for those visits – and I don’t mind admitting, I sometimes shed a few tears when we leave!”
But quality relationships don’t just happen – and they don’t ‘come naturally’. They come when people are committed, and willing to work at it.
Want to get along better with the extra relatives YOU were given? Well, try our TEN TOP IN-LAW TIPS (see panel) …
Ten top in-law tips:
1. Be positive, for goodness sake!
Clear your head of all that mother-in-law claptrap. Get optimistic. Start believing that …
- your mother-in-law can be a FRIEND-FOR-LIFE
- contact with your in-laws can be FUN
- parents-in-law are FOR you, not AGAINST you
- failure needn’t be FINAL, and misunderstandings can be cleared up.
2. Respect your partner’s family
They’re important – and they deserve the same courtesy and respect you’d give your friends. Are there things about them you’d like to see changed? Well, there are probably areas in your life they’d like to see improved as well!
3. Allow them time to adjust
Your mother-in-law’s been close to your partner for decades, and separation may need to be gradual. Don’t rush it. Give in-laws time to get used to the fact that their kid has begun a family of his/her own.
4. Give them the benefit of the doubt
It’s too easy to focus on the negatives in others and overlook their positives. If your in-laws seem overly concerned with your affairs, perhaps they’re really just looking out for you – not deliberately trying to butt in. Be generous and forgiving.
5. Build your own traditions
Arguments about the-way-things-have-always-been-done-in-our-family can be avoided by ‘pooling’ the best ideas from each of your backgrounds, and building them into your new life together. Then add your own ideas, too, and develop your own traditions.
6. Let your married children make their own decisions
- Let them make their own mistakes.
- Praise and encourage every chance you get.
- Respect their privacy, especially when you’re in their home. And don’t just expect to be included in their social life.
- Sympathise when they fail. Don’t offer help with strings attached. If you gift them money, let them decide how/when to use it. And don’t ever bring up the gift in an argument.
- Don’t criticise their lifestyle, furniture, housekeeping habits, cooking, friends or parenting efforts – otherwise sparks will fly.
- And avoid playing in-law soccer. Don’t compete with your opposite in-laws.
7. Look for things you can enjoy together
A shop-shop-shopping trip or a weekly café appointment for the in-law ladies. A round of golf or a fishing expedition for the in-law men. A day at the beach … a picnic in the park … a night at the movies … a birthday-fun ‘special’ with the grandkids … a Saturday morning appointment on the rugby sideline or netball court.
Do you want your in-laws to be friendly? Be a friend! And do lots of friend-stuff!
8. Take good advice onboard politely
If your in-laws offer wisdom, accept it and thank them for their concern. If it’s not what you want, explain that nicely and thank them anyway. Be honest. Be firm. Be consistent. In-laws have heaps to offer – but their suggestions are just suggestions, not an Act of Parliament.
9. Don’t put down your partner in front of your parents
This is a big NO-NO. And when you row with your spouse or discover his imperfections, don’t rush home and ‘share’ it with your family – you could bias them, and leave him feeling betrayed. Keep the private arena in your relationship private!
10. Don’t hold your family up as the model
Even if you’re correct, your partner will naturally feel defensive. Face it: both families have warts and wrinkles – it’s called being human! Family loyalty is normal and healthy – and you’ll want it, one day, from your own kids!
WHEN IT ALL HITS THE FAN..
ALARNA: “If my mother-in-law criticises me one more time, I’m going to scream! She’s got nothing better to do than tell me I’m using the wrong dishwashing liquid, or my pot-plants need water, or I’m wasting money getting Brian’s clothes drycleaned. Brian reckons I’m being touchy, but she never says anything nice …”
TONY: “If Lisa would only try, I know she could get along with my mum. But she just raves: ‘That mother of yours isn’t going to tell me what to do!’ The funny thing is, Mum doesn’t tell her what to do. But Lisa’s so used to fighting with her own mother, she thinks she has to do it with mine …”
JEANETTE: “Alan’s so tied to his mother’s apron strings! She used to wait on him hand-and-foot – and when she comes around here, she does it again. Pampers him, picks up after him – things I refuse to do. And he’s always running back to Mummy! He calls in on her almost every day …”
EDDIE: “I suggested that Geoff and Shona should move in. My wife had just died, and here was I in this big empty house. But then the trouble started. Shona got sloppy – you know, letting the housework go and letting the kids run riot. When I try to talk about it, she just flies off the handle – and Geoff just goes all silent. I don’t feel it’s my own home anymore …”
Have YOU got an in-law problem that can no longer be ignored? Well, try these 10 ways to clear the air …
10 ways to clear the air:
- Make sure you and your partner agree on what the problem is and what needs to be done.
- Check your own attitudes – and be gut-honest about the part you may have played in making things worse.
- Rehearse what you plan to say before you confront your in-laws: your goal is understanding and reconciliation.
- Highlight the things about your in-laws that you’re happy with before talking about what’s
- Use ‘I’ statements, such as “I feel …” or “I don’t like …” – rather than “You are …” or “You did this …” Better still, use ‘we’ statements: “We have a problem …”
- Be specific. Pinpoint the behaviour that’s upset you, and don’t go dragging up ancient history.
- Be honest about your own mistakes – and accept any criticism you get in return.
- Suggest (don’t demand) some realistic steps – things you could both do – to improve the relationship.
- Allow your in-laws their say, their point-of-view – and welcome any solutions they offer.
- Be forgiving. And don’t overlook the healing power of a hug!
ONE LAST THING …
A relationship is a journey. You never quite arrive at your destination, but are always heading towards it. That’s how it is with in-laws. And that’s how you and your in-laws get to be best friends …
Remember PAMELA, earlier in this article? She got married believing that it would be “easier without a bunch of relatives to muck it up!” But she was in for a pleasant shock:
“My new relatives made me feel welcome, but I was afraid my own family wouldn’t be so friendly. Imagine my surprise when my partner plopped himself down next to Mum while she watched TV, making her laugh and winning her over. He drew my father out of his shell, and treated my brother as an equal.
“My husband was able to defuse the tensions in my family and highlight all that was good. Thanks to him, I made my own peace with Mum before she died, and have grown a lot closer to Dad and my brother. I also have a mother-in-law who shows up to help when the three-year-old gets chickenpox, and a sister-in-law who cared for us all while I was up at the hospital with Mum.
“It scares me to think how easily I might have missed out on all these wonderful connections. My husband and I are married – not only to each other but to our entire families.”
Hey – way to go!
KEEPERS OF THE VINE