Congratulations! Your daughter or son is engaged. Now, are you ready to navigate your future role as a father- or mother-in-law?
First, tattoo this on your brain: Don’t tell your son- or daughter-in-law what to do.
“Learn to bite your tongue,” says Teresa Vendetti of Chinook, Wash., whose son, daughter-in-law and grandson live a few hours away from her. “We, as parents, want to get involved, want to help. Don’t. Stay out of it until they ask.”
A parent-in-law’s helpful comment may be interpreted by a daughter-in-law as criticism of who she is. Sons-in-law may react that way, too. Even something that seems innocuous – their house is messy, so you start picking up – can trigger feelings of being criticized.
And even if they ask, be cautious about giving advice, says Terri Orbuch, research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and author of “Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good To Great” (Greenleaf). This is true of both genders, but Orbuch sees it as a particular challenge for women.
“As women, we are relationship-oriented,” Orbuch says. “Our identities as mother, wife, friend and daughter-in-law are important to how we see ourselves.”
Which is why Lucretia Sprowell of Fort Collins, Colo., a mother of five and grandmother of 13, says it’s “best to let them find their own way and make their own mistakes. Even if they ask, they don’t want to be told how by (me). They'll do it the way they were brought up.”
Sons vs. daughters: The in-law relationship is important to your child’s marriage – but Orbuch, who has studied 373 couples over three decades, has found that it’s complicated, too, and its impact can vary by gender.
When husbands feel close to their in-laws, the marriage is 20 percent more likely to last than for husbands who don’t feel that closeness, Orbuch has found. A husband who feels close to his in-laws feels more connected to his wife.
“That says to the wife: Your family is important to me because they’re important to you,” Orbuch says. “As women, it’s rewarding when our husbands feel close to our family.”
However, when wives feel close to their in-laws, Orbuch found the risk of divorce is 20 percent higher than among wives who don’t feel close to in-laws. That’s particularly true early in the marriage.
“In-law ties are especially stressful for women,” Orbuch says. “If we feel close, we’re constantly trying to bond with our in-laws. That takes time and emotion. As women, if there are issues, we are analyzing and trying to improve our relationship. When we do that, we take what our in-laws say as interference or meddling. Then we get angry. It affects the relationship with the husband.”
Tips for mom- and dad-in-law:
▪ Avoid comments that might be perceived as intrusive by a daughter- or son-in-law. And don’t be nosy. You don’t have to know what they’re doing, where they’re going, what they’re planning, Sprowell says.
▪ When grandchildren arrive, follow the parents’ rules, says Georgia Witkin, psychiatry professor at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, on the website Grandparents.com. This eliminates a major point of contention between young parents and in-laws.
▪ Remember to say nice things about your son- or daughter-in-law, directly to them or indirectly to grandchildren or other family members, Witkin recommends.
▪ Bond with your son-in-law, Orbuch says. Finding common ground can be a challenge because you’re likely from different generations and backgrounds. Perhaps invite him to a sports event, or suggest an activity you both enjoy, such as hiking or fishing.
▪ Don’t take up too much of their time. “Once they’re married, don’t expect them to do everything with you like they used to,” Sprowell says.
▪ Be prepared to share your child with his or her in-laws. Resist any inclination toward jealousy or competition with the other set of parents, says Marla Sloan, mother of four and grandmother of four, in Powell River, B.C. “You want your (grown) children to have as much love in their lives as possible,” Sloan says. “That includes closeness with their in-laws. Don’t feel threatened that your child loves someone else as much as you. You'll always be their parents. The more love, the better.”
▪ Don’t forget to find the fun in these relationships, and keep an open mind. “In-laws give us new ways of doing things, new ways of looking at things,” Orbuch says. All of us get used to our own ways of thinking about holiday traditions, politics or religion. “One wife in my study grew up in the city, and … her in-laws introduced her to the fun of cross-country skiing.”
“It’s just like getting along with anyone,” says John Brinkmeyer, a son-in-law in St. Louis. “You’re stuck with them for the rest of your life – hopefully.”
Want to maximize joy, minimize conflict during the pressure cooker of the holiday season? Start with realistic expectations, says Orbuch.
“The holidays are like any other days you get together,” Orbuch says. Compromise when you can. Seek common ground. And remember, she adds, just because your in-laws’ traditions and values may be different from yours, it does not make them wrong.
▪ Be clear about the visit’s length. “We used to hedge,” says one mother-in-law who asked to remain anonymous. “Now we ask ahead of time: Tell us when to arrive; tell us when to leave.”
▪ Hosts should include in-laws in the planning. Make them part of the gathering. Would they like to contribute part of the meal, drinks, flowers?
▪ Let in-laws know your plans with sufficient advance notice so they can make other plans if they need to.
▪ Incorporate fun. Write out jokes, put them in a bowl, pass them around and read aloud. Or consider playing a noncompetitive game.
For young marrieds visiting in-laws: Everyone needs to remember that a new spouse visiting in-laws will be missing her or his own family and traditions over the holidays. Show affection and be inclusive.