Anatomy of your in-laws

July 31, 2007 - 0:0

Leslie vowed to love and to cherish her husband, she didn't realize she was also marrying his parents.

""We have to see them every day of our lives,"" she says. And if by chance Leslie (whose name has been changed) and her husband miss one day, it becomes a huge ordeal that requires the couple to call and apologize. To make matters worse, Leslie's mother-in-law is clingy and possessive, and treats her son like he's a child.
""She'll hug him right in front of me and say, ""He's still my baby and you can't have him!""' Leslie says. ""As if!""
Ah, in-laws. Can't live with them - can't disown them. Unfortunately, in-law infractions, like the ones that torture Leslie, happen hundreds of thousands of times a day, wreaking havoc in otherwise perfectly harmonious marriages. Why?
""In-laws are like a blind date,"" explains Eden Unger Bowditch, author of ""The Daughter-In-Law's Survival Guide."" ""You don't know them and you have no real connection to them, other than that you're marrying their child."" Add to that the tension that naturally comes when parents have to give up their number one spot in their child's life, and you have a nightmare on Nuptial Street.
To help you try to live in peace - or at least in a comfortable co-existence - with your in-laws, here are five of the most common irritating incidents and how you can deal.
-- In-law infraction: hell for the holidays -------------------
You know the routine: The holidays come around and suddenly there's a power play between both sets of parents over whose home you're going to visit. Anne's mother-in-law was so aggressive, she started lobbying them for a Christmas Day visit - in July. This, in turn, pissed off her parents who felt slighted and jealous. Fa-la-la-la-la!
""You have to be proactive about holidays, and plan your schedule out ahead of time,"" says Claudia Arp, co-author of ""Loving Your Relatives: Even When You Don't See Eye-to-Eye."" ""Go to one family's house one year, and another the next year. And be sure to let everyone know what you're doing beforehand.""
She acknowledges that this is sometimes not the easiest conversation to have, especially when you're blowing off your parents for, say, Thanksgiving. In this case, say something like: ""I know how much you really want to be with us, and we really want to be with you. But we have two families we need to see. Next year, we're gobbling up turkey with you.""
You could also pick a neutral setting - like your own home - where everyone can converge. The most important thing is for the two of you to come up with a plan early (before anyone asks what you're up to) and stick to it.
---- In-law infraction: they have no boundaries ----------
According to a survey conducted by Marriage Alive International, the No. 1 tension in dealing with extended family is lack of boundaries. You know - the mother-in-law who comes over to plant flowers in your garden without asking, or the father-in-law who plops on your couch unannounced to watch football.
For Gretchen, it was the father-in-law who decided he wanted to move into her house for two months while he and the mother-in-law were in the process of selling their condo.
""He isn't the greatest about helping with dishes, laundry or cooking, so it's going to end up being a lot of extra work for me and my husband,"" she says. ""I know it's going to cause some stress in our marriage.""
It doesn't have to, Bowditch says. The key is to set firm and clear parameters early on. Tell your in-laws when they can and can't come over (or call and not call), and don't be afraid to say no if they step outside of the boundary. And remember: ""Don't just resent your in-laws for invading your space,"" Bowditch says. ""This situation is new to them and they are trying to feel their way along.""
She recalls one woman with an extremely possessive mother-in-law who called her son at all hours of the day. Instead of saying, ""Leave us alone!"" the woman called her MIL and said, ""I am so in love with your son. You did such a wonderful job raising him, and I know I have to share him - but sometimes I like to have him all to myself.""
----- In-law infraction: they’re just not into each other ---------
Just because you love your husband does not mean your parents are going to love his parents - and vice versa. Nancy's mom can't stand Nancy's mother-in-law.
""My mom threw a wedding shower and she didn't come - in fact, she didn't even RSVP,"" she says. ""Then, at our rehearsal dinner and wedding, she didn't say a word to my mom."" While behavior like this may be a bit extreme, it's still typical for in-laws to not bond with one another.
A lot of the tension stems from unrealistic expectations. You assume everyone will get along as well as you do with your man, and sometimes it just doesn't happen. The truth is you're throwing together two sets of strangers and suddenly asking them to be family. It's an unnatural alliance. If your respective families just don't like each other, then the solution is simple: ""Keep them apart,"" Bowditch says.
----- In-law infraction: different priorities ------------
As a rule, in-laws have a lot of opinions - and you probably don't agree with most of them. They also love to tell you how to live your life.
Dana's in-laws kept reminding her over and over again that if she was going to have a second child, time was running out and she needed to start getting serious.
""I'm only 30,"" Dana says. ""But they were convinced I was nearing the end of my birthing years!""
When she explained to her mother-in-law that she wasn't even sure if she and her husband wanted another baby, her mother-in-law replied incredulously, ""But you don't really have a family unless there's more than one child.""
Children, religion, education, money - these are all sticky issues that will invariably come up with your in-laws at least once or 1,000 times. The important thing to remember is that most time their hearts are in the right place - even if their advice is from the Planet Bizarro.
""In most cases, they are just trying to connect with you,"" Bowditch says. ""They are not trying to be offensive; they're trying to share.""
Rather than getting angry, Dana decided to be politely honest. ""I told her that we were just going to have to agree to disagree,"" she says. Then she gave her an article about very successful only children.
----- In-law infraction: his mother is hypercritical of you -----------
No matter what Rachel did, her mother-in-law disapproved. If Rachel had an opinion about something, she would immediately disagree. If Rachel told her a wall was off-white, her mother-in-law would say it was yellow. Her husband was useless.
""He would try to be the peacemaker and say, ""Actually, the wall is sort of a yellowish off-white,""' Rachel says. ""I was furious because he would never defend me."" It got so bad, Rachel eventually moved out.
Blame it on jealousy or insecurity, but the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is usually the most stressful. Unfortunately, most husbands choose to deal with it by not dealing with it, saying they don't feel comfortable being put between their wife and their mom.
That can be devastating to a marriage, and the worst thing a man can do. Says Bowditch: ""You and your husband need to create a united front and be a strong team.""
Remind your spouse that he is your partner, not his mother's. This means that he should stand by you no matter what - even if he doesn't agree with you.
In Rachel's case, her panicked husband finally told his mother that, although he loved her, Rachel came first in his life.
""My relationship with my mother-in-law became better,"" Rachel says. ""When she ended up in the hospital, it was me who stayed with her. Who would have thought?""