Rules of Engagement on Family Matters

In last week’s posting, I discussed the often thorny situation between a couple and the extended family. Just as I’ve learned in my 25 years of private practice that there are two sides to every couple story, there are also two perspectives to the in-law story. Being an in-law, myself, I’m very sensitive to this matter. So, in this blog, I want to offer some compassion and tips to the other side; I want to offer some rules of engagement on family matters.

Let’s start off with the obvious. You’ve raised your son or daughter and now you must let him or her go to someone else who’s become the priority. For most people, that’s plain difficult. Speaking stereotypically, it tends to be harder if you’ve raised a son. Generally, a couple will stay closer to the woman’s family. So letting go and being placed lower on the totem pole just doesn’t feel real good.

A couple certainly has to adjust to one another as far as the differences in the way they were raised, in their individual needs, and in their lifestyles. As the in-law, you’ll have to make adjustments too! How you handle these changes will determine how your relationship with your offspring and their mate will go.

First, there are the various holiday celebrations. Likely, you’ll have to share the couple with the other set of in-laws. So, now it’s a matter of how that time splitting gets done. Can the two families celebrate together so the couple doesn’t have to make a choice? Do you live close enough so that the couple can do dinner with one family but stop in on the other for dessert? Are the holidays alternated between the two families? Though there are different possibilities, what is certain is that it’s not going to be the same as it used to be.

Of course, though your offspring has decided that his or her mate is the person they are very much in love with, you may not necessarily be “in love” with the other person’s family. Yet, you will, occasionally, be spending time together. For the sake of common courtesy, as well as your child, you must be appropriately polite.

Appropriate behavior must also be extended to your child’s partner. Depending on the individual, this might be a tough one. In fact, there may be many things he or she says or does that make you uncomfortable. Though you’ve welcomed this person into your family, you can’t really treat him or her as you would a biological member of your family. There are boundaries and you can’t take the same liberties.

If you have something that really upsets you, then you need to speak to your child. Remember the rule: blood speaks to blood. However, this gets a bit sticky because you don’t want to create friction between your child and his or her mate. Remember, as the parent, you still have an impact on your child. Though it may not be obvious, what you say will really effect how he or she feels about their partner.

Your actions must also be consistent with a greater appreciation of how the couple wants to function. As a couple of examples, you might now have to call before you drop in, not call too early or late, and become aware of the way they do things in their household and follow suit.

Also know that if your children decide to have children of their own, this matter gets even more complicated. I’ve found that regardless of the fact that you succeeded in raising them to adulthood, they have their own way of doing things so it’s important to follow their lead.

Does all this seem difficult? It is. I remember years ago, my supervisor telling me that the way she practiced being a good in-law was to keep her mouth closed and her purse open. Maybe that’s a bit drastic but it does capture the essence. To be a good in-law, I think, you need to respect your child as an adult and let go of the old role of parental guidance — unless you’re asked.

I said I was presenting this issue from the perspective of the in-law and it may seem that all I’ve done is admonish about what not to do. I know this is a hard role to play. There are no “rule” books on the subject. The goal is to keep the lines of communication open so that you can continue to enjoy the relationship with your adult child. If you remember that, it will be a big help in knowing how to continue.