The first time when Chantelle brought Deon home to meet her parents, things went better than she expected. They spoke for long about old cars, Namibia and photography. Deon patiently listened to her father’s hunting stories, while he was totally against the idea of hunting. He complimented his mother-in-law on her food and her father said he approved of his “open face”. On the in-law front things looked good for Deon – he knew already that he wanted to share a future with Chantelle.
Shortly after that Sarel and Mimi (Chantelle’s parents) retired in the Cape and Chantelle and Deon rarely saw them. The relationship was healthy until about three months after Chantelle and Deon’s wedding day, when Deon made a simple joke about his father-in-law’s insect collection . . . war. Chantelle could see the innocence in Deon’s meaning (even though the joke was clumsy and slightly tactless), but she knew her father well. The moment the words were said, Chantelle saw the ice in her father’s eyes and she knew that it was the end of a good relationship between father and son-in-law.
“My mother stands 100% behind my father and what he says and does is right. I have always hated that part of her – the fact that she never questions my father’s actions. My father is a very moody person and you have to approach him carefully. That day my mother did what she normally does and lifted her eyebrows – even though she said nothing, I knew their attitude towards Deon had changed . . . and I will always be in the middle.”
An uncomfortable middleman
It’s a topic for many comedy films and a common tendency that parents-in-law and children-in-law sometimes clash. Even Sigmund Freud, the father of psycho-analysis, did from the start not get on with his mother-in-law. It took three years before they got to a point where they understood each other.
It’s so important for parents and children to realize that they must work hard on their relationships. If not, it makes things for you who love everyone very difficult. You have to act as peacemaker and middleman, and it puts tremendous stress on you, as well as your relationship with your parents and husband. When your parents don’t like your husband for some reason, there is little you can do about the relationship, but there are things that you can do to improve the situation.
Whose side must you choose?
Naturally it depends from situation to situation. There are cases when your husband is totally wrong and other cases when you must realize that your parents are at fault. Remember that one of the biggest gifts you can give your partner is to be completely independent from your parents. It doesn’t mean that you have to end all contact, but that it must be higher on your priority list to make your partner happy than to keep your parents happy.
Does it bother your husband that your mom phones day and night? Do you listen when she gossips about him? Do you run to your dad for advice, instead of your hubby? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be caught in the middle. You don’t know how to keep both sides happy. “They don’t get along, someone is always angry with you and you just want to move to another planet,” says Jenna D Barry.
Learn how to become independent
The good news is that you don’t have to keep everyone happy – your focus must be on your partner and it must be your priority, even if your parents don’t like it. If they show healthy behaviour, they will gracefully stand aside and encourage you to make your partner your priority. If your parents show negative behaviour, they will try to manipulate you with guilt to force you to play the role of an obedient child, instead of allowing you to be loyal to your spouse. They will claim the right to phone and visit whenever they want to and they will be very upset if you want to set healthy boundaries.
A better relationship on both sides
Jenna explains that you will be a stronger marriage partner, with a stronger marriage, and you will have a more adult relationship with your parents when you become a loyal spouse. Your behaviour will then contribute to a better relationship between your husband and your parents. “The moment when you remove the need for competition, your partner will most likely try harder to please you by getting on better with your parents.” Remember, parents-in-law are one of the top reasons for divorce. Don’t allow feelings between your parents and spouse to put your marriage in danger.
If your parents don’t like your husband
- Be honest with them when you tell them why you love your husband so much. Look for opportunities where they can get to know each other better. Talk to your husband and parents at the dinner table about childhood memories, dreams and goals.
- Talk for yourself and not on behalf of your spouse. Let your parents know how much it hurts you when they talk negatively about your husband. Talk to them as parents and not as people who are out to get your husband.
- Don’t blame them. When you blame them, they will stand with their backs to the wall and like your partner even less. Talk about specific instances and how their behaviour hurt you and your relationship and not your parents. Don’t let them feel as if you are being controlled by your spouse.
- Use examples and don’t use statements like “always” or “never” without being specific, otherwise your statement doesn’t sound grounded.
- Ask your parents for specific changes. To ask them to change their attitude of rejection is not enough. Name specific things that should be changed and ask them to stop their negative language. Give them specific examples, so that you and your partner can see if things change.
- Even if you don’t like what they say about your spouse, listen to them. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them!
- If there is an open war, talk to each other about the boundaries that you are going to set in your marriage regarding parents, so that their limits don’t hang between you.
- Decide together if your partner is going to attend family functions or is going with you to visit your parents, but don’t allow him to keep you away from your parents. Know that when you start to isolate yourself from your friends and family, the red lights will start to flicker in your marriage!
- Research has shown that parents’ rejection causes mistrust, criticism and conflict in a marriage. If it happens, go and see a marriage counsellor immediately before the issue gets bigger.
- Don’t let the conflict get so big that it destroys your relationship with your parents. Consider the consequences of this – estrangement from your parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and extended family.
- Remember that feelings of grudges and anger can harm your own health.
If you don’t like your son-in-law
- Be honest with your daughter about your concerns. Create opportunities to get to know your son-in-law better.
- If you don’t like what your child says about her husband, listen with an open mind. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree.
- Keep discussions about relationships and marriages general. Be honest when you answer, but don’t become negative or blame your child’s spouse.
- Know that anything negative that you say about your daughter’s life partner is going to evoke strong feelings, and with that you are going to get an “us against you” situation.
- Trust the relationship that you have built with your daughter and keep the communication between you open. If her choice for a life partner is really poor, the day may come when she comes to you for advice and leading. It’s then when you will have to be there for her and may not say: “I told you so.”
- Go ahead with strengthening the bond with your daughter. Eat together, go on shopping trips and go to the movies.
- If your relationship has not improved after the wedding, accept the boundaries that they as a couple have set regarding their relationship with you. Don’t let your rejection be a weight between you.
- When you as a couple differ regarding your son-in-law, don’t let it affect your marriage. Even if you agree about him, the tension and conflict with your child can harm your marriage. Make enough time for each other and work on your marriage.
- Don’t allow your refusal to get to know your son-in-law deprive you of a relationship with your child and grandchildren.
Additional sources: www.marriage.about.com; http://www.ehow.com; www.hitchedmag.com