Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ugh...Marrying one of your in-laws?

Now that's a nightmarish thought. We all know now mother-in-law and father-in-law relationships make great source material for jokes of all kinds. It's a product of the curious and often irritating contrasts we see--and experience--in families' styles, priorities, and general ways of doing things. And certainly, those contrasts are predictable and vary in content and intensity.

In-law challenges are one of the "top five" sources of controversy for couples--and they don't go away! We can probably all think of people we know who have moved themselves from one town to another, or across the country, just to ease the tensions that in-law stuff has introduced. But making that move may address the issue in one way and actually contribute to it in other ways. For example, I've met couples that made this kind of move only to trade the daily emotional wear and tear of being geographically close for the financial costs associated with vacation trips back there, frequent telephone conversations, and tense discussions related to "you get to see your folks a lot more frequently than I get to see mine!" So, once you've got them, there may be no simple solutions to these kinds of dilemmas, and the really complicated ones are just that--complicated!

There's at lease one more really important piece to this discussion. We previously considered how every relationship develops a set of "rules." These are both spoken and unspoken expectations that become woven into the fabric of the relationship, and it starts to happen very early in the dating and courtship process. It's not until a partner challenges one of these rules--whether it happens intentionally or completely by accident--that both partners become keenly aware of its presence and influence. For example, there are certainly many "rules" that get set-up around a couple's relationship to their in-laws. The very nature of a couple's contact with mom and dad or brothers and sisters, how frequently, for how long, around what events, and at whose house, etc., all of these things can have "rules" associated with them. They get set-up very early in a couple's relationship...and this is just one good example.

So, what's a person to do?

The best remedy to an in-law challenge is this: Carefully and intentionally investigate what you're getting yourself into from the beginning--before you make this a permanent arrangement!
  • Do you think there's a "rule" getting set-up? What does that feel like to you? Discuss this openly with each other--and as often as you feel you need to. Talk about what you see and what you're experiencing. Can you? When you do, what is your partner's response? Friendly, defensive, dismissing, open...what? Is that OK with you?
  • What are the dynamics of your in-law experiences? Maybe these are fun events--they're great? Maybe they're actually destructive! How are the two of you working together to establish some shared and helpful boundaries? You can set your own (mutually agreed upon) rules to manage these destructive dynamics so they don't manage your relationship. You need to. You must.
  • Finally, if you do what I just suggested (above) you'll be able to recognize and anticipate how your in-laws might influence your relationship long term. Is what you've "seen" in that long-term view OK with you and with your partner? If you face this challenge purposefully, together, and intentionally from the very beginning of your dating and courting experience, you'll find yourself (or yourselves) making an intentional decision to continue, or, maybe to end the relationship based on what you can see coming. Generally, once a person has made an intentional choice, it's easier to live with its long-range implications. It's painful for us to have to do that when we feel we were "blind sided."
Be smart. More next time.