The Marriage Podcast for Smart People

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Six Dynamics That Influence In-Law Relationships, Part 1

I was at a magic show, when after one particularly amazing trick, someone screamed out, “Wow, how did you do that?” “I would tell you”, answered the magician predictably, “but then I’d have to kill you.” After a moment’s pause the same voice yelled back “Can you tell my mother in law?” In-laws Are Special! Even though it would be impossible to host an episode about in-laws without a little off-the-cuff humour, we do want to acknowledge that parents are always to be given honour. Having said that, we recognize that in-law issues – both parent to offspring and offspring to parent – can be a really hot topic for many marriages! The Journal of Family Therapy published an article called “The Problem With In-Laws” (2003). They identified six common areas where issues arise in Western societies with in laws. They are: Jealousy Competition Transference Displacement Poor boundary regulation and Discrepant role expectations These are not all words we use commonly every day so we will unpack them a little below! A note to folks from other cultures that follow our show: you may have to take what we’re going to talk about and evaluate if it fits your culture. At the very least, this might be an interesting insight into how things happen in the idealized world of North America. Regardless of culture, the guiding principle here from the ancient wisdom of the Bible is that a husband shall leave his father and mother and cleave (cling, unite) unto his wife (Genesis 2). This implies there is a clear separation that comes into the parental relationship and then a joining in the marriage relationship. 1. Jealousy When you get married, your loyalty changes from your parents to your spouse. Time, attention and affection get re-directed to the spouse from the parents which may make the parents jealous. The spouse may also get jealous is he/she feels that the parents-in-law are still getting a larger portion of the attention. To further complicate things, a spouse may actually feel like they’re betraying their parents to some extent when they leave home. There may be grief, but the couple needs to build their own bond to compensate. Realize that most in-laws want the best for your marriage. Usually, parents are not out to thwart a relationship, but want their child and spouse to be happy. It is each individual coming to the new relationship with their own expectations of what that should look like that causes conflicting tensions. 2. Competition (or Comparison) It is so easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with others. That is no different in relationships than it is with anything else. We can bring a lot of expectations into our marriage about what it means to be a good daughter-in-law (DIL) or son-in law (SIL) and even compare ourselves with our siblings as to who is doing a better job as an in-law. We may also compare ourselves with our spouse's parents. For example, a husband may compare the house that he has provided for his wife with the house she lived in with her parents and wonder if he measures up. It’s also easy to feel like we need to compete for the amount of time devoted to each relationship. How can we diffuse the competition? We need to manage our boundaries – put your spouse first and your parents second. As a spouse, we need to voice our concerns to our marriage partner if we feel left out. Talk about it and try to find ways where you can still feel connected with the parents but are not taking time away from your spouse. Rather than come at it with an “either-or” attitude (competition) try to find a “both-and” solution. 3. Transference Transference is looking to your family (my in-laws) to provide something that was lacking in my family or fulfill the role of my parents. It may not even be a recognized need, but it is in the subconscious as a deep desire. For example, if one family of origin (FOO) was not very good nurturing,