In-laws and “outlaws”

My grandfather would refer to relatives-by-marriage as “the outlaws.” There’s a popular stereotype that in-laws don’t – or aren’t supposed to – get along; I think it goes with the idea that “blood is thicker than water.” I used to work with a woman who had no siblings and whose parents were both dead, and figured that her husband would have it very easy in the in-laws department; interestingly, as far as I know, she’s never married.

For most of us, our spouse is the one exception to the adage that “we can’t choose our relatives.” But we truly get no choice at all in the existing family package that he or she comes with, just as we didn’t get to choose our own. At least with our own, though, we’ve had some experience and figured out how things work (or don’t); we have to start from square one with these new family members, and there’s a lot of history among them that we haven’t been a part of. The relationships among them may be complex, and our own relationships with them may have a whole new set of complications.

Conventionally, the in-law relationships that get the most attention, and can be the most troublesome, are the parental ones – fathers-in-law and sons-in-law (especially when son-in-law married “daddy’s girl”), but mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law even more so.

Broadsheet recently reported on a new book exploring the relationship between daughters- and mothers-in-law, Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law: Understanding the Relationship and What Makes Them Friends or Foe, by Deborah Merrill. She interviewed about 50 DILs and many of their MILs in central Massachusetts, and found that

…a third of the daughters-in-law — who usually are more negative about the relationship than their mothers-in-law — described their relationships with their husbands’ mothers as “tight-knit.” Forty-two percent of the daughters-in-law said that there had been no conflict with their mothers-in-law in their marriage. And almost half said that they felt that they could confide in their mothers-in-law. Merrill also found that this relationship often improves over time. Even so, she observed that when this relationship is bad, it can be really, really bad, with very high levels of conflict and, yes, resentment.

In a e-mail interview with Broadsheet, Merrill answered questions about (emphasis added):

The archetype of the interfering mother-in-law

It’s the result of the fact that the mother-in-law has always been her child’s main caregiver…The continued concern and drive to advise is seen as interference, though, once a child marries and has their own family. Relinquishing one’s role can cause resentment on the part of the mother-in-law, particularly if this has been an important source of her identity.

The best and worst MIL/DIL relationships in her study

The (best relationship stories) were the women who had relationships that were similar to a quasi-mother and daughter bond. Several of the women had very distant relationships with their own mothers, or had lost their mothers early on in their lives but felt like their mothers-in-law were like second mothers.

The role of the sons/husbands in (the problematic) relationships

The majority of the sons/husbands did not get involved. This was extremely frustrating to the daughters-in-law who wanted their husbands to “stand up for them” or “take their side.” …Those few sons who did interfere told their mothers either that their wife was their priority now (rather than her), or that their mother-in-law needed to interfere less.

What makes these in-law relationships hard

The marriage of a son is a life course transition for which many families are not prepared. This results in conflict early on in the relationship that in-laws are never quite able to overcome. When a son marries, a new and separate family is created*. While the daughter-in-law is trying to create her own family, her mother-in-law is trying to maintain relationships in her family as they have always been…There are no shared expectations of an in-law’s role and obligations in the family. Instead, expectations differ from family to family…They may marry into a family that focuses just on biological connections and feels no need to include in-laws…Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are expected to treat one another like family without the benefits of a mother-daughter tie. They have neither a shared history nor the unconditional love that balance the obligations of family ties.

How to make MIL/DIL relationships work

Include them in your family. The mothers-in-law’s main complaint about their daughters-in-law was that they often felt like they were on the outside of their son’s life looking in. Mothers-in-law want to be included, and the daughter-in-law needs to bridge the gap and make her feel welcome…Daughters-in-law were much more likely to have good relationships with their mothers-in-law later on if they felt welcomed into the family from the beginning. Acknowledge your son and daughter-in-law’s marriage by including her in your relationship with your son whenever you can.

*The observation that a “new and separate family” is created when a son marries goes back a very long way, and was once phrased as:

“A son is a son till he takes a wife,
But a daughter’s a daughter all of her life.”

My relationship with my first mother-in-law was spotty at times, but to be fair, her relationships with her blood relatives were probably worse. She and her mother could barely stand each other most of the time (but she remained very fond of her ex-husband’s mother). She and her daughter blew hot and cold, but it’s been cold for a long time now; ex-MIL hasn’t had any contact with either of her two children for over ten years. I assume she has no idea that her son and I have been divorced for over five years now, that he married again almost three years ago, and that her only grandchild is now a college graduate and living in Washington, DC.

On the other hand, I adore my current Mom-in-law, and she returns it. She has been accepting, generous, and welcoming to me since our first meeting; before that happened, she had told Tall Paul that all she really needed to know about me was whether or not I made him happy. My own mother has been gone for a number of years now, and I’m happy to consider my mother-in-law in that role – and teasingly remind her that I’m her “favorite” daughter-in-law (but that’s our secret – and no, I’m not the only DIL she has. That’s why it’s our secret.).

The plane tickets have been bought and the travel plans confirmed; on Christmas Eve, I’ll be meeting my son’s girlfriend of over a year. At his point, I have no idea whether she may someday be my daughter-in-law – and knowing my son, I hope that “someday” is still several years away, whether with her or someone else – but this will be like mother-in-law practice for me. I hope to follow the example my Mom-in-law has been setting for me over the last couple of years, and to be welcoming and appreciative of her.

“Marry(ing) into a family that focuses just on biological connections and feels no need to include in-laws” – that’s the “outlaws” mentality, or that of the old-fashioned monarchies. Families are made of much more than that, and family bonds can sometimes form among in-laws that are just as strong as those in the “natural” family, and possibly even more so. It’s complicated by the fact that, as Merrill states, there’s really no societal template for these relationships, and what models and expectations can be found in the general culture are frequently negative – but that can be overcome, and in many cases it’s in the family’s best interest to make the effort to do so. While marriages can and do end for various reasons, the families that are formed through them may continue on afterward. Then again, when those relationships have been problematic, it’s probably a relief for all involved not to have to maintain them anymore. (Similar things can probably be said about stepfamilies.)

The thing is, this is the family that produced your spouse, like it or not – and assuming that your spouse likes that family him- or herself, it’s probably best for all concerned to make the effort to like them too. And this spouse is the person your son or daughter has chosen as a life partner – and unless that partner is truly harmful to your child, it’s most likely in everyone’s interest to accept and trust that choice.

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