As we work through the five tips that follow, keep in mind this principle: “Wear beige and keep your mouth shut.” It effectively summarizes the best approach to navigating and improving a relationship with an in-law. One woman told me, “I’m surprised my tongue doesn’t have scars from the number of times I’ve had to bite it!” When you keep in front of you the goal of having a good and loving relationship, most other things won’t matter. Before I react or speak to an in-law, I like to ask myself this question: “Will what I am about to say or do improve the relationship?” Don’t make it about you; make it about the health of the relationship. The following tips will help.
- Don’t make your child choose between you and their new family. One of the many mistakes Marie made in expressing her disapproval was forcing her daughter to choose between her and her husband. This shouldn’t have happened. One young adult said, “Too often, my mom was the wedge between my husband and me, so the only answer was to distance myself from my mom.” You may not approve of your son or daughter’s spouse, but you can still show love to your in-law for your adult child’s sake.
- Don’t complain. At least 25 percent of parents end up living with their children sometime during their aging years. Complaints and criticisms may force your children to choose between you or themselves, and invariably you will be the one aced out of the relationship. Constant complaints or criticisms of your in-law will jeopardize your relationship. Be careful with your comments and be quick to overlook minor offenses or slights. Things have a way of working out if you haven’t offended them with complaining.
- Don’t stub your toe on old family issues. Put the past where it belongs—in the past. Mend the relationship if it needs mending. Too many families are still at war over an offense that happened years before. Be the first one to put negative family patterns on the shelf. When you take the lead, your children or other family members will typically follow, and even if they don’t, you are still better off. A sincere apology, even if rejected, is the mature and right way to handle anything you might need to own up to. If you were the offended party, be quick to overlook any minor or irritating offenses. Does it really matter? Most things don’t.
- Offer support. If your adult child’s marriage is struggling or fails, provide support. If you live in the area and your grand- kids need a babysitter, be the first to offer. You honor your child and your in-law when you are their chief cheerleader. Be there for them.
When Janet and Mark’s thirty-five-year-old daughter went through a messy divorce, they welcomed her home along with the three grandkids. There really wasn’t enough space for all of them in the home, and it was chaotic at times, but the gift of support they provided their daughter and grandkids became a catalyst for healing from a painful divorce and helped their daughter to get back on her feet. Janet and Mark’s support was strategic—they traded their own short-term comfort for a long- term legacy. They remained close to the grandchildren. They didn’t bad-mouth the ex. As they took the high road of support, they turned to safe friends—not their daughter—to help them deal with their own grief and loss.
- Negotiate holidays for a win-win. When we were first married, Cathy and I always struggled with where to spend the holidays. We wanted to celebrate with our extended families, but they didn’t live close. Because we had children, we also wanted to create our own family holiday traditions. There were times when juggling the holidays felt like more of a burden than a joy. We decided that as our adult children got married, we would never pressure them to participate in our celebrations, and we would try to make their holidays as easy as possible.
The first year after our oldest daughter was married, she let us know that she would be having Thanksgiving with her in-laws. Frankly, even though we had decided not to make holidays stressful, it was a bit difficult. Then I had an idea. “How about celebrating Thanksgiving with our family on the Sunday before?” I asked. “That way you can connect with both families.” She jumped at the chance for a family gathering on a separate day. We had a great time, and then on the day of Thanksgiving, we drove out to Palm Springs for a few days with one of our other daughters. It became a win-win. With some families who don’t live in the area, it can’t be that simple, but with an attitude of adaptability and trying to take the pressure off the kids, you most likely will get a better chance to celebrate together around a holiday. Be the in-laws who make it easy for them.