Wedding Details: Relative Harmony

Take my mother-in-law … please. Familiar punchline, same old story.

“In-laws, sex and money are three of the major causes for distress in marriage,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Judith Sills, a Philadelphia-based private practitioner and author of a number of best-selling books, including The Comfort Trap; or, What If You’re Riding a Dead Horse? (Viking Adult, 2004).

When you get married, says Sills, you are joining a family that has its own culture, history, expectations, rules and dynamics, none of which are written down, and all of which have existed for years. Often, you’re left to your own devices to figure it all out and make a place for yourself in that family and for them in yours.

Many newlyweds go into marriage assuming that their spouses will automatically shift their loyalties from the families they grew up in to their new partner, according to Dr. Lisa Okoniewski, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Mount Airy.

“When that doesn’t happen—and it often doesn’t—all hell breaks loose,” Okoniewski says. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Speak Softly
“It may sound cliché to say, ‘Treat your in-laws like you would your best client,’ but it really is the best way to avoid conflicts,” Okoniewski says. “If a client says something intrusive like ‘You’ve put on a little weight’ or ‘I want a meeting this Sunday,’ you wouldn’t explode; you’d tactfully put him in his place.

“That doesn’t mean you have to put up with insensitivity or infringement on your personal boundaries,” she cautions. “It just means you would think carefully about how you phrase your response because you want to keep that client’s business.”

Similarly, she tells in-laws to try to refrain from offering unsolicited advice “unless you see something criminal going on. Offer your support—emotional, financial, whatever—not your comments,” she says. “Let the newlyweds learn from their own experience.”

An approach called “appreciative inquiry”—usually applied to businesses—can be effective in strengthening relationships, says Lower Gwynedd psychologist and consultant Dr. Jay Cherney. “Instead of focusing on the problems, look for the best in each other and in the relationship and expand on those things,” he says. “If you focus on what you don’t like, it’s going to stimulate defensiveness. Focusing on the things you do like fosters openness.”

Let that positive thinking carry through to your actions as well. “Every complaint has embedded in it a wish for how you would like things to be,” Cherney says. “Ask for what you want more of rather than just talking about what you want less of.”

The Mommy Trap
Both Sills and Okoniewski agree that the groom’s mother often becomes the point of friction between the couple because, as Sills explains it, “both women love the same man and have specific wants and needs associated with him.” The result can be a fierce competition for his love, affection and attention.

“Both of you may have feelings about having this man have another woman in his life,” Sills says. “And those feelings are usually expressed over trivial, yet heartfelt issues.”

For example, what happens when you want your husband to stay home and clean the garage on a Sunday and his mother wants him to come over and put up her window screens the same day? “Something like this can become as big an issue as which one of you he would rescue from a sinking ship,” Sills says.

Although conflicts between the groom and the wife’s father also crop up, men are less likely to become involved in the domestic arena, where squabbles often originate, Sills says. Fathers usually don’t walk into the daughter and son-in-law’s home and make a comment like “I can’t believe you put the brown couch over there,” she says.

Why is this? In part because women generally carry the culture in a family, says Sills, and are expected to participate in family rituals. While it may be acceptable for a man to decide to go into the other room to watch a basketball game instead of helping to prepare the traditional Sunday dinner with his wife’s parents, a woman who decides that she would rather watch basketball than help her mother-in-law in the kitchen is much more likely to raise eyebrows in the household.

Sharing the Holidays
Many couples have difficulty setting boundaries for their families, says Okoniewski. Common boundary issues include whether or not parents should be required to call before visiting and whether they should feel free to express their opinions on financial, home buying and other personal matters.

Holidays are prime time for family conflagrations of every kind, but newlyweds, in particular, may find themselves being pulled apart like a turkey wishbone. “I’ve known couples who have felt the need to eat two holiday dinners in one day to try to avoid hurt feelings if the families live close enough,” says Cherney. “If the families live far apart, they can really find themselves in a bind.”

Lucky are the bride and groom whose parents are willing to take an active role in the family blending process. This might include planning celebrations where members from both families are invited.

Laugh It Off
While geography and/or personalities may preclude shared dinners, at the very least, couples and their parents should make the effort to accept the inevitable changes and tradition-tweaking that accompany family blending with grace and good humor.

To prevent undue in-law irritation, Okoniewski recommends that couples begin discussing and negotiating their own thoughts, feelings and expectations regarding one another’s families long before the wedding day.

Once the issues are resolved between the couple, the rest of the family members should be included in the discussion, Okoniewski says. A professional therapist can help you overcome communications obstacles that might arise during either or both parts of the process.

“Finding solutions that everyone can live with can be tricky,” Okoniewski says. “But the willingness to communicate coupled with flexibility on both sides can often help to smooth things over.”