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Meeting the In-laws

In-laws.  Just saying the word invokes jokes. Beyond nasty humor, in-laws issues have generated a cottage industry.  Books with telling titles such as “Toxic In-Laws” and “What Do You Want from Me?” Movies including the hilarious  “Meet the Parents” and “The Birdcage.” Websites ranging from  How to Meet the In-Laws to  I Hate my In-laws.  Even academic studies: Implications Of Mother-In-Laws’ Perceived Styles Of Relating.” (Yes,  that’s academic-speak!)

While those intergenerational in-law connections get attention, there’s another relationship that’s widely ignored yet is critical to family harmony: the relationship with your adult child’s in-laws.  We don’t even have a name for that connection in English. What do you call your daughter- or son-in-law’s parents? Those people?   Seriously, co-laws? In Yiddish, the word is “machatunim” and in Spanish “consuegros,” but  there’s no English translation.

Whatever the name, when your children get engaged they bring a raft of new people into the family. They may live in the same town or halfway around the world.  The first extended interaction is usually the wedding: Who pays for what? How many guests? What kind of ceremony and reception? The chill or the warmth of the big day often sets the tone and determines whether the machatunim become an intimate part of the extended family or casual acquaintances or simply names on the holiday card list.

Friend or foe, the machatunim can have a ripple–sometimes tidal wave–effect on your relationship with your child’s spouse as well as grandchildren.  So how to get off to a good start?  Mothering21 called on an expert  who knows the topic well,  Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue.”    The mother of four adult children and a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, Dr. Nemzoff often speaks on intergenerational family relations.  We chatted with her on the phone earlier this month.

Q. Why do you think we don’t have a word in English for “co-in-laws”?

A. It’s emblematic of the relationship. In America it’s unclear exactly what the relationship is because it varies so much.  Maybe you meet for the first time at the wedding and the next time is at the grandkid’s high school graduation. Then there are those people who expect to have relationship and become friends and you go on vacation together. It reflects our multi-cultural society.

Q. Parents often have preconceived notions before they even meet the other side. How do you handle that first meeting?

A. Start with the assumption that these parents raised someone your kid loves so they must have some good qualities. Try to figure out what they are and focus on those good qualities. Also, there are a million ways to live a life. Why people have chosen the lives they do is often very interesting.  Be curious—in a positive way—about their background.  Share your background too. Use all the social skills you use in other parts of your life.

Q. You’re working on a new book about in-laws because the relationship is so complicated.  What have you found are some of the key sticking points?

A. Many times there’s the expectation that this new family will do things the same way as our family.  Forget it! No two families do things in the exact same way.  There’s also often a dark side to the relationship that may be caused by money. One spouse comes from a wealthy family who takes them on trips to Aruba with all expenses paid and the most the other family can afford is a walk in the park.  Competition can develop over grandchildren: They live close and we are far away. They can give big gifts and we can’t afford to do that.

Q. How do you suggest parents handle those tensions?

A. There’s a saying used by runners: Run your own race; the same in these situations.   A walk in the park can be equally as wonderful as trip to Aruba, particularly for grandchildren.  What matters the most to them is attention. Doing a coloring book together is what’s important, not that you’re doing it in Aruba.

Q. Adapting to this new extended family often means changes in decades-long way of doing things—holiday traditions, celebrating birthdays, when and where we vacation. How do you handle that?

A. One hard thing for parents is sharing.  We told our kids to share as they were growing up. Now it’s our turn to share and that means sharing the holidays and other events.  People are endlessly creative. Develop new traditions.  You can have Thanksgiving on a Saturday or trim the tree on a weeknight.  Just don’t leave an empty space at the holiday table and feel sorry for yourself. You can mourn the change but then move on.  It’s like “The king is dead long. Long live the king.”

Q. On a positive note, how can parents be  good in-laws?

A. Before imposing on them, try asking the young couple, “What would be useful to you?” You might think trip to Aruba is wonderful and they’re thinking, “I have one week of vacation and I don’t want to waste it on the in-laws.”   Maybe they rather have the money to buy a couch.

Appreciate whatever is given by them in terms of time and togetherness and don’t keep asking for more.  Realize that the kids have jobs and their own friends and that are doing best they can. Just be appreciative.

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