In-laws or out-laws?

What is it about ‘Shall we visit my parents over the holidays?’ that strikes dread into so many of our hearts, asks Linda Blair, and what can we do to make relations better?


In-laws or out-laws?

Relationships with our in-laws are destined to be tense and problematic — that’s what I used to think. But my new daughters-in-law are wonderful. I appreciate them for the people they are, but also because of the way they have enriched and deepened all our family relationships.

Great expectations

I feel fortunate to have established such good relationships with my daughters-in-law early on, but so often this isn’t the case. Many of us find our in-law relationship extremely challenging. Most people hope to feel accepted as part of their partner’s family.

Their partner’s parents, in turn, are often desperate to like them, but may have expectations about how their child’s partner should be.

Personality clash

Both sides are vulnerable — exposed to rejection and at risk of upsetting each other and the partner/child who is now caught between the two parties. In addition, parents and daughters-in-law are competing for the love and attention of the same person, which can make for a strained relationship. We may feel at odds with our in-laws because their values and personalities often clash with our own. This is part of our attraction to our partner — we’re often drawn to a mate because they are different from what we’ve known.

But when we put them together with our parents, those differences come into painful focus. This can be hard on parents-in-law, who may feel rejected by their child. And the more distressed they feel, the more they’ll push aside the child-in-law to seek reassurance from their own child, and therefore the more defensive their child and his or her partner become. It takes a mature person not to criticise or make disparaging remarks under these circumstances.

It is easy to forget the dramatic effect a new person can make to the family dynamic. What both sides are dealing with is someone who, by sheer virtue of being an outsider, throws our family traditions into sharp relief.

Any attempt to do things differently is a criticism of us as people – no matter how unintentional the slight. This is why it can be so helpful to observe certain rules of etiquette. No matter how informal it may seem, our relationship with our in-laws can benefit from knowing where our boundaries lie, from respecting one another’s space and observing family customs.

Us and them

Not all of us are fortunate enough to have in-laws with whom we feel an affinity. Lorna recounts how she has to spend every Christmas with her in-laws, who still treat her as a newcomer. ‘Their Christmas present rota penalises outsiders,’ says Lorna. ‘We do a Secret Santa, but the blood relations get a £30 gift, even if an “incomer” is buying it. Those who’ve married into the family only get £20 spent on them. It’s not the amount that upsets me, it’s the subtext. It’s as if they’re saying “You’re not one of us, and never will be”.’

Yet Lorna — like so many of us — still needs to find ways to make the relationship with her in-laws work, because trying to avoid them would only cause everyone to feel hurt. The best way to improve things is to assume that you can’t force others to change, and instead find ways to handle the tensions yourself, using the toolkits on these pages. There is no rule that says you should love your in-laws.

But unlike the common stereotypes, it is possible to develop a close and lasting relationship that benefits you, your partner, and your partner’s parents.