Monday, February 23, 2009

Navigating the In-law Shoals

Everyone who has ever lived has heard the in-law stories. Some are truly funny and some are truly frightening. While some are undoubtedly exagerrations, others are fully true. Having heard the stories we all frantically attempt to not only find our zivug but also make sure that his/her family is exactly to our liking. Therein is where the trouble begins.

Here is what I believe, come to over many years of observing others and yes, of being a daughter-in-law. Unless there is a major issue in someone else's family--one side is all awaiting execution on Federal charges, for example--forget about the family when making your decision on getting married. Yes, forget about the family.

Here are the facts about families. You will both have one. They will not be identical to each other, even if they are fairly similar. Even if they are your choson's or kallah's nearest and dearest they will be strangers to you and it takes a long time to develop a relationship. Sometimes that relationship may be a very close one; other times the relationship is only cordial or even "business-like." And sometimes that relationship may never get beyond bare minimum tolerance. You cannot legislate liking or love for strangers no matter how you might like to; it either comes or it doesn't.

Unless you have no parents of your own, making a shidduch is NOT about finding a new set of parents. Families will take sides in any disagreement, the line usually drawn with their being on the side of the child that is biologically theirs. When a husband and wife have a disagreement it is NOT an us versus them problem, families included as combatants--it should only be a he versus she problem. Families experience "loss" when a child marries, and they attempt to put off that loss by holding on when they should be letting go. What others may see as meddling they see as being "close."

Here are some other facts. Newly married couples are not some possession to be squabbled over. In fact, they no longer "belong" to their birth families. They are now a completely new family of their own. Our sages tell us that a man should leave his home and cleave to his wife. In short, the new unit takes precedence over the old unit. No, you are not "divorcing" your family, but their precedence in your life has been changed. Despite our all knowing this, putting it into practice may not always be easy.

In short, we give "family"--his and hers--too much emphasis when looking at a possible shidduch. So what if you don't "like" his family? So what if you can't stand his sister? Is absolutely every member of your family and extended family so perfect, so absolutely loveable? Come on, a little honesty. You know, your aunt/uncle/cousin that you wish would emigrate anywhere as long as it is really far from you?

What should be primary in seeking a shidduch is the family that you hope to build, not the families already in existence. I am not, repeat not saying that family cannot be of importance to a newly married couple. But unless we are equating marriage with a governmentally run animal breeding program where an element of "eugenics" is part of the program, then could we please stop giving family so much emphasis in the shidduch process? Even with all the in-depth questions that get asked and all the investigating that gets done about the families, a couple gets married and there are still hostilities that develop, problems that arise, and people you are just plain never going to adore. That, too, is part of married life.


Anonymous said...

ProfK hits the mark once again!
Although the message is: 'you marry the spouse not the parents-in-law', it is remarkable how often this perspective is honoured in the breach; if at all!

Miriam said...

Excellent advice here. Only thing I'd add is that both the husband and the wife need to keep the family out of any arguments or disagreements they are having. If one spouse regularly reports back to mom and dad that can cause a disturbance in the marriage.

Allen said...

One point you didn't mention and I think is one of the reasons why so much emphasis is put on families in the shidduch process today--Money. When young marrieds are being all or mostly supported by one or both families you have a situation where some families feel entitled to be "part" of that marriage. There are sometimes strings attached to any money given. Where only one family is supporting they may feel entitled to more time with the kids. I'm sure you've seen or heard of families where the person giving the money tells the kids what they can do with it or mixes in on all the decisions.

Anonymous said...

I have the in-laws from hell. But I also got the husband from heaven. No it's not easy but it helps that my husband tells them to butt out and supports me 100%. Would I have done it if I had known just how bad his family could get? Yes, because my husband is what I was marrying not his family. But I was also not 19 when I got married and maybe at 26 I knew better what the emphasis should be when I was looking for a husband.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:09 am,

It's definitely possible to navigate in-law issues if your husband supports you. Unfortunately that's not always the case. My mother-in-law criticized me for immunizing my children (she told me the MMR vaccine would make my son autistic); lectured me, a mother of 4 children under 5, about the evils of artificial birth control; and mocked me for feeding my daughter, who has celiac disease, a gluten-free diet. My husband's sister told him that I did not love my children or believe in G-d, because I was working full-time to support my husband while he studied. Because my husband refused to ask them to stop these criticisms, my children & I rarely see most of his relatives anymore.

On the other hand, I have wonderful parents and siblings, and my siblings' spouses are kind & pleasant people. And I hope that my experiences will help me be a better mother-in-law.

M2B said...

while you are right that the focus should be on the person and not the family, you have to remember that family cannot be ignored. my father-in-law has some severe control issues. i met my husband while i was in high school and knew him for two years before getting married- long enough for me to get to know him well enough to know that he was nothing like his father (he is a wonderful husband and father today :-)) that being said, my mother was concerned and kept a good eye on him while we were dating. his younger brother is now "in the parsha" and not surprisingly, the control issue is scaring away a lot of young women. true, maybe they should give him a chance to prove that he does not have issues (afterall, i just said that i gave my husband that chance, and am happily married- his brother, a sweet young man, deserves no less), at the same time, they are not wrong to be worried. true, you are marrying the person and not the in-laws, but you have to take a good look at the in-laws and make sure that whatever issues or dysfunctionalities they have, because the prospective spouse might have them too. but then again, even if the family is messed up, the individual certainly should be given the chance to prove that they came out ok...

Knitter of shiny things said...

Anonymous 9:41 am,

Wow. That sounds really, really awful. Mocking you for feeding a kid with Celiac disease a gluten free diet? Does she not know that gluten would make your daughter really, really sick? (I assume you've probably told her this, but how can someone be so ignorant as to not accept medical knowledge???) One of my housemates has Celiac, and so when we use things with gluten we have to be uber-careful about not contaminating things, so I have a pretty good idea of how serious the disease is. I'm sorry your in-laws are treating you this way and I'm sorry your husband isn't being supportive and asking his family to stop the criticisms.

Anonymous said...

and mocked me for feeding my daughter, who has celiac disease, a gluten-free diet.

I hope that during the rare times that your children see them, that you never leave your children alone with such people who potentially could be so harmful towards them!


Anonymous said...

I'm anonymous 9:41 am. The comments about my daughter's gluten-free diet came during a visit one Pesach. Before this visit I'd explained that my daughter could only eat gluten-free food, and my mother-in-law said, "I know all about it, I'm a medical professional" (she's a nurse). Also, because the husband of one her daughters eats non-gebrochts, everything was non-gebrochts anyways, so essentially everything was gluten-free, except for the matzah; we brought oat matzah for her. Nevertheless, throughout the visit there were constant complaints about how much trouble it was preparing food for my daughter, even though they _didn't_ prepare anything especially for her. And when I asked if one jar of jelly could be designated free of matza crumbs for her, they started making fun of me.

This was the last time we visited for pesach, and after a number of other incidents I've severely limited contact between them & my kids. My husband can, and does, visit them much more often.