Good In-law or Bad Outlaw: Which Are You?

Posted on Thu, Sep 06, 2012 @ 08:04 PM

ruth nemzoffIt’s just as well that a 2010 Federal court decision concluded you can’t sue someone for telling mother-in-law jokes. Otherwise, imagine the rush on the justice system: they are a staple of modern humor. Well, not only modern humor. In actual fact, mother-in-law jokes have been tossed around at least since Juvenal’s first-century work, Satire VI. “It is impossible,” he wrote back in the day, “to be happy while one’s mother-in-law is still alive.”

When you think about it though, it seems a bit unfair that mothers-in-law are the ones branded as the primary "outlaws" of the family. We all have a lot to learn about being good in-laws, whether we're a parent-in-law, sibling-in-law, or even an aunt-, uncle- or cousin-in-law. Fortunately Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family, the latest book by Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff,  explains how to navigate these unique relationships and smooth the way to making in-laws a gift rather than a curse.

Why are these relationships so challenging, in the first place?

Nemzoff points to a disconnect between reality and our expectations. When we choose to hitch our star to the wagon of our dreams, we aren't necessarily prepared for all the cargo in the back. In fact, sometimes it's hard to tell exactly how much cargo the wagon actually carries. How close is your new partner to his or her family members? How close will you be expected to be? Will the two of you interact mostly with his nuclear family, or will you be expected to spend significant time and effort on relationships with in-law aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents too? The answers to these questions will vary considerably depending on the situation, but the potential exists for unwelcome surprises—not only for the new spouse, but for the bonus relatives too.

"We become an in-law by a decision made by someone else," Nemzoff points out. "The younger generation makes the choice of partner, but they have no say in all the relatives who come along with their mate." Nor do the relatives. Suddenly there are all kinds of new relationships among people who are likely to come from very different backgrounds. "They have little idea which buttons they can push, what happens when they push one, and which buttons the new person will push in them," she explains. "They have not survived disagreements and arguments. In-laws do not share a common history. They are virtual strangers."

Obviously, this sets the stage for a whole slew of potential pitfalls. Fortunately, Nemzoff has done her research. Using interviews and focus groups, she has taken an audit of the myriad issues, disappointments and challenges that arise among in-laws and has offered viable strategies that are sure to counteract the familiar cliches that keep in-laws stuck in the mire of animosity. And she does not shy away from difficult topics, such as culture clashes, financial battles and issues that arise over disability or death.

Don't Roll Your Eyes follows very naturally on the heels of her first book, Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. "In the almost 300 lectures I gave around the world after my first book came out," she explains, "I had many questions about adult children, but the one that was most common was the in-law question." As readers related their personal experiences it became clear there was a need to dig deeper into the issue, and Nemzoff has addressed the task with wisdom, humor, and cultural competence.

This is not the pat treatment most often encountered on the topic of in-law relationships. Rather, it's a truly useful presentation of real perspectives and specific issues. And while it may not turn every outlaw into a beloved in-law, her advice offers the best way forward for those who are ready to make real changes.


For more about her book, see our interview with Ruth Nemzoff, "Do You Take This In-Law . . . ?" and the accompanying comparative review titled "In-Laws and Outliers."

Tags: family relationships, communication, in-law relationships