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Gina Stepp has a master's degree in forensic psychology with an emphasis on trauma and resilience. As family and relationships editor for Vision, she examines the role interpersonal connection plays in ensuring human well-being.


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


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."


Gina - congratulations on a well written article! Having lived with my mother-in-law for 15 years now - I concur that it is all about the relationship. I prefer to view relationships as an opportunity to develop a friendship through respect and tolerance rather than as an opportunity to nit pick over differences and bitch about the relatives behind their backs to ones friends or other family members. It isn't always easy especially when there are significant cultural differences and financial stress, but it is well worth the effort, however it requires a humble christian spirit. My husband and I have been the carers for both his aging parents - in our family home, since they lost their employment in another country so it was a huge effort to sort immigration and then financially support them which continues to be ongoing, but particularly in the first 10 years before they were entitled to government pensions. I absolutely adore my mother-in-law and will miss her terribly when she is no longer around on earth.
Posted @ Friday, December 07, 2012 3:50 PM by Liz Efthyvoulos
Thanks very much for the feedback Liz, and for your interesting comment. I love to see personal experiences posted--they contribute so much, especially for a topic like this. Many of us may find ourselves caring for aging parents and it's interesting to think about some of the unique challenges that can come along with that--immigration issues in your case. I've known a few others with in-law immigration issues too. I suppose similar experiences may become more common if world migration rates rise as expected. In any case, it's always great to have some real-life "good in-law" stories to balance out the stereotypes.
Posted @ Friday, December 07, 2012 4:34 PM by Gina Stepp
Hey, This is a nice blog with good info. I really like coming back here often. And wish you would create more such interesting blogs..
Posted @ Wednesday, July 16, 2014 3:32 PM by Real Estate Lawyer ON - Vaughan
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