In-Laws: A Gift or a Curse?
Ruth Nemzoff is resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. Formerly the assistant minority leader of the New Hampshire Legislature and the first female deputy commissioner of health and welfare in that state, Nemzoff has also served on a variety of boards and commissions including United Way, the New Hampshire governor’s Commission on the Status of Women and Commission for the Handicapped, and Boston’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
Nemzoff holds a doctorate in administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University and a master’s degree in counseling from Columbia, and she is a popular international speaker on family dynamics and parenting adult children. She and her husband, Harris Berman, have four children, four in-law children and seven grandchildren. In their second interview since 2008, Gina Stepp spoke with her about her latest book, Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (September 2012).
GS When you search online for books about improving in-law relationships, you soon find that they’re tremendously outnumbered by books on improving other kinds of family relationships. Yet presumably every family out there has its share of in-laws. Why don’t we see more books about them?
RN Well, I think it’s because there are so many jokes, so much historical prejudice and insecurity about in-laws, and all of this conspires to keep us from talking about this relationship. And then, of course, it’s tricky to be honest because of the tension that ensues between the spouses or between the generations when the subject comes up. Sharing our real feelings about these relationships could lead to misunderstandings, negative feelings, etc. We don’t always want to share every up and down we have, even with our most intimate partner, because we don’t want to hurt them by saying something nasty about their father or mother.
GS Your last book offered advice on how to have good relationships with adult children. What turned you toward the topic of in-laws?
RN I went there because in the almost 300 lectures I gave around the world after my first book came out, I had many questions about adult children, but the one that was most common was the in-law question. Most often it was about daughters-in-law. The ones about sons-in-law were less frequent, but when they came they usually had to do with his role, in that he wasn’t supporting the family.
GS Why do you think the focus was so typically on the daughter-in-law?
RN If we look at it historically, the daughter-in-law was traditionally brought into the family for economic reasons or for what she could contribute in the way of work. It was either a financial transaction or she was brought in as a slave. While gender roles have changed enormously in our society, there are still many areas where it has not changed. The stay-at-home dad is not quite as accepted as the go-out-to-work mom. And when we get into all the relationships with extended family, traditionally that’s been the woman’s purview. She’s been the connector in the family, the kin-keeper, the one responsible for those relationships. So when they become difficult, it is she who gets blamed. It’s also easier to blame someone else’s kid than your own. If your son doesn’t call, you don’t want to think, “My son doesn’t want to speak to me.” It’s easier to say, “His wife—it’s her fault that we haven’t connected.” Otherwise you’d have to look at your own relationship and perhaps impugn yourself.
GS Who are our in-laws? Just the parents of our spouse?
RN Therein lies the big question, and that’s why I wrote this book. It is unclear. The different subcultures in our society define in-laws differently; for example, the machatonim in Yiddish or consuegros in Spanish [terms designating the familial relationship between the two sets of in-law parents]. In English we go through these convoluted descriptions—“my son’s wife’s parents”—because it’s unclear whether they are part of our family. So different groups have different notions of who is family, and even within some groups there are different notions. Clearly the parents of your spouse are in-laws. The spouse of your child is an in-law. Beyond that, the circle widens; in some ethnic groups it’s what we call in Yiddish “the whole mishpocha,” the whole family; the aunts, the uncles, the second cousins are all part of the family. In other groups it only goes as far as the in-law siblings. So there are different expectations.
And what does it mean to be part of the family? Does it mean that every wedding, every birthday is a command performance? Does it mean we just have to be cordial to these people? Everyone has a different definition in our society. It isn’t clear.
GS Even when we do figure out who to include as in-laws, these relationships aren’t easy to navigate. What makes them so different from our other family relationships?
RN They are very difficult to navigate, because you haven’t had years together weathering the storm. With your parents you’ve had a tantrum or two and you survived. With an in-law child, you don’t know whether this blowup might be the final blowup. For example, I’m sure with your own children you’ve had a little altercation once or twice about cleaning their rooms, and you survived that. They know you still love them, you know they still love you. But with a daughter- or son-in-law, you haven’t come through challenging discussions and learned that you can navigate them well. You don’t know where the arguments will lead; you don’t know each other well enough to understand their ways of expressing themselves so you can predict how it’s all going to come out.
I can give you an example: when I was in the legislature, the Speaker of the House was a man of a different ethnicity. He yelled one day, and I was completely undone by it. My buddy in the legislature, who was from the same ethnic group, said to me, “Ah, that’s just the way our men do it.” She knew that he was just blowing off steam and that he’d be fine in 10 minutes, so she could completely ignore it. But I didn’t know the cultural cues well enough to know that.
GS So it has to do with differences in our expectations, then.
RN Yes, that example shows how we can have different expectations about decorum. You might have the expectation that any raising of the voice is impolite or out of control. But one of the biggest areas where expectations may differ is in finances; for instance, if someone brought up in America marries someone from a culture—let’s say, Asia—where the expectation is that children will support their parents in their old age and perhaps even throughout their lives. They will send money regularly to their parents whether they live in this country or abroad. That can lead to huge differences.
GS How often are we even aware of our expectations about certain things? And what do we do about them when we do become aware of them?
RN It depends on where you are in the in-law relationship. As spouses it may be an advantage when you’re from two completely different cultures, because you went into the marriage knowing you have very different expectations. In Don’t Roll Your Eyes, there’s an example of a man who proposes to his intended, and he says to her, “Let’s go ask my parents”; and she says, “Let’s go tell mine.” And they both break out laughing because they know right there that they will need to be sensitive to those different expectations.
Let’s say there’s a family with a sibling who is disabled. There may be expectations that the couple will someday take on that responsibility when the parents can no longer do so. The prospective spouse may not even realize that’s going to be expected. Things like this clearly need to be discussed by the couple.
When it’s an expectation on the part of the in-law parents, sometimes you do need to ask your spouse to intervene and explain your perspective to them, or explain their perspective to you. Sometimes, if we have good relationships, we can talk directly and that works nicely, but it doesn’t always.
Either way, it gets down to trying to be kind and generous in your interpretations—not assuming, just because your daughter- or son-in-law doesn’t want to support you, that the person is selfish and stingy. He or she may, in fact, just be a person with a belief that each generation should stand on its own two feet. So it’s important to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to negotiate the problems and avoid being judgmental.
GS How do we know when it’s appropriate for the adult child to intervene and interpret between his parents and his spouse, and when he should stay out of it?
RN It’s an art, not a science, so there’s no perfect equation. Sometimes the adult child is the best one for the job, because he understands his parents’ ways of doing things, and also understands his spouse’s way of doing things.
GS What if the problem isn’t between the in-laws but the couple? Should the in-law parents stay out of it?
RN Well, giving unsolicited advice can cause huge conflicts. Sometimes you just need a third party. Actually, communities can be a great force as a third-party influence for helping couples stay together. We know that one of the greatest causes of divorce is stress, so when a couple has a strong support system, marriages are strengthened. Besides, despite Hollywood, most of us can’t be all things to our spouse, so it is important and affirming to a marriage for individuals to have others they can turn to for assistance. We all need help for daily tasks such as carpooling, but we also need help in seeing situations from new perspectives. Just being embedded in a community offers a shared “public ethos”—whether it’s a Christian community or a small town, it almost doesn’t matter—and that does make it easier. You have a greater motivation for everyone to do what they can to make the relationship work.
GS What happens in the worst-case scenario, where the problems are too great and the couple splits up? Is it disloyal to stay friends with an in-law after a breakup? Is it possible to hold on to those relationships without hurting your own family members?
RN That is often a huge issue, whether a couple is married or not. We do have the right to have our own relationships with whomever we like, but often it becomes complicated. For example, when there are grandchildren involved, I advise grandparents just to tell their children, “I know you’re upset with me because I’m still friendly with your ex, but your children mean a lot to me and I would do anything to maintain that relationship.” When it’s a sibling, the same thing applies. Maintaining a relationship with your grandchild or your niece or nephew requires also having a relationship with their mother or father. You can make it clear that you’re not doing it to be disloyal but because you like the person, or because of your relationship with the children. It can be tricky, particularly when it’s raw. But they need to understand that the person has been part of your life too. You can explain that “for years Suzy was part of our life, and we accepted her as a family member, so it’s hard for us just as it’s hard for you.” You can say, “I really like her. I’m not doing it to spite you; I just feel I want to have a friendship with her,” and you can explain that you won’t invite her to your house when he is present if it would be uncomfortable for him. You can make compromises around the edges.
When you really love someone, whether related to you by blood or not, you can’t just turn it off. You can be honest about that. As an adult, your child gets to make his own decisions, and as an adult, so do you. By remaining friends with his ex, you’re not saying he made a bad decision, you’re just saying you’re sad about it.
GS Can the fear of being in this position sometimes make us hesitate to invest in our in-law relationships? Do we think the marriage may not last, and we’ll have gotten close to these strangers for nothing?
RN That gets into a chapter I have about being “in love, but not in law.” It’s another thing that keeps people from investing: more and more people are coupling and not marrying for long periods. For the older generation, the reasons are often economic; they will lose pension rights. The younger generation may fear commitment because they have seen so much divorce. The potential in-laws may find themselves wondering, “What exactly is our relationship?” My own feeling is that we all have a lot of room in our hearts for a lot of people. We will learn from every relationship, not only our own, but the relationships our children have, the relationships our parents have. Just take them at face value and enjoy the people as much as you can. Why withhold yourself in the event something might not work out? It might not work out, but you would have missed meeting an interesting person or one that might be different than one you would choose.
GS You point to cultural differences of all kinds as potential areas of disagreement among in-law families—not just ethnic differences but differences in financial freedom, social status, religious affiliation and more. It seems impossible for any couple to be immune to disagreements over cultural differences, even if they marry within the same ethnic group and belief system.
RN Oh, totally. Let’s take religious differences, for instance. In this country, just looking at Christians, you can divide them between Catholic and Protestant; that’s a huge cultural difference. And then within the Protestant faith alone there are many, many subgroups with different practices. And I’m sure if you take the attendance records of people in any church in the country, they vary between weekly and all levels of less-than-weekly attendance. Also, as you talk to people, there are differences in what they believe in their heart of hearts. Some believe God is a puppeteer in the sky, deciding everything, and others believe in God as a creator of the universe who has been hands-off ever since. The point is, even among those who think they believe the same thing, there are likely to be very different actual beliefs.
GS At the end of your book, you suggest that in-laws should apply a helpful bit of advice from a Hebrew work attributed to a second-century rabbi. It starts out, “If you have done your fellow a slight wrong, let it be a serious matter in your eyes; but if you have done your fellow much good, let it be a small thing in your eyes.” On the other hand, “If your fellow has done you a small favor, let it be a great thing in your eyes; but if your fellow has done you a great evil, let it be a little thing in your eyes.” Basically, give the positive actions heavier weight than you give the negative. It’s a great sentiment, but not always easy to apply.
RN No, it’s extremely hard, and one of the things I feel strongly about in this regard is that practice makes perfect. It takes making ourselves follow that advice as an act of will, repeating that mantra to ourselves over and over. When your in-law doesn’t invite you to the great-niece’s recital, you can see it as a big thing, or you can see it as a little thing. You have a choice. In each little decision you can ask yourself whether you’re going to react as though it’s a big thing or a little thing.
GS Don’t roll your eyes, right?
RN Exactly. Don’t just discount people. Most people are not malicious. There are certainly malicious people in the world, but most of us aren’t. We’re all tragically flawed human beings doing the best we can. Of course we’re going to make mistakes and get into it with each other sometimes—who hasn’t? We all interpret through our own lens and only later realize there was another way of looking at the situation.
What gets people into trouble is doing the opposite of what that rabbi said so long ago. It’s an act of will. Initially we might be furious with each other, but we don’t have to act as though we are. It takes creativity and commitment and forgiveness. But families that get along do so because they’ve decided to get along, and they work at it.
(Interview date: June 25, 2012)
For more about Nemzoff's book, see "True Love Comes with In-Laws."