By Nina Bronson and Amanda Kirzner
After years of putting yourself out there in the seemingly endless battlefield of hook-ups, online chats and blind dates, you finally found a keeper. This person is everything you dreamed of, and the nightmares you endured just a short time ago seem to be distant memories. Or are they? Love has always been the ultimate goal to aspire to, but often, we only think of achieving love, and not about what happens after that.
What comes after is actually an obstacle that can have a direct effect on the state of your future relationship and, ultimately, your overall happiness. The big, life-changing event we’re talking about? Meeting your future in-laws.
You may be wondering: Why is meeting the in-laws such a life-altering, possibly insurmountable obstacle? How could you have anything but a great relationship with the two people who raised the person you love and adore? For your sake, we hope you’re right. But as cliché as not getting along with your in-laws sounds, clichés are clichés for a reason.
The goal of this article is not an in-law bashing fest. Though it might be cathartic to some, how would that be productive? The goal is to provide some sound advice on proper etiquette to start you off on the right foot. For advice, we enlisted the help of Megan Williams, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Tulsa, to go over the do’s and don’ts of how to behave when meeting your partner’s parents.
In any relationship, there must always be compromise. Additionally, it is very important to have empathy for your future in-laws and try to understand where they’re coming from.
To start, the most important thing to do is to understand that your in-laws are completely different people than your parents. Your significant other – perhaps your future spouse – may have grown up in a different environment with different values, with parents who have different priorities. There is nothing wrong with that, and the biggest mistake you can make is expecting your in-laws to be anything like your parents. If you don’t have certain expectations for them, and hold them to a different standard than your parents, you are less likely to be disappointed if they behave in a certain way.
For example, a friend of ours traveled with her fiancé to visit his parents, who live about six hours away. She expected his parents to spend the entire weekend with them, but instead, they stuck around for a few hours, then left to go and have dinner with their own friends. Our friend was flabbergasted. If it were her parents, they would have spent every waking moment with them. She felt insulted and taken aback, thinking that maybe they did that because they didn’t like her. She says that this really affected her behavior.
So how can you avoid feeling like this woman – or at least learn to not let others’ behavior color your own – when something like this happens?
“If you set low expectations, you will be more likely to accept the behavior and move on, taking note of how they behave and letting that influence how you behave in the future,” says Williams. If you don’t have expectations of them spending the entire weekend with you, you won’t be hurt when they don’t.
Williams also suggests “letting your significant other guide you when it comes to [their] parents.” If you are trying to put your best foot forward, ask your partner about them, as he or she is the very best resource you can have to get a glimpse into who these people are.
“It is important to do your research,” Williams explains. “The last thing you would want to do is to bring a bottle of wine to a recovering alcoholic.”
Find out if they are laid-back or uptight. Should you expect to sleep in separate bedrooms? Should you avoid political conversations at dinner? (In our opinion, yes, always.)
“If you are trying to get to know them, and you know that they love art, maybe a trip to a museum, or a conversation about art history – if you know about it – would be a good idea,” says Williams.
Contrastingly, if you love fashion, but your mother in- law has no interest or knows very little about it, a shopping trip may not be the best idea. Also, don’t expect to impress her with your new Chanel bag if she, too, is not a fashionista. Knowing a little bit about who they are and what they value will allow you to interact more smoothly and endear yourself to them.
For example, in the movie Meet The Parents, when the main character, Greg Focker, thinks his girlfriend’s father is in the rare flower business, he brings him a Jerusalem tulip, one of the most uncommon and beautiful flowers in the world. Clearly, he had given his gift a lot of thought … this is the kind of stuff we are talking about. Although it didn’t work out for Greg – because it turned out that his girlfriend’s father was in the CIA and not, actually, the rare flower business – we certainly appreciate the gesture.
What if you meet your significant other’s parents and you all get along great? You and your mother in-law actually have a lot in common and have bonded. Suddenly, your partner’s parents are showing up to your house unannounced and expect to spend every single weekend with you. Before you can blink, your life has turned into a bad episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.
You wanted meeting your future in-laws to go well, but not this well. How can you set boundaries with them?
Let’s put it this way: If you don’t set them early, it can definitely turn into a more significant problem down the road, especially when wedding plans and grandchildren come into play.
According to Williams, it is crucial to communicate with your partner about these issues. As stated earlier, he or she grew up in a very different house, and “something that may be considered a boundary violation to you may not be an issue for your significant other,” she says. This is often a test for the two of you, and hopefully you are both on the same page. “Your partner should be on board with supporting you and your comfort level,” she continues. “It is essential to communicate effectively and to be as considerate and thoughtful as possible during these conversations.”
What if your significant other is not on the same page as you? What if your future in-laws are so controlling that they influence your partner’s decision-making to the point where it impacts the relationship? According to Williams, your significant other may not even be aware of his or her parent’s controlling behavior, and “you cannot manage someone who is controlling by controlling them.” You can communicate with your partner, and try to point out the parents’ behavior, but ultimately, you can’t win every battle, and you may have to determine which aspects of their behavior you’re able to let slide. (For example, perhaps you should ignore your future mother-in-law when she implies that your skirt is too short, because engaging in a fight is just not worth it.)
In any relationship, there must always be compromise. Additionally, it is very important to have empathy for your future in-laws and try to understand where they’re coming from. Is your partner their baby, whom they are having trouble letting go of? Or, maybe they always had Sunday night dinners together and are having a difficult time breaking the tradition, even if it is necessary.
If there is something you just can’t let go, communicate with your future in-laws through your significant other. If possible, let your partner do the talking, and try not to deal directly with your future in-laws when possible, especially at the beginning of the relationship. Your partner is their child, and they will forgive their child much more easily than they will forgive you.
What if you do everything in your power to try to develop a good relationship with your future in-laws and nothing you ever do seems to be right? Williams suggests “discussing your concerns with your significant other.” (Clearly, communication is a common theme.) If your partner has any suggestions, try to listen, and always try to be gracious and kind. Even if your future in-laws don’t behave the same way, you need to show your partner that you have integrity and have tried your very best to establish a good relationship with his or her parents.
Eventually, and unfortunately, “you may have to come to terms with the fact that having a strong relationship with your potential in-laws may never be a possibility, and you should try to accept them for who they are,” says Williams.
Hopefully, you will have no issues with your future in-laws, and it will be sunshine and rainbows. However, if it isn’t – and seriously, for most people, it isn’t – always practice strong communication to keep issues from getting out of hand.
It’s unfortunate that if the relationship becomes contentious between you and your future in-laws, your partner may feel caught in the middle of a no-win situation. Once you get married, you should be your partner’s No. 1 priority, before his or her parents. In order to make your significant other want to do that – and, in turn, view you in a good light – it is always in your best interest to put your best foot forward when it comes to your relationship with your future in-laws.