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4 Tips on In-Law Relationships for Newlyweds
Newlywed couples navigating the delicate nature of in-law relationships, we have some advice for you. We speak to two relationship counsellors about how to become part of the family and live in love as well as in law.
In-law relationships are often portrayed as fraught with tension and disapproval, with interfering mothers-in-law, or angry fathers who don’t think you’re good enough for their daughters. While in-law problems may make for comic relief on television, such tense relationships are definitely not what you want when you marry into a new family. When you marry your partner, you are also forming ties with their families, ties that will last through your marriage. Your new family can be a source of support, love, fun, and good advice to both you and the children you have later in marriage.
Yet, many newlyweds struggle with finding the right balance between keeping each other close in their new marriage unit, and reaching out to their in-laws. We ask two marriage and family counsellors how newlywed couples can build better in-law relationships as a team.
1. Understand that A New Family is a New Culture
It’s never easy to assimilate into a new culture, and marrying into a new family is much like that. Your partner’s family will have different customs, beliefs, and ways of doing things, which will take time to understand and get used to. Because doing things a certain way becomes so ingrained, it doesn’t occur to most people to think about hidden expectations. Even trickier expectations are ones involving financial support for family. As a couple, try to discuss any expectations your families might have as soon as you are aware of them.
It’s also easy for couples and in-laws to misunderstand each other in the early stages of your in-law relationships. You simply don’t know each other well enough to understand how your in-laws express their feelings, so it’s easy to be offended or hurt by a well-meaning comment. Enter the family expecting things to be done differently, and take things less personally. Choose to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and try to understand where they might be coming from. Be gracious when interpreting the other person’s intentions. Some differences or misunderstandings are to be expected, but don’t despair. You’ve had your whole life to bond with members of your own family, yet you still disagree with them from time to time. Give yourself and your in-laws time to understand each other.Rustic and Whimsical Wedding at The Stables, captured by Mindy Tan Photography
2. Build Relationships
Every relationship takes time and effort to grow, and your relationship with your in-laws is no different. Make the effort to spend time with your new family, whether at family dinners, or a niece’s birthday. Give your in-laws the opportunity to get to know you, and for mutual affection and respect to grow.
Be proactive as well. Marriage specialist Ms Elvira Tan from Focus on the Family advises couples to find out what their parents’ love languages are. “Relationships with parents-in-law can be strengthened faster if couples make the time and effort to love them in the manner in which they wish to be loved—be it through gifts, words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, or spending quality time,” she says. “For example, a couple may wish to bring out a set of in-laws for good food and conversation if quality time is their love language. The key for couples to remember is to do things sincerely, out of love and gratitude. The couple needs to get their motivations right from the start so that firm foundations can be laid to build strong, long-lasting, and loving relationships with their parents-in-law.” Show your in-laws you care about them in ways that they will appreciate.
3. Resolve Differences as a Team
Inevitably, there will be things you disagree on with your parents or in-laws. A married couple’s primary loyalty is to each other. While you should honour your parents, you should also care for your spouse’s well-being. Ms Tan’s advice is for newlyweds to present a united front. “In resolving conflicts with parents-in-law, it would be helpful for married couples to remember that once married, husband and wife need to work as a team when dealing with in-laws,” she says. To avoid getting caught in the middle between your spouse and your own parent, work things out with your spouse in private before going to your parents to resolve the issue as a team. Ms Tan gives couples some tips on working as a unit: “In order to work as a team, couples should never speak ill of one’s spouse to one’s own parents, refrain from joining in with own parent’s disparaging remarks made about one’s spouse during a conflict, and never disagree with one’s spouse in the presence of one’s parents.”
Mrs Chang-Goh Song Eng, Head of REACH Counselling, also says that couples should be on the same page when dealing with in-law disagreements. Her advice to couples is to: “Establish a common position, and find time and space to talk it over with your folks. This can be done together or, more commonly, the primary child with his or her folks, but representing the both of you as one unit, so that your folks know that both views are registered. As your folks gain confidence in your problem-solving and decision-making, they would more likely support your views.”
She also says that couples should make sure their marriage unit stays strong, as this will help them stay united in dealing with conflict. She offers, “Take time to maintain emotional closeness by tuning in to each other’s worlds and happenings – what happens at work, home, different expectations, one’s adjustment to married life, especially if the couple stays with the folks. Find time to connect as a couple and to date, once weekly as a way to catch up, both in happenings and with one’s emotional world.” A connected couple will find it less difficult to resolve in-law issues because they understand each other better. Conflict may be inevitable, but the responses to that conflict can help strengthen a relationship. Mrs Chang-Goh tells couples: “To keep as one, you need to maintain emotional connection and intimacy so that you stay ‘with’ each other and know how to stand together when your partner is affected by in-law issues. Learn to take time to share, listen to each other’s hurts, anger, or other more difficult emotions. Remember to comfort and apologise where needed. Do reaffirm your love. View all this as part of adjustment to married life.”Jesreen and Karan’s Cultural Wedding in India, captured by Ramitbatra
4. Tactfully Create Your Own Family Traditions
Asserting their independence as newlyweds is an issue many couples have. Mrs Chang-Goh addresses it by advising couples to strike a balance between setting boundaries and keeping in-laws close. “The important principle here is to keep in-laws close, but the couple needs also to be clear about their boundaries, such as when to visit with parents-in-law and have meals, what sort of financial support the couple should give, and in financial and parenting matters when the couple has children. This is to help establish the ‘authority’ of the couple so that they feel confident of their own voice, especially necessary when they are starting up on their own.”
As they start their own family, newlyweds need to find the delicate balance between respecting each other’s family traditions and creating new ones for their own nuclear family. Mrs Chang-Goh tells couples that it is important to practice good communication in conveying the motivations behind a couple’s new traditions, so that their parents and in-laws will understand why they are doing things differently. “What is critical for the couple to remember is that the communication of needs and expectations must be conveyed from a place of love and willingness to seek the other party’s point of view as well. The willingness to compromise when necessary and a very healthy dose of patience on the part of the couple are essential when it comes to accommodating each other’s family traditions in addition to their own nuclear family’s traditions,” she says. An attitude of respect and love will help newlyweds when they decide how to accommodate each other’s families’ wishes as they carve out their own family traditions.
Another helpful and practical tip is for couples to communicate early. Mrs Chang-God advises, “Juggling family traditions requires proper planning and communication. When schedules are in place and needs are communicated, there will be less room for misunderstanding and last minute no-shows or non-compliance with each other’s family traditions.” Open and tactful communication with your in-laws will help build stronger relationships with their families, as you create your independent family traditions.
Elvira Tan is a Marriage Specialist from Focus on the Family Singapore, a local charity dedicated to helping families thrive. Find out more about their marriage preparation courses. Upcoming workshops are available on 18, 25 April and 9, 16 May 2015, Saturdays.
Mrs Chang-Goh Song Eng is Head of REACH Counselling, which provides individual, marriage, and family counselling, with a special focus on marriage, from marriage preparation to counselling. For enquiries, call 68010730.