You know what topic is difficult to write about? In-laws.
Primarily because I have been more than blessed by God with the family I married into and would not want to portray anything other than that. Secondarily because they could read what I write.
So I will speak as generically as possible.
No matter how wonderful a family-in-law may be, they are always capable of hitting home one undeniable fact: they are not the same as the family I grew up in.
Sometimes that is for the better: I learn new ways of being that stretch me.
For instance, the virtue of spending time hand-washing dishes together after dinner. The first time I ever did that was in college when I first visited Joshua’s family. I had no idea what I was doing, but hey, you want to impress the family of the man you love – or at least not disappoint them– so I jumped right in and did the best I could. I learned what good family time it could be. And when our dishwasher tanked at our last home, those were helpful memories to have at hand.
Also, hiking. If you knew my parents, it would go without saying that we did not do any hiking as I was growing up. But again, Joshua’s family introduced me to walks in the woods and “over hill and dale” as a way to recreate as a family. Who knew you do some of your best thinking and have some of the best conversations while on a walk? I definitely have them to thank for that.
Sometimes though it is challenging when it is abundantly clear that my family-in-law is not at all like the family in which I grew up. Through no fault on anyone’s part, they just are not the same and that certainly leads to greater and lesser degrees of discomfort from time to time.
Here I would emphasize that I do not think discomfort is such a bad thing in adulthood. Each year it seems a little easier to get pretty set in my ways. Especially as a parent when I get to dictate how the days unfold. Spending time with family, especially a family-in-law, provides ample opportunity to learn new lessons about myself. When I am uncomfortable with some element of extended family life, there is a good bit of room to look at what that means about me, rather than assigning some kind of blame to others.
For Joshua and me, two approaches have made a world of difference in how we navigate in-laws in our relationship.
First, it is enormously helpful to be able to name specifically the points of challenge that we experience in one another’s families. There are specific aspects of each family that are just not easy for one or the other of us. But sometimes it is simply transitory circumstances that make time with in-laws challenging. Like Christmas – one year when we were with my family it was pretty hard on Joshua to be apart from his family and their traditions (see: Muppets Christmas album).
Second, when times are challenging, it makes a world of difference to know that Joshua understands how I feel and is supporting me. And vice versa. I would not go so far as to say “he is on my side” because, God forbid there were sides! Just that he sees, and he understands the challenges. He may show it through a rub on the back as he passes by, or by a word before bed. The point is, he is affirming that we are a unit.
Maybe that is what makes growth possible in marriage. As long as I know that I am completely loved and accepted by Joshua–my Sacrament of the love and acceptance of God–I have the strength to be vulnerable in uncomfortable times and receive the lessons they are offering me.