What would the world’s comedians do without jokes about in-laws? Cultural images of meddling mothers-in-law, good-for-nothing sons-in-law and intrusive siblings-in-law are so pervasive that they may cloud awareness that our in-laws are important to us–and we to them.
“In-laws come glued to the people we choose as [marriage] partners. It is high time that the impact of in-laws is acknowledged and understood,” writes Terri Apter, author of What Do You Want From Me? Apter is a writer and psychologist, and a fellow of Newnham College at Britain’s University of Cambridge. Her easy-to-read and helpful book reflects extensive interviews she conducted in the U.S. and Britain.
Apter ranks the extended family’s “reality and persistence” among “the best-kept secrets of modern times.” She believes that “extended families form a fundamental building block for the well-being of all family members.” Her cautionary note is that sometimes in-law tensions spill over in harmful ways into a couple’s marriage.
“I have heard about in-laws who are a source of joy and support. In a myriad of ways, in-law relationships can be filled with love, warmth and tolerance,” Apter says. But she also has found that in-law relationships can be “jam-packed with tensions over matters that seem tiny, marked by long-term grudges over passing comments and triggered by one careless comment or sin of omission.”
Her book lays out strategies for dealing with conflicts in these relationships. Apter describes her book as “a guide through the frustration, fear and self-doubt generated by in-law conflict.” Indeed, however, it is possible to “learn how to manage these relationships, to improve them and to foster what is good in them.”
“The fear of loss,” –that is, that an in-law is taking someone away from us–“and the longing to be loved are the most common sources of in-law conflict,” Apter says. She insists that it is possible to replace competitive urges in these relationships with collaboration.
Among her recommendations, Apter suggests that new parents-in-law try to assume that what is different about a son- or daughter-in law is “complementary, that differences expand your family rather than threaten it.”
The author challenges all in-laws “to consider how they themselves may be contributing to their problems.” She found that many issues underlying conflicts with in-laws “are deeply embedded in assumptions and insecurities of which we are only half aware.”