Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Is there anyone out there who thinks their child married well? A hand-painted sign beside a country store says it all:
"Closed Sept 7. When my one and only daughter marries that sorry, no-count, worthless, shiftless John Patterson." (Seen in the book "Brides Behaving Badly, Wild Wedding Photos You Were Never Meant to See," Hatchett Book Group)
Maybe your in-laws think you're absolutely perfect, and they love that your cooking and conversation style is completely different from their family norm. Or perhaps you're on the other side of the in-law equation, and your children and siblings chose to marry people whose differences enhance the spiritual and emotional development of your entire family.
If so, count yourself amongst the fortunate few.
For most mere mortals, dealing with the in-laws is the price of admission for matrimony. And the strangers that siblings and grown children bring into the family are often so annoyingly different that you wonder why your own flesh and blood ever thought this person was an appropriate spouse.
As best I can tell there are two key issues at the heart of most in-law angst:
1) The interloper's utter failure to adhere to the previously established - yet completely unspoken - rules of family conduct. 2) The above-mentioned offender's total cluelessness about their shortcomings as revealed by their blatant refusal to renounce their wicked ways and start acting "right."
It doesn't matter whether it's the proper procedure for de-seeding a pomegranate or what you're supposed to talk about when the preacher visits, every family has its own way of doing things, and if the interloper does it different, look out!
I have one friend who almost came to blows with her sister-in-law over the best way to wrap a package. And I still shudder at the memory of the great hand towel debate I had with my own mother-in-law during my first year of marriage. (For the record, I may have lost the battle when Emily Post declared hand towels were a requirement for half baths, but I won the war a decade later when I bought a house with no powder room whatsoever.)
Actually my in-laws, who passed away several years ago, were always quite gracious to me. But, in hindsight, I can see where a stubborn daughter-in law's refusal to salt and pepper the okra, or hold her tongue in the feminine tradition of the family, might be a bit irksome. However, as annoying as it may be to have your child marry someone who lives life differently than you, it's far more hurtful to be in the presence of people who judge and criticize your every move.
For every set of in-laws aghast at the way the outsider licks the spoon or sleeps through breakfast, there's a real live human being who's simply doing things the way they've always done them and who doesn't understand why this crowd finds it so unacceptable.
As one friend put it, "You know they think you're crazy; you just don't know why."
I doubt anybody wakes up proclaiming, "I think I'll make my child's spouse miserable today." Or "Let's be sure to give Sis's husband plenty of judgmental looks so he'll realize what a jerk he is." Yet sadly, time and time again, the in-laws resent the interloper and the married-in member spends every visit counting down the hours until they can leave.
I'm the last one to claim perfect behavior in this arena, but I can assure you, all the eye-rolling and criticism in the world won't make another person change their habits or beliefs. However, expecting the people who marry into your family to think and act exactly like you causes nothing but misery.
I'm just relieved I had the foresight to have my kids sign a consent form agreeing that Mummy should choose their future spouse.
Wonder how that will hold up in court?
Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of "Forget Perfect" and "Finding Grace When You Can't Even Find Clean Underwear." Contact her or join her interactive blog at www.ForgetPerfect.com.