Someone once said that the best advice she got given during all her pre-marital counselling was “Remember, your mother -in-law is NOT your mother”. I totally agree with that statement but would love to also add, so are your brothers-in-law and your sisters-in-law. Well maybe because these latter group of people are not usually known to cause trouble in the majority of in-law conflicts but I must say that understanding generally that our in-laws are our in-laws and that they have their own family peculiarities can help us keep our expectations realistic while playing the necessary politics that is required to navigate the waters of dealing with them seamlessly. The fact that they are from a different family most likely means that they share a common bond of values and identity which might be totally different from ours and not necessarily wrong.
Growing up as children,, my siblings and I were brought up to respect one another’s privacy, we were taught that the fact that we are siblings was not an automatic license to know everything, neither did bearing the same surname confer shareholder’s rights in the other person’s affairs and as we grew older and began having our own families, every one of us became more assertive. We showed our love to one another without any feeling of entitlement. We realized early all eight of us were different and there was enough room to be different without feeling judged. I did not think it was different in any other family until I got married.
My husband comes from a close knitted family; when I say close knitted I mean so closely knitted to such an extent that everybody is in everybody’s business, where everyone’s home is an extension of the others’. His younger brother’s wife had blended into the whole scenery and you would not even know she was not born into the family.
Well, I arrived on the scene and was like, hold it! what is going on here?. I simply couldn’t understand why no one seemed to actually drink from their cup of tea alone. The actions and show of love of my in-laws and my husband’s blissful ignorance to how it was affecting me caused a lot of tension in the early days of our marriage. I thought my husband wasn’t setting enough boundaries because everyone seemed to be crossing all sorts of boundaries, both imagined and real as far as I was concerned. I constantly compared my siblings with his. He on his part had thought I would join the party train since I was now married into the family. It was his expectation that I would go along with the flow.
It was a painful time of learning I dare say, as it took us both a long time to realize how very differently we were brought up and how we were not giving each other the opportunity to unlearn, relearn and adjust. I had thought he would see how “civilized” my siblings are and automatically want to be like us. On his part, he didn’t understand our kind of love. It all seemed so cold and indifferent to him. This brought a lot of frustration as I was inadvertently bringing him and my in-laws to my perceived gold standard. This is something most of us do, rather unconsciously but by judging our partners by our own set standards, we only set ourselves up for disappointments and eventually become disheartened over and over again as we ultimately find that they do not meet those expectations.
This was no small issue for me and after sometime, I had to seek counsel from a friend who advised that I should show empathy by stepping into my husband’s shoes. She claimed that this would make me understand him better. I took her advice and began by taking stock again of my hubby’s background. You see, my husband had lost his dad at eleven, his oldest sibling was fifteen years old and the youngest was six. His mum raised all five of them by herself, so she taught them to love, guide, protect and bear one ankther’s burdens because that is all they had- each other. As they grew older, it got more ingrained in them especially as life brought challenges their individual ways. This was an eye-opener as it helped me understand why he is wired the way he is and to understand his siblings who have become my in-laws. It made me more tolerant of their style of “in your face kind of love”. I have begun to see the peculiarity of my husband’s family and respect their closeness. The chances are most likely if I had lost my dad quite early, it would have given my siblings and I a different sense of closeness and protection of one another. It is not always easy to embrace especially as my mind usually wants to go to default mode and compare my in-laws with my own siblings.
With time, my husband has also begun to understand that my crying for privacy isn’t because I didn’t want to blend in or that I didn’t love his family but that what I understood as love was a reflection of my own upbringing.
Looking back to those early days of my marriage, I think my husband and I fell into a common mistake most couples usually make. It is the one of expecting the other party to do a 360-degree change of convictions, mannerisms, likes, dislikes……you name it …just because they are married to us. Unfortunately, the reality is that a belief system that has taken decades to take root won’t go away overnight, it might never even get shaken, so to prevent avoidable heartaches, I have learned that putting ourselves in the shoes of our partners fosters understanding and more acceptance and by the way, that is what we usually cry for and define as love-“people accepting us the way we are” and this is not to say there are some things that cannot be worked on but an attitude of empathy sure has a way of making things not appear as bad as we first thought they were.
Our daughter is still quite young, so I can’t confidently say we have defined our own culture but we are both making efforts to discover what will work for us. It is a long way from where we started. We have both realized that the other party’s upbringing isn’t wrong, only different. I believe when couples realize being different doesn’t translate to being wrong, it will help us be more tolerant of our partner’s convictions no matter how odd or weird they may seem and make relationships with in-laws much more pleasant.
In many ways, relating with in-laws, you must be able to wear the hat of a politician. Although I gained this understanding later, I must admit that when it comes to making adjustments, I am not where I started and thankfully every day , I am becoming better at the game of being a politician when it comes to my in-laws, keeping everyone happy so I can have the much needed peace in my home.