Every marriage is a cross cultural relationship. No matter how similar our backgrounds, there are always different ways of doing things that can feel very foreign to us.
When doing pre-marital counseling (and even post-marital), one conversation that always comes up comes from navigating the relationship with in-laws. For most of us, trying to be family to a family that has long had its own patterns is uncharted territory. We feel foreign and awkward because they do things differently than the way we grew up. Where we feel out of place, we usually desire that they be more like our family (you know, doing things the right way, the normal way, my way). The funny thing is that, in most cases, your spouse feels the same way about your family.
Most of us have a decent relationships with our own families. If we’re going to be honest, we prefer our family's patterns not because ours are better, but simply because we’ve navigated their terrain our whole lives. We know how our parents tick. We know the ins and outs of our siblings and what they like and do not like. After a lifetime of trial and error, laughter and tears, we’ve been able to build a relationship that is unique and flowing in a way that outsiders simply do not get. And then all the sudden we get married and we’re asking our spouse to get with the program and learn how things work? This leads to a lot of stress, tears, frustration, and arguments.
One of the toughest things I had to learn early in my marriage and relationship with my in-laws was that their family patterns were simply different. The way they interacted, the things they did--they seemed foreign and odd to me. It was like we spoke different languages and I was the one expected to learn on the fly. At least, that’s how I perceived it. And my spouse experienced my family similarly.
Newlyweds can expect to have to work at blending the histories and patterns of two different families in a new, single pattern. The family dynamics, time demands, boundaries, and expectations of in-laws all vary, and no single family does it the right way. So you are going to have to forge new patterns all your own. And that almost certainly means re-negotiating the family rules with both sets of in-laws. Your patterns will be something different and unique from the families you grew up in, and that will be okay.
The following list are some takeaways that I’ve learned over the years:
These suggestions are not exhaustive by any means, but I pray they help you navigate the sometimes treacherous territory of in-law relationships. In Christ we are equipped to love others and we can be thankful for the gift that our in-laws gave us in our partner.
It’s only natural that families talk and act differently. In the end, we always fall upon love and grace in our relationships with others. Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, and faithfulness are fruits of the Spirit that we receive. We would be wise to keep these in mind when navigating the sometimes tumultuous foreign waters of our new family.
Dr. Robert Ritzema
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra