There may be no relationship as “loaded” as the relationship between parents and the partners or spouses of your adult children. Mother-in-law jokes continue to be regular fodder for stand-up comedy acts. Our culture seems to set us up to expect difficult relationships with our children’s “better halves.”
The territory is embedded with land mines. Parents need to do a lot of letting go, as the spouse or partner takes center stage in our adult child’s life. We may need to modify our expectations, especially if our child’s choice of a partner is not exactly what we’d hoped for. The new couple will be making some decisions that their parents may not approve of or agree with, about everything from money management, to religious practice to child-rearing.
In addition to those land mines, factor in the influences of the “Machetonim”- the spouse’s family – and competition often rears its head, adding a new set of challenging dynamics!
So what are adult parents to do? Is there a road map for this territory?
While there are not clear directions, there are some guide posts to keep in mind while exploring this new terrain which can help to avoid conflicts and explosions.
1. Take Time to Get to Know Your Child’s Choice
Develop a personal relationship with your son or daughter’s partner. Express interest in that person, and reach out with warmth while respecting his/her boundaries. Avoid coming on too strong or peppering the person with questions, despite your natural interest and curiosity. Let the relationship develop at a pace comfortable to both of you. An investment in this relationship and a positive start will lay the foundation for a positive long-term relationship. Be patient; it takes time.
2. Beware of Expectations!
If you are the mother of three boys who has always longed for a daughter, be careful not to lay that expectation on your new daughter-in-law, who may not be looking for another mother. Perhaps you’ve dreamed of weekly Sunday brunches with kids and grandkids running around, like the good times you remember from your childhood, but your kids have moved to Boston. Or what if they have decided not to have children? Putting your expectations on your children will likely unearth one of those land mines!
3. Avoid Competition with In-Laws
In this kind of competition, everyone loses. If your generosity to your adult child’s family comes with a hidden agenda, it will be received with the edge with which it was given. Material gifts may be wonderful, but not if they are given to show up the in-laws or curry favor with the kids. If the competitive flag is raised by the in-laws, you don’t have to play into the game. Remember that your relationship with your children and their partners is unique and special, and that love cannot be bought.
4. Restrain the Critic!
Remember that there is nothing like judgment and criticism to damage a relationship. This is where tongue-biting restraint comes into play. You may have strong emotions about your child and his or her partner’s life choices, but critical and judgmental words will only serve to keep them far away. Most people respond to open and honest communication, but not when there is a whiff of blame, judgment or criticism in the air. So try to be open and honest about your feelings, without the sharp tongue.
In this unfamiliar territory, expect to make some mistakes. Learn from them, and keep on course between the guide posts. No one says navigating this journey is easy. But take the long view and keep in mind that the rewards of establishing good relationships between generations may add untold richness to all of your lives in the years ahead.
To read a blog by Bryan Kraus on “What 20-something adults need from their parents,” go to http://http://www.jcsbaltimore.org/2012/parent-talk/on-their-own-away-from-home-what-20-something-adults-need-most-from-their-parents/
To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles please visit jcsbaltimore.org or call 410-466-9200.