When our child finds a special partner it can be more challenging to get along with that person than we anticipated. We may be unsure about the match or find this person distant or difficult to relate to.
There is an adjustment time for all as we get to know one another. There are bound to be changes. Our adult child will probably turn to the new partner, rather than us, for advice, and rightly so. We may miss the closeness we've shared as loyalties change. We may even find ourselves feeling rejected and somewhat jealous. It's important we don't create disharmony by reacting badly. Hurt feelings can get triggered on both sides and this can create distance and heartache for many years to come.
We will always be a concerned parent, but our task is to let go, step back and give the couple space to develop their life together – even if we don’t fully approve of our child’s choice of partner.
Here are some suggestions to help you build a positive relationship with you new daughter or son-in-law:
Joining a partner’s family can be daunting. Most people long to be liked and accepted for who they are. They may be sensitive to perceived slights. Include your new family member in relevant family news, seek his or her ideas and value the opinions offered.
Expect and Respect Differences
Naturally your new son or daughter-in-law will have their own way of doing things, ideas and opinions - and these are likely to be quite different from yours. Negativity and judgment about ‘standards’ will quickly create tension and resentment. Be flexible and open to new ideas. Beware of trying to impose your standards. Acceptance is the name of the game.
It takes time to for a genuine friendship to develop. Beware of coming on too strong or having too many expectations. Let the new family member set the pace they are comfortable with. Get to know him or her gradually by finding out about likes and dislikes, interests and personal history. Sensitively share your experiences if appropriate. Offer praise and learn to appreciate this person for who they are.
Be Aware of Boundaries
Respect the couples’ privacy. If you’re not sure where the limits lie, ask. Rather than popping in unannounced, phone first to arrange a convenient time. Knock, rather than walking straight in. Ask, rather than assume or tell. Request, rather than expect or demand. Offer to help, rather than taking over. Stay out of their disagreements and refuse to take sides (unless someone's safety is at risk).
Don't Give Unsolicited Advice
Our opinion matters, so it's easy to have too much influence over the couple's decisions. In the long term this can lead to resentment. The couple need to decide things for themselves. If you do get asked for your thoughts offer them diplomatically and then step back. Don’t get too attached to the outcome or be offended if the couple choose not to follow your advice.
It’s important to resist any urge to make negative comments about your child’s choice of partner. This can backfire badly. If you put your adult child in the position of having to choose between yourself and his/her new partner you may not like the outcome!
Let Go of Control
Encourage the couple in their independence. Beware of any tendency you have to be over-involved in aspects of their life that are none of your business. There’s truth in the old saying: “What we don’t know can’t hurt us.” If we don't know what’s happening in the relationship we won’t send time needlessly worrying or try to control things we have no business controlling. Once we get used to letting go of control over our child's life, it's a lot easier and less stressful.
In general, don’t criticise or make disparaging remarks about your son or daughter-in-law's housekeeping, parenting skills, appearance, income, family or anything else. Avoid discussing issues when you’re upset. Wounding words are likely to be remembered for many years. If there’s an issue you feel you need to discuss, wait until you are calm before raising it. Be clear what you need to say, why you are saying it and what you’re hoping to achieve. If you find yourself getting upset during the discussions, leave it until later.
Building a positive 'in-law' relationship can present many challenges but the effort is usually well worth it.
If we can build an accepting, caring friendship with our child's partner there will be many rewards for everyone, especially if grandchildren come along.
© Copyright Kay Douglas. Kay Douglas is a registered psychotherapist, counsellor and life coach. She is also the author of four self-help books: Invisible Wounds, Challenged by Childhood, Living Life Out Loud and Power Games (co-authored with Dr Kim McGregor). She is in private practice in Auckland, New Zealand. For more information please visit www.kaydouglas.co.nz
If you would like to use this article in your newsletter or blog or with clients you are welcome to do so as long as you use the article unchanged and include the copyright and full bio details. I would also appreciate it if you’d let me know how you are using it.