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In-laws And Outlaws

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

posted by Andrew

It never ceases to amaze me.

I had dinner with an old friend from out of town the other night and we got to chatting about how each other’s relationships are going. It seems I’m not the only one with in-law problems. In fact, when sharing this fact with a few of my other friends, I was surprised to learn of the depth of feeling surrounding this topic.

How much do you think your in-laws contribute to your marital difficulties? This is a really interesting question, and the answers I received were quite varied, both in passion and perspective offered as an answer.

My friend from dinner explained that he had a mother that was struggling to come to terms with her son not living near her, and in her role as a mother now that she was not the most important female in her son’s life. The relationship between mother and son had deteriorated to the point that communication was intermittent and sparse, and her son’s homecoming for a week sparked little enthusiasm. Both were reacting to perceived hurt, and this was jeopardizing a relationship at a time when the son was only months away from celebrating his wedding day. This made me sad, as I remember a time when mother and son were very close, and each relied on the other not only as a family member, but as a friend. It made me sad to see the bond start to break over something that in my mind could be easily solved.

My friend will always need his mother, as all people do. But over the course of time, and as children grow up and develop relationships and start new families, the style of parenting has to change. It is a gradual progression from complete dependence, to nurture, to support, to guidance, and finally to letting go and having faith. Problems persist when this cycle is not duly recognized and people try to resist the forces which bring us from one step to the next.

In the case of my friend, he is hurt because he interprets his mother’s guidance and support as interference and a lack of faith in him. His mother interprets his reaction as a lack of love and recognition for her years of effort. Both of them overlook the fact that the roles of both mother and son have changed and that they need to find a new level of mutual love and recognize each other’s changed roles.

As much as mother and son wouldn’t give the other the satisfaction of knowing how hurt they were, the pain was obvious to me and I believe to a number of others around us. It amazes me how we are so hurt by those who are supposed to love us the most.

But in thinking about the relationship between mother and son, I started to think about the situation between my own partner and his mother. Similar to my friend, mother and son had shared a close bond through childhood, and circumstances had led to a breakdown in communication. Our situation was different however, but in many ways I wondered about the similarities. I was now the most important person in my partner’s life, and his mother saw me as a threat. Unwilling to acknowledge this change in priorities and role definition of a mother, we were attacked as a couple, both emotionally and physically in a set of events that will take some time to heal from or forgive.

But in the midst of these strong feelings of hurt and betrayal, I had to recognize something that maybe I didn’t want to: as much as I was hurt by my partner’s mother, she still remained his mother. Nothing would change that.

I’m not yet in a position where I am ready to forgive, but I can see a part of what motivated her to act the way she did. Part of it was a reaction to losing control of someone she cared about. But the biggest part of it was a deep sense of loss, of not being needed in the way she was needed when my partner was a child. It was also an unwillingness to change, and recognize that upon my arrival in her son’s life, a different style of parental caretaking is necessary.

In order to grow, we all need to change. Life is a constantly evolving cycle of changing roles both in our own lives and in other people’s. Sometimes we let these roles evolve and change, and other times we fight the inevitable, and in the process hurt ourselves and the feelings of others. In doing so we may delay the inevitable, or in many cases accelerate the forces of change that have so sharply become necessary in our own lives and in the way we interact with those we love.

Whether or not you get on with your in-laws, you need to examine your reasons for doing so. Do you threaten their belief system or gender role within the family, or do they threaten your belief system or role within your relationship? Do each of you challenge the other’s legitimacy to be the most important person in your partner’s life?

Once you have finished challenging each other, where does this leave your partner?

The key to healing in your family is in understanding your beliefs and reactions to people and perceived threats. As a partner, it is time to share legitimacy in the wider context of love. The fact that you and your in-laws both love your partner should bring you together. As a parent, it is time to let go and embrace a more holistic and less "hands on" style of parenting. And for all of us, it’s about recognizing the differences. 

The next step is to respond with love.

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