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Meet the Parents

Figuring out how to change relationships with parents and siblings after we get married is never easy.

My wife is in constant contact with her mother. They run errands together, go to the gym together, have lunch 3-4 times per week, and talk on the phone several times a day. My mother-in-law knows more about our schedule and what’s going on in my family than I do! Not to mention the numerous dinners, vacations, and constant invitations, that my wife can’t seem to refuse. I have spoken to her about this and told her how uncomfortable this makes me, but I get no real support. What can I do to make her understand that her refusal to cut the cord is hurting our marriage?
Richard from Colts Neck

It sounds like Richard’s wife is having difficulty separating from her mother and hasn’t yet found a comfortable balance between her roles of daughter and wife. Richard needs to understand that she might be afraid to confront her mother because of the reaction that it might trigger. It is important that he find a way to let her know how he feels about her relationship with her mother without her feeling that he’s accusing her of hurting their marriage.

Richard’s predicament is a challenge that all couples confront during the beginning of their relationship. Together, these two need to address her desire to be close to her Mom and his desire for a closer connection with his wife. If they talk to each other openly and calmly, they will be able to establish a boundary that separates them as a couple from their families. This could be some- thing as simple as agree- ing to leave a family function early to go to a movie together— without her mother. The key is for the couple to figure out how to get to that point together and still be sensitive to the differences in their respective relationships with their families.

My mother-in-law insists that I call her “Mom,” but I don’t feel comfortable doing so. What do I do?
Nanci from Tinton Falls

My in-laws are extremely old-fashioned. They are always asking me when I am changing my name to their last name. I haven’t had the chance to do it yet, but I plan to include my last name as well, which may not please them. Am I about to cause an irreparable rift?
Diane from Middletown

I have two boys, ages 4 and 5. My moth- er-in-law clearly favors my 5-year old over my 4-year old. What should I do?
Lisa R. from Eatontown

Have you heard the one about the mother- in-law who wished her daughter-in-law ill? “I’ll dance on your grave,” said the mother- in-law. “I hope I’m buried at sea,” replied the daughter-in-law. The triangle between a mother, her son, and his wife is possibly the most maligned relationship in family history.

Nanci and Diane are in a similar predicament: How do you maintain your own individuality while still connecting with your in-laws? Before talking with their mothers-in-law, it might be helpful to speak with their spouses to get some insights into their thoughts about the
issue. Besides the obvious benefit of talking to someone who knows them best and gaining their husband’s support in dealing with his parents, they may be able to shed some reasons why the name issue is such a big deal. Nanci and Diane should also speak directly with their mothers-in-law, woman to woman, and explain that they want to have an open and honest relation- ship that is not affected by the name they choose for themselves or how they refer to their mother-in-law. As a compromise, they can offer to let their mother-in-law decide what her grand kids will call her. If she continues to have a problem, Nanci and Diane can ask their mother-in-law to just let go of this issue and not let it affect their new relationship negatively.

Lisa is in a slightly different situation and needs to take a different approach. When it comes to parenting, the husband and wife need to speak with one voice about how the kids should be treated. Before they speak with his mother, they have to decide together how they will deal with it. Often, it isn’t easy for couples to be on the same page about this issue, but it makes for a different conversation with the parents when the couple agrees.

Lisa and her husband should make sure that each of their children gets to have a special relationship with their grandparents, perhaps by allowing them to spend time with their grandparents alone so they can each be the center of attention on their own. The challenge is to get the grandparents on board with that idea. Some parents feel that they have so much knowledge and wisdom about parenting that they resist letting their kids call the shots with their grandchildren. If Lisa and her husband can speak frankly with his parents and make suggestions that can work for both of them, they can deflect the potential conflict.

For Nanci, Diane, Lisa, and the many other women who have difficult relationships with their husbands’ mothers, the important thing is communication. The more they talk to their spouses and their mothers-in- law, the better relationship they will have.

My in-laws are too generous. They make me feel inadequate in providing for my family. How do I get them to give less without the family missing their gifts?
Martin in Manalapan

Martin may be overreacting to his in-law’s generosity. While it can sometimes be uncomfortable, it is a good thing that his in-laws are an active part of his family’s life. Martin should definitely share his feelings with his wife, and maybe they can suggest to her parents ways for how they can change how they express their generosity. For instance, they can contribute to a col-lege fund for the children instead of buying expensive toys. But if they continue to be ‘too generous’, sometimes it’s better to grin and bear it and just accept their gifts and say “thank you.”

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