The complete guide to getting along
The relationships in our lives can be rewarding or painful, simple or complex. But few are as volatile as our relationships with extended family – read that “in-laws,” between you and your daughter-in-law (DIL), you and your mother-in-law (MIL), you and your sister-in-law (SIL).
The “problematic in-law” is not merely a trite cliché. Studies show that 60% of women experience a stressful relationship with their MIL. The most prevalent complaint of MIL’s is that they are frozen out of the relationship, and of DIL’s – that they feel disapproved of or intruded upon by their MIL. Only 15% of MIL’s regard their DIL as a precious friend.
Whether your relationship with your in-laws is idyllic or horrific, the insights below are vital for your well-being. If you are dealing with frustrating situations similar to the ones we will discuss, understanding the subject will certainly add peace to your life. But even if you are not experiencing in-law tensions, learning about the topic will make you more sensitive to what others are contending with – and perhaps prepare you for interactions lurking around the bend…
We invest so much into relationships with our extended family. How we long for a harmonious, gratifying co-existence! Why then do we so often end up feeling more exhausted than satisfied?
Consider the following typical situations:
- Your MIL asks to come for Shabbos. You work all week whipping up delicacies, organizing your closets, polishing every surface. On Friday afternoon, just as your MIL arrives, your husband steps out to pick up one last item at the grocery. Ignoring the sparkling house and tantalizing aroma, she says disapprovingly, “You’re sending him out so close to Shabbos?” Tears fill your eyes, before Shabbos even begins.
- You enjoy spending time with the extended family on Yom Tov. But one SIL has a habit of addressing one of your children, saying, “Ask your mother for a tissue,” or “Tell your mother to change your shirt.” You feel constantly criticized.
You love your DIL and appreciate that she makes your son so happy. But you find it so annoying that she always waits till the last minute to say which Yom Tov meal they’re coming for, because she works around her parents’ schedule. “How does my son let her twist us around her finger?” What makes in-law relationships more complicated than others? They are often more complex, involving some kind of triangulation – e.g., you, your MIL and your husband. They deal with adults, not children or adolescents, whom we can excuse with immaturity or inexperience. And then there is the sheer power of the negative emotions that erupt from these misunderstandings, affecting our mood, functioning, marriage, and the strength we have to get through the day.
Our in-laws can cause us tremendous joy and be a source of support or be an unending source of tribulation and challenge. To a great degree – it depends on us.
Time to ACT!
If you want to make things better, don’t wait for other people to take the lead. You need to act, not react. I would like to share a formula that has proven itself in my personal and professional experience to minimize in-law conflict and help us make the most of what family life has to offer. I call it the ACT formula: Awareness – Communication – Timely boundaries.
Information and communication are power. When we develop an awareness of people’s personalities and what makes them tick – or get ticked off – we see things differently. When we master the intricacies of constructive communication, we respond responsibly and create a climate of understanding and cooperation. And when we set timely boundaries, we proactively set the scene for better relationships in the long term.
Awareness – of Personality
Please, do not use this information about personality types just to categorize others. Use it to understand them, to put their conduct into context – and to turn the lens inward to see how you respond and how other see you. Remember, every quality has both positive and negative aspects. We won’t call them “bad,” but rather “difficult.”
Four difficult MIL (or SIL) personalities:
- The OPEN CRITIC gives unasked advice, always “altruistically” – “I’m only trying to help you. If you would only put away each ingredient/ get some exercise/write down your expenses, etc. you’d feel much better.”
- The MANIPULATIVE CRITIC criticizes you when your partner’s not around or by proxy, to your husband when you’re not there. “My mother’s upset that you don’t come into the kitchen to help.” Nobody likes criticism, especially coming from someone whose approval you crave.
- The ENGULFER is loving and connected. The problem is that she measures your love by the hours you spend with them, how often you call, etc. Too much love can be stifling, but how do you explain this to your husband without appearing to be an “ingrate”?
- The CONTROLLER says, “I bought you the … now you have to …” or builds on guilt: “After all we did for you, you must…” leaving you feeling powerless and intimidated.
- The REJECTER rejects the newcomer, and much as you try to coax her, all you get are short phone calls, one-word answers, and the gnawing pain of feeling unwanted. Then there are the easy personalities that we all aspire to be:
- The ACCEPTER accepts you just as you are, making no comparison.
- The VALIDATOR goes a step further and validates your approach, your disciplinary measures, everything you do.
- The ASSISTER is always there to help – with money, knowledge, listening ear, technical assistance.
- The ENCOURAGER helps you be the best “you” you can be.
DIL – Also Differ Surprise!
The wrench in the works is not always thrown in by the MIL. Sometimes the DIL is the difficult one to deal with:
- The WITHDRAWER makes it obvious that she’s unwilling to become a part of the family. Her MIL is hurt, her husband feels torn, and quiet pain permeates the family.
- The COMPLAINER is never happy with anything we give her – jewelry, linens, financial assistance.
- The USER feels very comfortable using her in-laws’ car, the contents of their freezer, babysitting services: “You’re there to serve.”
- The ENTITLED similarly feels that everything is coming to her. Other daughters-in-law are so much easier to love:
- The APPRECIATOR always acknowledges you with a note or a word of thanks dropped to you, to your husband, to your son.
- The CONNECTOR seeks ways to make the family closer – initiating picnics, buying small items for your home.
- The RESPECTER honors your privacy. You can’t exchange your difficult MIL or DIL for an “easier model.” But you can identify yourself in these types and work to soften your character, make the most of your talents and do Hashem proud.
Next Step: Communication—Overreacting
Has this scenario happened to you? You have so much to say, but you try to keep quiet and exercise self-restraint to keep the peace. Frustration builds up, until finally you end up talking – not at the best time, not with finesse, often in a screaming tone. It’s a cycle that can take place with anyone important in our lives, and it leaves us feeling unhappy and defeated.
When communicating with in-laws, we tend to overreact or underreact. Both result in the same sorry situation.
Here is an extreme example of overreacting:
Miriam has to travel abroad to her sister’s wedding. Rather than impose on her in-laws, she decides to leave her toddler by his regular babysitter, who knows his routine. Her MIL is devastated. Don’t they trust her? She conveys her feelings to her son. Miriam explodes – she speaks to all her siblings, rehashes all her complaints against her MIL from day one, leaves a long, nasty message on her cell phone – and regrets it a day later. Do you (sometimes) overreact?
Try this checklist:
- Are you not giving the benefit of the doubt?
- Are you taking everything personally?
- Do you find yourself issuing threats (“I’ll never speak to her again”)?
- Do you lapse into lashon hara?
- Do you sense you are behaving immaturely? If the answer to most of these is “yes,” your antennae should go up.
Underreacting – Also a No-No
When Dina married the youngest son in the family, she got along easily with all of her sisters-in-law except the last one, who did everything possible to make her feel unwanted. She always found something negative to say to Dina’s husband or their MIL in Dina’s presence, and then muttered, “Only teasing.” Dina felt physically sickened by the situation, but she thought, “This is my life. Better not to say anything.”
When we underreact, we convince ourselves that it is better to be miserable than to take control over our lives and we indicate our acquiescence. Do you (sometimes) underreact?
- Do you ignore your feelings?
- Do you fail to confront them, even when your marriage is being affected?
- Do you blame yourself for their unhealthy responses?
We know that there is special reward for the “ne’elavim v’eynam olvim,” those who accept offense without responding. If you can really transcend the pain, that may be true. But if the situation makes you feel depressed and ill or is impacting your marriage, ask your Rav whether silence is the best policy or if – and how – you should react.
It’s How You Say It
In order for communication to be realistic, respectable, and effective, we must give thought to two aspects: form and content. Content is what I have to say; form is how I say it, the packaging.
There are many facets to good form. Here is a sampling:
- TIMING – Am I or they in a rush? If there is a taxi waiting, that’s not a good time to talk.
- PRIVACY – Are there others around? The same words may be accepted graciously when there are no spectators, and summarily rejected when in front of children or parents at the Shabbos table. A public forum brings in issues of shame, ego, etc.
- INVITING COOPERATION – Before you begin to speak, ask, “Can I talk to you about something now?” The minute the other party says yes, you’ll sense an atmosphere of cooperation.
- TONE – Our tone of voice can be sarcastic and hostile, or warm and nurturing.
- FOCUS – Are we addressing too many issues at once? Remember, “Tafasta merubah lo tafasta,” if you try to pull in too much, you may be left with nothing. Zero in on a clear, concise message.
- EXAGGERATION – Avoid sweeping generalizations like, “You never help me.”
But Also – What You Say Now you are ready for the nitty-gritty. You have an unpleasant message to convey, a piece of criticism. How do you say it in the most painless manner?
First and foremost, avoid comparisons. Comparisons can often be even more stinging than outright criticism – whether it is a MIL comparing her daughters-in-law, a parent contrasting her different mechutanim in front of their children, or a wife comparing her in lawsto her own parents.
The secret to “helping the medicine go down” is to follow two rules: Make a sandwich and be the other party’s lawyer. A sandwich is a thin layer of filling between two thick slabs of bread. Here, the bread is the positive statement and the thin layer, the criticism you want to slip through. Being a lawyer means presenting the situation as if you were acting as their defense attorney.
Let’s see this technique in action:
Mindy is upset that her MIL constantly criticizes her son – Mindy’s husband – in front of her and the kids. Mindy asks her MIL if she has a few minutes to speak privately, when neither is in a rush. “I know you always want the best for us (lawyer). You probably don’t mean it, but many times, Chezky gets criticized (not you criticized him – passive form, a bit easier to accept) in front of the children.” Give an example and describe how it affects you /the children – makes it more difficult to respect him, pains you to see him hurt. Then work on a solution. “Can we try together (we’re on the same side) to think how you can show your love and caring (lawyering) in a less public way?” Pause. Then Mindy says, “Maybe we’ll both think about it and see what we come up with.”
I’m Sorry, But…
Apologies are a valuable component in communication, but only if you know how to make them. Identify the hitch in each of these “apologies”:
- Sister-in-law to sister-in-law: “I’m really sorry for not telling you about the joint Yom Tov gift, but really you started it when… Apology with blame.
- MIL to DIL: “Sorry I didn’t give them the nosh you left them – but I really expected you to give them more healthy nourishment” – Apology with criticism.
- DIL to MIL: “Sorry I didn’t let you know we weren’t coming for the meal, and you prepared and waited for us. My mother never minds if we change plans, as long as we feel good…” – Apology with comparison.
So how to apologize? Just – apologize! Without blaming, criticizing, comparing.
“I’m sorry for doing xyz. I didn’t realize how it would hurt you, I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, I hope to be more careful in the future.” And that’s that!
Time for Timely Barriers
We’ve gotten the first two parts of our “ACT” together – awareness and communication. At this point, depending on the relationship you have with your in-laws, you may find that the best way to implement your goals for a positive relationship is to enforce healthy boundaries. Remember, most choppy relationships do not stem from a conscious, directed affront on the part of your in-law. Sometimes, the in-law is clueless; she has absolutely no idea that she’s causing us tension. Either she is busy with her own life and simply doesn’t remember your birthday – or she is well-meaning and offers her two cents without imagining that she is stepping on toes.
Other times, she is confused. She senses her behavior upsets you but doesn’t know what to make of it and what to do about it – resulting in awkward silences. Alternately, she might realize something is awry but is unconsciously afraid to make a change because that would shake up her internal image as the perfect MIL, DIL, etc. Instead, she tries to shift the blame to you.
Only a small minority are aware they are causing pain, yet intentionally refuse to change because they are convinced they are right and that you owe them what they demand of you.
Here again, the goal is not to categorize and point a finger, but to grasp where others are coming from so we can accept them a bit better, and if necessary, set boundaries to defuse the points of contention.
Why should close, loving relationships need boundaries, and why should you be the one to enforce them?
Let’s take two exaggerated examples – of a MIL and a DIL – to answer these questions:
- Your MIL loves you so much, she decides to move in to a house right across the street. She knows when your lights are on and if the car is in the driveway. She pops in uninvited, and if the door is locked, she calls at all hours. If your kids answer, she asks, “What’s Mommy doing? Did you have a bath tonight? What did Mommy cook for supper?” She opens closets, expresses opinions, tags along on outings – you get the idea.
- Your DIL always leaves the children for you to babysit, never cleans up after herself, borrows money and doesn’t repay, takes for granted you’ll foot the bill for anything she buys when you’re with her, takes home stuff from your freezer for supper for the week, expects you to pay for the bris, a new carriage for every baby, a week at the mother-baby home…
Got your answers? If we don’t set boundaries, we will enable these scenarios. And if we don’t enforce them – nobody else will.
Falling into the Trap
Many times, we find ourselves doing things we do not want to do:
- “I don’t want to be at my in-laws’ home every single Shabbos ….
- “I don’t want to pay my married children’s debts every few months…
- “I don’t want to take care of my nieces every time SIL goes off learning or vacationing….
But I don’t know how to say no…”
We consider ourselves intelligent and in control of our lives. How do we fall into the trap? Often we are manipulated by subtle and not so subtle techniques:
- The Punishers tell us what they want and warn us what will be if we don’t acquiesce. “If you don’t name the baby for Zeidy – I’m not sure we’ll participate in the bris, buy the new car, etc.” Sometimes the threat is explicit, other times, they dangle a question mark: “If not, I don’t know…” These punishers make us do things we don’t want to do.
- Martyrs (self-punishers) – If you don’t do what they want… they won’t be able to sleep, calm down, work. We don’t want to hurt our nearest and dearest. So when my 65-year- old diabetic MIL says she won’t be able to eat a thing if we don’t…
- Sufferers offer catastrophic forecasts on what will happen to them: “I’m not going to be able to enjoy myself the whole night” and say it’s our fault.
- Tantalizers make us jump through the hoop by holding out a prize they never give us. “If you help us take care of Babi and Zeidy, we think the house will go to you.” Usually the “prize” doesn’t materialize, and when we realize that, it generates a lot of bitterness and explosions.
These painful situations can leave us crying from confusion, trembling from frustration. What do we do about it? Hone our awareness and set timely boundaries.
Good Fences Make Good… In-Laws
Some people hear “boundaries” and think of stifling, imprisoning limits. But boundaries are actually liberating, since they protect us from unwanted effects. Yiddishkeit is full of such boundaries – muktzah to guard us from Shabbos violation, yichud to protect our kedushah, and much more. Countries mark boundaries to protect the rights of the people within them.
True, setting boundaries may be uncomfortable at first, and we don’t want to clamp down rules at every step and turn. First we have to choose our boundaries and get the problem and the solution absolutely clear.
What if there are a few issues that bother you? How do you choose your boundary? Ask yourself: If I could change one thing in our relationship, what would it be? Run the internal “film” through your mind and press “stop!” at the point you wish could be different.
Blocks to Boundary Setting
So often I hear women say, “I know that a boundary is important and will work, but it’s just not me.” What blocks people from setting boundaries?
On a simple level, nobody likes to feel mean. I don’t like when people put boundaries on me, so I don’t want to be the “bad guy” either. Besides, I don’t like when others are upset at me, and if I set a boundary, that is bound to happen.
At a deeper level, resistance to boundary-setting stems from the belief that “Nothing is going to help. It doesn’t pay to try.” There may also be the internal expectation that “I should be able to deal with the situation and grow from it, without being angered and having to draw the line.”
Turn down the volume of that inner voice. You have options! Things can and should be different! An investment of short-term discomfort is well worth a lifetime of peaceful bonding!
Before Making a Boundary
Before presenting a boundary, check if this is something you can enforce. Do not choose a boundary that requires you to control other people’s compliance. Discuss the issue with your spouse; don’t let him hear about it from his mother. Prepare yourself for the fallout.
How do you explain your need for this boundary to your spouse? Not by going into a tirade about your in-law’s intolerable behavior, but rather by using the “I feel/I need” formula. Here are a few examples:
- I feel betrayed when you discuss our issues with your parents. I need you to stop doing that and start discussing it with me instead.
- I feel alone when you’re quiet while your parents criticize me. I need you to back me up.
Boundary in Practice
A boundary is not an automatic “no.” It’s a “Yes – but.” We might call it a position statement: “I am willing to take your children when you go away, but only if they have a morning playgroup/afternoon babysitter… ”
A position statement enables you to set forth in advance what you are willing to do and what not, rather than taking on more than you can handle to avoid friction, and ending up with everyone unhappy anyway.
Your in-laws want you to spend all your time with them. You appreciate their affection, but feel it is much too much.
Discuss the issue with your spouse. Remember, he may not realize how strongly the problem is affecting you. “I feel that spending every single Shabbos, Motzoei Shabbos, and Sunday with your parents is too much and is chipping at our family togetherness. I need you to understand and support that.”
First, approach your in-laws with a “sandwich message“: “We love spending quality time together, but we feel we’d like some time for just us and the children. Let’s try doing every other Sunday, and see how that goes.” Leave it open-ended, for later reevaluation.
If that doesn’t work, it’s time to set clear boundaries with a clarifying position statement. “We can only spend every other Sunday with you. Would you like us to come to you, you to us, or meet at the park?”
Be prepared to hear reactions like: “How could you be so selfish!” “Don’t you love us – after all we’ve done for you…” “I never thought I’d live to see the day that…”
Don’t argue or try to give long explanations. Apologize for causing them pain, but not for the justified request. Be careful not to dredge up old issues. Stand your ground respectfully and try to show your love in different ways. Call a bit more frequently, send over cookies, show warmth.
Peace – the Ultimate Goal
“There is no greater receptacle for blessing than peace.” As we navigate the stormy waters of in-law relationships, let’s remember that if all our efforts increase the shalom in our family by even one iota, then all we invest, attempt, share, and pray are worth it.
This complete lecture series, by Atara Malach, can be purchased from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation 845-352-3505 extension 101.