They say that when you marry someone, you marry their entire family. There’s a lot of truth in that. In reality, you don’t just have to deal with parents-in-laws; there are siblings-in-laws, their respective spouses and children, grandparents, step-parents, and ex-spouses, too.

For both my husband and I, there were things that were normal and acceptable in our own families that rubbed the other person the wrong way. We’ve come to realize that unless something is outright “wrong” (i.e., addictions, abuse, theft, etc.), we need to accept the way our families are. It’s easier to change my reaction than it is to change their behavior. There are customs, practices, and traditions deeply embedded into each of our families. Your family has them too, and you might not even be aware of them until your spouse points it out or you come into conflict with them. Being aware that there are differences is step one.

Here are five typical areas that require some extra understanding and negotiation:

Holidays — In Western cultures, Christmas is the big holiday where everyone wants their family to come home. If you don’t happen to live in the same city as your extended family, there’s then some negotiating to do. Don’t forget other cultural holidays if you are of different cultures.

Family traditions — Is there an annual fishing trip the family goes on? How about birthdays and anniversaries? It’s important to find out what kind of traditions the family has and whether they still fit in married life. If there are a lot of traditions, find out which ones hold the most significance to both your spouse and the rest of your family.

Expectations — Do they expect you to pay if you go out for dinner? Are the men expected to clean up if the ladies cooked? Is there an expectation that you will all attend the same church?

Patterns of behavior — These can be the particularly irritating ones. Maybe your father-in-law always drinks after dinner, resulting in crude behavior. Or perhaps your mother-in-law is a neat freak and is always trying to “help” you organize better.

Strong religious practices — It could be your denomination, whether or not you wear a crucifix, your decision to baptize your child or not to, or how you interpret a piece of scripture. Religious practices run deep and can be a source of conflict. Try to have these discussions early. For example, if you’re not planning to baptize your infant, let the in-laws know before they buy a baptismal gown.

All of those are friction points that could cause family rifts. While it might be easier to just move 2000km away to avoid most of it, family conflict will arise. Gary Chapman’s book, Things I’d Wish I’d Known Before Getting Married, Gary Chapman offers three ways to mitigate issues:

  1. Learn to Listen. Listen to truly understand why the source of the conflict is so important to them. What may seem unimportant to you could be deeply personal to them. If you’re respectfully listening to understand them, they will likely respect your point of view too. Try to speak for yourself by saying “I felt this…” (which offers your perspective) instead of “You did this…” (which accuses or lays blame).

  2. Learn to Negotiate. This builds on listening, and it starts with making a proposal or a request to your in-laws (as opposed to making a demand). Now they have the floor to accept/reject/modify the proposal. As you respectfully listen to each other, it’s easier to reach a solution that works for everyone.

  3. Learn their Love Language. As a family, you hope the goal is always to build a better relationship. By learning what each person’s love language is and finding ways to speak that language, you generate a positive climate for that relationship to grow. It’ll make listening and negotiating easier too.

My husband and I are getting better at helping each other understand our respective family’s customs, habits, and behaviors. We also understand the importance of having each other’s backs when there is disagreement with our families. Ultimately, as a married couple, we are our own family and THIS family is our priority.

This article was written by: Andrea Shair

Photo Credit: David in Lisburn