Last month, Katie gave us a crash course on achieving (and surviving) wedded bliss via the infamous Wedding Registry, and – surprise, surprise – her column was one of the most popular and well-received features on the Southern Weddings blog since, well, ever. This month, our resident relationship expert is tackling your questions about life after “I do,” starting with the Holy Grail of all post-nup queries: how do I marry my fiancé without marrying his parents (or grandparents, sisters, brothers, creepy old uncles… you get the gist)?
Fortunately, while Katie insists you can’t marry the man without marrying the clan, she does have some useful – and pretty darn funny – suggestions for keeping the peace in and the the in-laws out of your marriage.
Q: My mother-in-law has been overly involved in the planning of my wedding. How do I make sure that she isn’t overly involved in our marriage?
Before we open this GIANT can of worms we’re all getting ready to marry into, let me start this conversation by saying that when I talk about in-laws, I’m talking about any member of your partner’s family. Because, like it or not, when you marry the man, you marry the clan.
ENTER GRANDMA BROWN. If the Brown family had been in the Italian mafia instead of Southern, Gulf Coast farmers, Grandma Brown would have been the Godfather of the family. Don Brown.
From the beginning of my husband’s and my relationship, his mom and I have always had a pretty good relationship. It was his paternal grandmother that I had issues with in the beginning. Grandma Brown was a sweet, petite, I’ll-kick-yer-ass-and-smile-while-doing-it kind of woman. And that woman loved her first-born grandson more than life itself. In her eyes, Chris could do no wrong.
Until he proposed to me.
And even then, Chris hadn’t done any wrong of his own will. Clearly, I had drugged him, hypnotized him, brainwashed him, and then probably pocketed one of her prized sterling silver forks. It wasn’t that she didn’t like me. I think she actually really liked me… deep down… very deep down. It’s just that she didn’t think anyone was good enough for her Christopher. But Grandma Brown and I shared one common bond. We both loved Chris and we both wanted him to be happy. And so, we smiled politely to each other and we hugged at family dinners just like we were supposed to do.
But then the summer before Chris and I got engaged, Chris had eye surgery that rendered him completely helpless for a couple weeks, and that’s when the gloves came off. I specifically remember when it happened: we were sitting in the hospital waiting room while Chris was in the operating room, and I told his grandmother that I had picked up a few treats for Chris for when he got home. I had gotten his favorite kind of pretzels.
“You know,” I said. “Those tiny little pretzel ties.”
“Well, Christopher prefers the pretzel sticks,” she said. “Don’t worry. I picked him up a bag.”
“Actually, he has been eating the pretzel ties more lately,” I said, sensing this was about more than pretzels.
“I think I’ve known Christopher a little longer than you have, dear,” she said. “And he likes the pretzel sticks.”
I have no idea how long we could have gone back and forth like this. Probably years. But, thankfully, Chris came out of surgery and the nurse broke up our conversation by saying that he was allowed to have two guests at a time visit him in recovery. Since Chris’ mom was a given to go back, that left one seat.
It was me or Don Brown.
And that’s when the nurse said, “He asked for Katie.”
Now, you would have thought that I would have been ecstatic. It would have been easy to be smug and shout out, “I WIN!” But the look on Grandma Brown’s face stopped any celebration that was on the tip of my tongue. She was hurt. Really hurt. And that made it impossible to feel like this was a victory.
The thing about in-laws is that they get so darn involved because, before you, they were the ones who cared for and loved your partner. They were the ones he called when he had a great day, and they were the ones who cheered him up when he had a bad day. And suddenly seeing someone else step into that role can be really difficult on a family. Even if they actually like you, and even if they think you’re perfect for him, it’s still a really hard transition for the family to make. So when they get overly-involved or overly-excited or overly-possessive, I’m willing to bet that, 9 times out of 10, it isn’t about you. It’s about wanting to be a part of his new life.
There are some things to remember when trying to draw the line between family and your relationship:
1. Remember that you are joining them. Just as your fiancé is joining your family, you also are joining his. You won’t stay a guest for long, but in the beginning be aware that they may have a hard time instantly seeing you as a family member. And just as any guest should behave, be polite, be patient, and above all, try and just be nice. Even – and especially – if they aren’t.
2. Get on the same team with your fiancé before there is a problem. It’s really hard to talk to your fiancé about his family when you’re in the height of frustration without making it sound like you want him to take sides. Instead, try having a conversation about what you consider acceptable and unacceptable involvement before there is a problem. Be prepared for him to lay some ground rules with your family, too!
3. Build a relationship with his family that doesn’t involve your fiancé. Finding common ground with your in-laws that doesn’t revolve around your marriage takes some of the pressure off. Try finding a hobby with your mother-in-law or start cheering for your father-in-law’s favorite football team. Redirecting their attention to other areas of your life brings them into your new lives without bringing them into your marriage.
4. When pushed, be honest. Sometimes, family members (yours included!) just don’t get the hints and won’t take no for an answer. If and when that happens, you need to be honest – not dramatic, just honest. Explain that you are working through whatever situation they are trying to get involved in and that it is hard enough with two people and you’d prefer to not bring more people into the equation. It will be hard and maybe even uncomfortable, but if you set the pattern and example of honesty in the beginning of your relationship, everyone will feel better knowing where the lines are drawn.
Of course, this is all coming from someone who moved 1,000 miles away from her in-laws when she got married, so take it with a grain of salt. But these are some of the things that helped Grandma Brown and I to get on the same page, and I am happy to report that after five years of marriage, Grandma Brown is truly like a grandmother to me. We genuinely enjoy being around each other and I think we have each learned to appreciate the important roles that we play in Chris’ life. The defensiveness and competition that we felt in the beginning are things of the past, replaced now by a deep respect for each other that is rooted in the love of a good, strong family.
Yes, relationships with in-laws are tricky, tricky things. And I am almost 100% certain that the “for better or worse” part of wedding vows is a subtle reference to them. But in the end, they will be a part of your marriage, too, for as long as you both shall live. And, if you play your cards right, that could be one of the unexpected blessings in your marriage.
I know it has been for me.
This post is dedicated to Augusta Brown, for teaching me how to join a family and how to love her grandson.
For more tips, tricks and tales from Katie Brown, visit her daily blog: Confessions of a Young Married Couple. And don’t forget to submit your own questions for this Domestic Diva!