In-laws and Outlaws: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

multi-generational family on a bridge

Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More, Argue Less, and Communicate Better as Your Family Grows by Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O'Neill, Julia Stone.

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” —George Burns

How many people made the slightly ominous “when you marry, you marry the family” comment to you before you got married? As the wedding planning took on a life of its own, you started to understand what that meant, right? You thought deciding whether to seat Uncle Walter next to Cousin Lola took the diplomatic skill of a U.N. Secretary General? Just wait and see what happens to the extended family dynamic when you have a baby.

extended family having dinner together

Creating Family: Conflict and Closeness

It’s yet another paradox of parenthood. On the one hand, it propels many of us back to our families. We can grow closer and relate better to our parents. On the other, it demands that we step into adulthood once and for all and make our new family our first priority. Usually, this is a less-than-seamless transition.

Many couples find themselves caught in a Family Tug of War, with opposing in-laws jockeying for prime position and grandparents who want to run the show. Even the best of us can end up with a tit-for-tat mindset—“the kids see more of your family than mine”—either because we want to keep the peace with our own parents, or we feel genuinely hard done by because our spouse has joined his or her family in pulling on the other end of that rope.

family having Christmas dinner

In-Law-Related Disputes

Almost every couple we spoke with had one or two ongoing family-related disputes, and an unfortunate few were having divorce-level arguments. Some of the conflicts center around the following issues:

  • The Pecking Order: “My wife is married to her mother. She talks to her first about all major decisions, and then I am told what 'we' have decided.” —Duane, married 11 years, 3 kids

  • Interference: “My mother-in-law didn’t think that I sent out the thank-you notes for our daughter’s first birthday party quick enough, so she decided she needed to do it herself. She handwrote them all, signed our daughter’s name, put our return address on them, and drove the fifteen miles into our town so they would be postmarked from where we live—all of this without telling me. I found out when a friend mentioned it.” —Tina, married 8 years, 2 kids

  • Equal Access: “We used to try to split the time between each family when we’d go home to Chicago, but that meant three days at her parents, and three days at my parents. It’ll be time to ‘move’ and my Mom will say, ‘Oh, can’t you just wait a couple of hours to see Aunt So-and-So?’ So then you’re feeling sad, but also looking at your watch and knowing that you’re about to get in trouble with your wife because now you’re cutting in on her time with her family. You get to the point where you don’t want to go anymore.” —Thomas, married 11 years, 1 kid

  • Holiday Hell: “Since we had kids, my wife insists that we spend Christmas with her family, and participate in their ‘special’ traditions, which consist of eating dinner at a bad Italian restaurant, going to church in a school gymnasium, then playing poker and drinking Scotch until midnight with my wife’s brother-in-law’s senile step-grandmother. It’s great.” —Bruce, married 8 years, 2 kids

  • The Clash of the Grannies: “My mom and my mother-in-law are always competing. The competitive categories include: The Title Championship (who gets to be called “Grandma”), The Battle for Face Time (‘she was over there again??’), The Battle for Wall Space (who has the most pictures displayed in your house), and The Battle for Floor Space (who gives the bigger and better gifts). My husband and I can’t take it anymore.”