Whatâ€™s wrong with this picture? Pam and Roy are engaged
to be married next summer. This Christmas, Pam will be spending the holidays
at her familyâ€™s home and Roy will be with his family. They spent Thanksgiving
the same way.
Theyâ€™re not acting like a couple; thatâ€™s whatâ€™s wrong. They certainly donâ€™t
want to have separate holidays once theyâ€™re married, but they havenâ€™t figured
out how theyâ€™re going to get from here to there. Like many engaged couples,
they have come face to face with the conflicts over time spent with parents
and in-laws. They are
going to have to solve this when theyâ€™re married.
The problem is how Roy feels about Pamâ€™s father. He thinks he makes comments
that could be taken as racist. Roy feels uncomfortable when this happens and
heâ€™s even more uncomfortable with the fact it doesnâ€™t seem to bother Pam.
â€śWhere are your principles?â€ť he asks. â€śIf your friends said the things he
does, you never would let them slide.â€ť
â€śI know why Roy gets upset,â€ť says Pam. â€śBut he should just ignore him. My dad
is old school. Itâ€™s not that heâ€™s really mean-spirited or would be nasty to
someone he met personally. He talks the way he was brought up. I choose to
look past that to the person inside. Heâ€™s 55 years old, and heâ€™s not going to
When you marry, youâ€™re not just marrying an individualâ€”youâ€™re joining a family. The holiday
season has a way of driving that message home. And the initiation process
doesnâ€™t always go smoothly. Most families have a few emotional landmines. Your
fiancĂ©â€™s way of coping with them may not be your way. How you
handle these early conflicts can set the tone for your family relationships
for years to come. For the record, Royâ€™s approachâ€”taking a high moral stand
and demanding big changes in the way Pam relates to her own family--is a great
Here are some ideas on solving these family dilemmas and getting along without giving in.
Start with Compassion
If youâ€™re the one with a grievance, the first thing you need to do is show
that you care how your fiancĂ© feels just as much as you care about your own
concerns. Put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. If youâ€™re longing to
give your mother-in-law a piece of your mind, take a moment and picture how it
would feel if your fiancĂ© did the same to your father. If you intend to avoid
the problems completely by skipping a holiday visit, imagine what it would be
like if your fiancĂ© said he didnâ€™t want to see your parents.
Hold the Criticism
When we counsel divorced parents, we caution them not to speak ill of the
other parent. Why? Because for children, their parents are a part of them.
Criticism toward their parents feels just like criticism directed toward them.
This dynamic doesnâ€™t really change much as we grow up. However much we may
criticize our parents ourselves, itâ€™s painful when others do the same thing.
Look to the Future
If you drive a wedge between your fiancĂ© and his family, youâ€™re going to have
a lot of repair work to do down the road. Your partner is sure to resent you
for it, even if heâ€™s not showing it much yet. And the resentment will surface
at every holiday or family celebration. Couples who have been married a long
time will tell you that itâ€™s very difficult to have a happy marriage if one or
both of you feels â€ścaught in the middle.â€ť
Find the Meaning of the Problem
If one of you is reacting strongly to the otherâ€™s parents, chances are thereâ€™s
more going on than just a difference of opinion. You both need to stop and
think: What is it exactly thatâ€™s pushing those buttons?
Does one of you have a spouse improvement agenda in mind? All too often people
head into a new relationship thinking, â€śSheâ€™d be just perfect if only sheâ€™d
change this one little thing.â€ť And they carry that agenda over into their
partnerâ€™s family. Some brides and grooms-to-be need a reality check.
This is your partnerâ€™s family. This is the way they are. They are not here to
live up to your expectations. And for that matter, neither is your partner!
On the flip side, lots of people have the opposite reaction. They are on guard
against being changed by marriage. Especially as the wedding draws near, the
fear of losing independence can make people play, â€śDonâ€™t change me.â€ť
They become unusually rigid about their positions and cling to symbols of
their identity. Any compromise can feel like a threat.
Sometimes, couples have concerns about how their children will be raised, even
this early in the game. For example, Roy does not want his children exposed to
the things Pamâ€™s father says.
Understanding the underlying issues better frees you up emotionally, so you
can stop reacting and start planning a solution.
Take Small Steps
Whether itâ€™s you or your fiancĂ© having in-law trouble, you need to
address it by starting out slowly. Agreeing on some small changes that you both
can live with will give you a sense of moving forward without anyone feeling
It was hard for Pam and Roy to decide what those steps would be, with emotions
running high on both sides. Finally, Pam agreed to have a talk with her dad
about how Roy felt, without being judgmental or making any demands that he
change. The point was just to get the topic out on the table. For his part,
Roy agreed that he would not require Pamâ€™s dad to have a complete political
makeover before he would spend any time with him.
â€śThis doesnâ€™t mean all our problems are solved,â€ť said Pam. â€śBut weâ€™ve broken
out of the gridlock. Weâ€™ve faced the fact that separate holidays are no
solution at all. And most importantly, we have the feeling that weâ€™re working
on this together, as a couple.â€ť
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