John has struggled for years with his in-laws. Despite being married to his wife for more than 15 years, he still calls his father-in-law “Mr. Smith,” and is so terrified around his mother-in-law that he doesn’t call her anything. Dinners together are spent in relative silence, with questions answered with one, maybe two words. In every family picture, John’s in-laws stand in the back, not smiling and looking for the first opportunity to make their hasty exit.
John has tried just about everything he can think of to thaw his in-laws’ icy demeanor, even going so far as to try and take up the same hobbies as his father-in-law. Despite putting forth the effort, John remains invisible at best and an intruder at worst. The most frustrating part? He’s not entirely sure why.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to In-Laws
John’s pervasive need to be accepted by wife’s parents is a problem with which many married men struggle. He wants them to like him, to think he’s a good match for their daughter, to think he’s a good provider and a good father. What husband doesn’t?
Problem is, this thinking can put a strain on a marriage. “When you marry someone, you inherit their family,” says Nancy Tramontana, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with more than a decade of experience in family therapy. “And one of the biggest things couples fight about is in-laws. If they can’t get along, it’s going to be a rough road.” So what’s the key? Well, as strange as it may sound, John’s best bet is to just, well, accept his non-acceptance.
For men, some of the struggle to be accepted can stem from dated stereotypes that may still inform the dynamics of a relationship. The concept of marrying for love is comparatively new and, for centuries, marriages were arranged for titles or land, with the understanding that the husband would be able to provide for the needs of his wife and family. “That seems crude,” Tramontana says, “But, for men, some of those ideas are still with us. Very often, parents will ask, ‘What does he do for a living?’ But that question doesn’t often go the other way.”
One of the major things that can lead to issues with in-laws is not thinking systemically. Very often, men will have tunnel vision and think only of the person they’re marrying and not all the other people that come along with that person. Tramontana likens this to a new character suddenly coming on stage during the second act of a play. “The play has been going on and now you have to learn the lines,” she says. “And there can be conflict when the script is different and the other ‘actors’ don’t agree with it.” In other words, you’re entering an established dynamic that has a lot of history and, while you and your wife have a great relationship, you don’t mesh.
The study of the complexity of family relationships is perhaps best illustrated in Murray Bowen’s theory of “Triangles.” Bowen, one of the pioneers of family therapy, posited that, in many relationships, a couple (or “dyad”) may bring in a third party to help cope with stress. So, for example, if the wife is feeling anxious about a particular situation, she might turn to her mother or father for emotional support, thus turning the dyad into a triangle. The problem is, that triangle is rarely equilateral. “When you have that triangle,” Tramontana says, “someone is always on the outside. So the mother/daughter relationship is intensified, but it’s often at the expense of the husband.”
For men entering into a marriage, they almost have to imagine themselves as foreigners in a strange land trying to learn a new set of customs. “Every family is kind of like its own country, with its own set of rules,” she says. “And you don’t know what it’s like to live in that country at the outset. You have to survey the land.”
So stare through your inner theodolite, but also have realistic expectations. Many spouses, men and women alike, often have the sense that they’re being dissected or under constant scrutiny, which can lead to a constant need to prove oneself. That kind of thinking is toxic, Tramontana says. Staying grounded is important, as well as having a sense of perspective. “You have to keep emotion out of it,” she notes. “And take it easy on yourself. You’ve never done this before. The key is to be adaptable.”
Granted, no marriage is the same. But, in addition to the many, many other factors that might be at play, Tramontana also says that a man’s struggles with his in-laws often go back to his own family of origin, and that unhealthy past relationships can intrude on relationships in the present. For example, if the husband was never accepted by his own father, he might work extra hard in order to gain acceptance from his father-in-law. Which, if those feelings aren’t reciprocated, can have disastrous results. “Do your own family of origin work,” she says. “You have to keep your own house clean.”