The sun sank over the Gulf Coast and I sat on a plastic lounge chair next to my three sisters-in-law, swapping stories, looking very much like the cover of a summer beach read. There we were, four women with lives interwoven by fate and family. It wasn’t a moment I ever dreamed about as a little girl when I crafted fantasies of married life. When I thought of my wedding, I dreamed of a handsome man in a tux, not the whole new family that comes with it. But as it turns out, that’s exactly what I got.
The circle of family expands and stretches with marriage — and with it comes the pains of growing. When a husband and wife come together, their marriage is not a 50/50 balance of the families they came from — we carry some old and some new into our married life, and that dynamic usually takes some adjusting for the families who attended the wedding on either side of the aisle.
Communicating with in-laws is just one of the major transitions that come with marriage, and just as I start to feel like we’ve got a handle on the whole thing, a different life change comes along for our new family — birth or adoption or a move — and we have to navigate new territory, set new boundaries, talk through new tricky situations. Here are a few tried-and-true tips to ease the growing pains of marrying into a brand new family.
Boundaries: Set them early, set them often.
Relationships require give-and-take. We know this like we know the sky is blue and grass is green. As an oldest child, I tend to default on the side of “give” — sacrificing my desires, my comfort, for the greater good. This is a good thing to do until it’s not — until I wake up one day full of resentment and bitterness, burned out from more performing and people-pleasing than my soul can sustain.
With more family comes more and different expectations of what’s enough when it comes to time together and phone calls. Navigating these expectations touches on what’s important and sacred and special for families.
For those of us who tend toward the giving side of give-and-take — who are recovering perfectionists, introverts, and people-pleasers — setting boundaries is hard. Someone’s expectations won’t be met, people will be disappointed, feelings will be hurt, and the way we share our time and resources won’t always look “fair.”
That sounds harsh, I know, and I’m not suggesting we make callous and insensitive choices out of spite or stubbornness. I am, however, proposing that maybe it’s okay to accept that people will be disappointed, that we only have so much vacation time, cell data, and emotional energy to offer in a given day, week, or year.
I heard a friend of mine tell his wife once that his mother wouldn’t be happy unless they visited her for a five-day weekend at Thanksgiving, a week at Christmas, and another week in the summer, with several weekend trips sprinkled in between. “That’s not going to happen,” he told his wife. “She will never be satisfied. You can either keep trying to meet impossible expectations or accept that she will regularly be disappointed, no matter how hard we try.”
As much as I hate to admit it, I have needs and limits just like everyone else. When we can acknowledge and accept our limits, we can show up with and for our families, fully present and wholehearted.
Focus on the big picture.
Early in our relationship, my husband and I flew to the Pacific Northwest for a week in the mountains and along the coast of Oregon. We spent hours upon hours hiking around lakes and up mountainsides, dreaming the whole way of what our future might hold.
At some point, we got to talking about the idiosyncrasies of our families — how they operate, their unique strengths and weakness, and general absurdities and expectations. Even though we both had an idea of what to expect, it didn’t make it easy to set boundaries when it came to things like holidays, vacations, and weekend visits. It turns out blending families isn’t as simple as 1+1=2. It’s more like calculus — and I’ve never taken calculus.
In general, one side of the family tends to be a little more “go with the flow” and the other a little more... how do I put this? — needy. While one side is more willing to let the chips fall where they may, the other side is usually negotiating until the very last minute for one more day, one more weekend, one more trip.
As if that’s not hard enough, there’s the closeness factor: Who gets to see you more because you live closer? And is it fair that they get more time? Well, no, I suppose it’s not fair, but it’s the way things are. Or perhaps both families are far away and figuring out how to see everyone without running out of vacation days — for, you know, a vacation — is nearly impossible.
One thing I have found immensely helpful is to look at the big picture and be honest about what I want our family traditions, rhythms, and routines to look like with my husband. Being grounded in the bigger picture for our small-but-growing crew has made it easier to discern what sacrifices we can reasonably make, where it’s important to stand our ground, where we can compromise now, and how to manage expectations as our family grows and our lives change once again.
Honesty is still the best policy.
One of the most significant pain points for me, my husband, and our families has been the holidays. As a recovering people-pleaser, I desperately want everyone to be happy. The only problem: that’s basically impossible at the holidays.
The first non-negotiable we established as a couple was that Christmas day would be spent at our own home. This may seem simple, but it’s definitely inconvenient for family members who want to travel at Christmas and want us to be with them.
This year, I felt especially stuck in the push and pull for our time and attention at the holidays, and the tension it caused in my relationships left me reeling. So I took the initiative to have some hard conversations, explaining not just what we were doing, but why.
Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” Explaining the “what” about our decisions without the “why” leaves too much room for assumptions and leads to resentment about what’s fair and who gets more time — it opens the door to the scorekeeping that comes with family life. But when we share the reasons behind our choices, they make a whole lot more sense.
Keep in mind, we’re not asking for permission. After all, we’re adults with our own families and priorities. They don’t have to like our plans or our reasons for them, just like we don’t have to sacrifice our peace for the sake of their happiness.
When we walk into conflict with compassion, we open the gateway to connection.
Let yourself be surprised.
There was a time I wondered if I’d ever really be close with my sisters-in-law. I wanted to want to spend time with them. I dreamed of the days when our kids would be playing together on vacation while we played cards and caught up. Instead, I felt like I was at a cocktail party or a middle school dance, awkward and trying to fit in.
Those days seem like a lifetime ago. The more time I spend with them, the more I want to spend time with them. In fact, when we plan a family weekend or trip, my time with them is probably the thing I look forward to most. It turns out that what is true for friendships and marriages is true for in-laws, too. Relationships take time.
It’s easy to want to figure out the people in our lives in one pass. We want to label them and put them in a pretty box and organize them like photos or Tupperware, but people are messy and multifaceted and surprising.
Maybe one of the simplest things we can do is let go of the need to have each other figured out, and let ourselves be surprised when the family we never chose turns out to be so much more than we ever expected.