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Monica Porter

In Praise of In-laws

Reader’s Digest, December 2012

In-laws have been the butt of jokes since the invention of the stand-up comic. But the laughs ring a little hollow to me. In my view, your spouse’s relatives should be a prized part of your life. I got divorced 20 years ago but it struck me recently that my erstwhile brother-in-law Stephen and sister-in-law Rosemary (my ex-husband’s brother and his wife) are firmer in my affections today than any number of friends who’ve come and gone over the decades.

What’s more, my former mum-in-law, far from being the arch-enemy of popular perception, is my friend and confidante. We have great chinwags over tea and cakes. She says she still sees me as her daughter-in-law, despite the fact that she now has a new one (my ex remarried years ago).

There are sound reasons for this enduring intimacy. First of all, we go back a very long way. The in-laws have known me since the mid-Seventies and I was a family “insider” for 18 years. I’ve watched Stephen and Rosemary’s children grow up, as they have mine (the cousins are close mates), they know my quirks inside and out, and there are underlying sentiments we understand about each other that don’t need to be stated. Best of all, despite the divorce, we still regard each other as family—even if, in the company of others, we joke about me being the “ex-in-law”.

My friend Louise puts an even greater value on the in-law connection, although her husband died 15 years ago. “My mother-in-law, Patricia, and I developed a very close bond during the years that David and I were married,” she says. “We both love books and spent hours swapping and discussing them, and she could recite all my favourite poems from memory. It was lovely to have this in common, as my own mum isn’t interested in literature.

“More importantly, my mother constantly finds fault with me. Patricia couldn’t have been more different. She was kind and considerate and I could talk to her about anything. Where my mother would butt in to tell me what to do before I’d even finished talking, Patricia knew how to listen. When she died two years ago, I was devastated. The only consolation is that David’s sister and I are still great friends. She’s the sister I always wished I had.”

This scenario comes as no surprise to relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, who claims your parents-in-law, particularly, can have the edge on your own blood relatives because you didn’t grow up with them, so there isn’t the emotional baggage that can mar a relationship. “They don’t remember you as the adolescent from hell and you don’t remember those awful times when they ‘lost it’,” she says. “They don’t treat you as a child because they never knew you as one. They see you as a fully formed, functional adult— coming in on a high as their son or daughter’s partner of choice.”

She adds that the bad press in-laws suffer dates back to times when families lived in shared households and got on top of each other, frequently resulting in personal frictions and clashes of loyalty. “Nowadays we lead more independent lives, so there’s a healthy distance between us and no need to establish a family hierarchy.”

Ah, yes, but the stereotypes live on. Chief among them is the shrewish, demanding, possessive mother-in-law who thinks no woman is good enough for her son. The Monster-in-Law, in fact, as played by Jane Fonda in the 2005 film of the same name. But that’s an amusing Hollywood concoction. I’ve never encountered anyone like that in real life.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that every mother-in-law is delightful. Some, no doubt, are extremely aggravating. But their nature is not contingent on their mother-in-law status. Quite simply, there are delightful people and there are vexing people. So to paint any in-law, per se, as part of a vexing species is rather like saying all politicians are crooks. (Hmm. Not a good example. But you get the point.)

Christine Northam is a counsellor for Relate. She definitely sees the upside of in-laws. “Because they’re different people with a different background, gaining them allows you to forge valuable new supportive relationships,” she states.  She adds a qualification, though: “It’s best to be careful in the early days, before you get to know the in-laws better. Learn from any mistakes you made with your own family, so as not to repeat them. And when delicate situations arise, be open-minded, don’t react emotionally.”

The in-laws have to play their part, too. “It’s important that they welcome you as a new member of the family,” says Susan Quilliam, “Rather than feel they are losing their son or daughter to someone who doesn’t belong with them.” That would be the Jane Fonda character.

They say the good thing about friends is that, unlike your family, you can choose them. Well, in-laws are the family that you do choose. You elect to join their ranks when you form a union with your spouse or partner. And because you also have a say over how tight or loose you want that association to be, they are actually a bit more like friends. Friends with knobs on, because they inevitably have a regard for your welfare (linked to their own welfare) that goes far beyond that of most friends.

My long-term partner and I separated recently. His widowed father and I had enjoyed a warm, genuine bond, so he was distressed by the split. He told his son he was “bonkers” to part from me; my partner’s sister echoed the sentiment. When your relationship breaks down you expect your friends and your own family to be “on your side”. But the in-laws? That’s far more gratifying.