Health & Medicine

Do in-laws have to be outlaws?

The vast majority of us are in-laws. We become daughters- or sons-in-law when we walk down the aisle. Married kids make us mothers- or fathers-in-law. Even if we are single, our siblings bestow the status of in-law on us when they choose spouses of their own.

For such a common title, the role is poorly understood. The confusion arises in part because of the sheer diversity of the task. There are so many ways to be an in-law that few one-size-fits-all rules apply.

It’s also unclear how in-laws are supposed to behave. On the one hand, they’re members of the family. But they’re not family members at the same time.

In-laws actually assume a unique supportive position. They are indispensable adjuncts to the primary relationships of the clan. Understanding the subtleties of the position makes life easier and avoids unnecessary strife.

Think of families in terms of a hierarchy. The top of the hierarchy consists of a married couple and their children. They are the primary unit. The second tier is made up of extended family, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws. This second tier bolsters the first. Its members’ assistance helps the primary unit thrive.

Most of us fit into this hierarchy in numerous ways. My husband and I and our two children are the primary unit in our immediate family. I am also part of another primary unit that consists of my father and my two siblings. At the same time, I play a supportive role to my sister and brother and their spouses and children, as well as to my husband’s two sisters and their families.

My roles are vastly different depending on which family hat I’m wearing. For instance, my husband, kids and I make all the decisions regarding our nuclear family. But when the issue involves my husband’s biological family, I take a back seat to what he and his sisters decide. I’m always eager to be of service in whatever way I can. Still, the choices and responsibilities are theirs. They are the primary family unit — not me.

Of course, in-laws are terribly important to the functioning of any household. Many gladly shoulder a lion’s share of their inherited family’s burden. They deservedly earn a spot in our hearts equal to that held for our flesh-and-blood kin.

Even so, being an in-law means playing second fiddle.

It requires assuming a submissive stance. You’re not the celeb when you’re an in-law. Your name doesn’t even appear on the marquee. We’ve all seen examples of this hierarchy gone awry. A mother-in-law may overstep her bounds and try to dictate where her son and his wife live. A son-in-law may disagree with his wife’s parents’ religious views and refuse to bring his children to their home. A sister-in-law may dislike her husband’s siblings and balk at attending family gatherings.

The result is that in-laws create undue stress for their inherited families. Yes, those clans may be flawed. We may not like certain members of the household. We may strongly disapprove of their choices, behaviors or beliefs. But unless we are endangered by their actions, it’s our job to fit in and get along. We can set some limits on how often we visit or how long the gatherings last. Then we assume our best get-along attitude and join in with a smile on our face.

How to Be an all-star in-law

Follow these five steps:

• Understand your role. Recognize that you’re an assistant in this clan. It’s not about you, it’s about the others. Pretend you’re a lord- or lady-in-waiting and look for what needs to be done.

• Know when to bow out. There may be situations when you’re not included. Don’t take it personally. And definitely don’t get into a huff. Go get a pedicure or listen to your iPod if it’s time for you to momentarily check out.

• Get along with every member of the primary family. Some folks will be delightful. Others will test your get-along skills. Find topics you can readily discuss. Steer clear of subjects that elicit angst. You needn’t be best friends forever, but you must be cordial when you’re in the same room.

• Accept the family’s differences. In-laws are inherently different. They may have dissimilar backgrounds and unfamiliar customs. Don’t think about trying to change them. Relax and enjoy the diversity.

• Pitch in. Roll up your sleeves and do dishes. Share wine from your cellar. Teach your nephew new chords on the guitar. Do what you can to contribute to the family. Your efforts will be noticed and appreciated.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit