Spending the holidays with a spouse’s family terrifies many, but Monica Porter argues that we should cherish these oft-maligned relatives

Don’t fear the in-laws at Christmas. Celebrate them!

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 partner’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 sisterin-law Rosemary (my ex-husband’s brother and hiswife) 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 Dany, far from being the arch-enemy of popular perception, is my friend and confidante. We have great chats over tea and cakes. She says she still sees me as her daughter-inlaw, despite the fact she now has a new one. There are sound reasons for this.

First of all, we go back a 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 kids grow up, as they have mine (the cousins are close mates), they know my quirks inside and out, and there are underlying sentiments 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”.

 

Not just the mother of your partner

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 close bond during the years David and I were married,” she says. “We both loved books, and spent ages swapping and discussing them—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. Whereas 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.”

This comes as no surprise to relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, who claims your parents-in-law, in particular, can have the edge on your blood relatives: because you didn’t grow up with them, there isn’t the same emotional baggage. 

“They don’t remember you as an adolescent, 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 distance between us and no need to establish a family hierarchy.” But the stereotypes live on. Chief among them is the shrewish, 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 a Hollywood creation—I’ve never encountered anyone similar in real life.

I’m not suggesting that every mother-in-law is delightful; some, no doubt, are extremely aggravating. But their nature isn’t contingent on their mother-in-law status—there are delightful people and there are vexing people, so to paint any in-law as part of a vexing species is like saying all politicians are crooks. (Not a good example, but you get the point.) 

 

Building a relationship with the in-laws

Christine Northam is a counsellor for Relate. She definitely sees the upside of in-laws.

“They’re different people with a different background, so they allow you to forge new supportive relationships,” she says. She adds a qualification, though: “It’s best to be careful in the early days. Learn from any mistakes you made with your own family, and don’t repeat them. And when delicate situations arise, be openminded—don’t react emotionally.”

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

They say the good thing about friends is that, unlike your family, you can choose them. But in-laws are the family you choose.

You elect to join their ranks when you form a union with your spouse or partner. And because you have a say over how tight or loose you want that association to be, they’re 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 Nick and I separated recently. His widowed father Nick Snr and I had enjoyed a warm bond, so he was distressed by the split. He told his son he was “bonkers” to part from me; Nick’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.

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