Sam H Lane works for Aspen Family Business Group.
In can be an uphill struggle for in-laws to become, and feel, 'one of the family'. Understanding the dynamics of the family and what is seen as acceptable, or unacceptable, behaviour is the first step to a successful relationship, says Sam Lane
In working with large families, I sometimes encounter puzzling and undiscussed conflict between in-laws and the families into which they marry. This conflict is usually expressed as an in-law not feeling he or she is "one of the family". Or, a family member saying the in-law "doesn't fit in". I've discovered part of the reason for this problem (besides the usual issues associated with a person coming into the family upon marriage) is the operation of a conflicting set of norms between the in-law's family of origin and the family into which he or she has married. Norms are powerful statements of expectations of group (family) behaviour. Because each of us generally assumes the rest of the world is the way we are, we never stop to think about these differences or openly discuss them.
The most important feature of these norms is they define who is 'family'. You are a member of the family if you operate according to these norms; if you do not, you are not one of the family. Typically an in-law is unsure as to his or her acceptance by the family anyway because of the usual mixed messages and a heightened need on his or her part to fit in. What it means to be 'one of the family' is ambiguous at best. Thus, when one of these norms is violated with the resulting perceived rejection, it can have a powerful impact upon that person as well as his or her spouse. Different patterns may exist between the two families and further exacerbate differences that may exist.
Some families are very open about happenings relative to other members of the family. It is 'okay' for children and spouses to know that another of their number is having difficulty in his or her marriage or has suffered some personal embarrassment. Other families are very secretive and very little information is shared. An interesting pattern in the secretive families is the role the parents may play as a 'gatekeeper' of information or an arbiter of what information is shared and what is not. In secretive families the flow of information is usually around a 'hub' with parents at the centre and the children at the spokes. The flow of information is from the children through the parents to others.
In such a family, the in-law spouse only finds out about events long after they are common knowledge to other family members. The in-law experiences a sense of being out of the loop. If this person comes from an open information sharing family, then the message is clear: "If you are part of the family, you are part of the information loop; you are not in the loop, thus you are not a bona fide member of the family".
This is perhaps the most straightforward norm of the four. Families range tremendously on this norm regarding the degree to which open conflict is accepted and how it is handled. It ranges from a family where conflict is never expressed openly to a family where "everyone yells at everyone else". A person coming from a closed conflict family typically has very underdeveloped conflict coping skills and tends to withdraw from any argument or discussion of sensitive subjects. When strong conflict erupts, they are terrified. By the same token, a person from an open conflict family feels members of a closed conflict family never express their true feelings and you can never get a straight answer.
Expressions of emotion
Some families (and individuals within families) are expressively warm, caring, and loving. Other families are more shy, reserved and less forthcoming with expressions of caring for one another. Hugging, kissing, and telling another family member you love him or her are simply a normal part of inter-family interactions in the first family, but never done in the case of the second family. In the second family, it is common to find this expectation was established in a prior generation and has been perpetuated. "I never saw my parents or grandparents express emotion, that is the way I grew up", is often said. People from caring, expressive families experience more reserved families as 'cold fish'.
It is interesting to listen to people from expressive families characterise their close family in-laws. They almost feel as though something is psychologically wrong with them. They don't understand why a family would be so reserved with their feelings for other family members. "What is wrong with these people?" can often be heard.
This difference shows up a good deal across ethnic or cultural lines. For example, sometimes a person from a Hispanic or Italian family "feels funny" when they marry into a more Germanic or English tradition family.
Another place this norm shows up is in conservative families of substantial wealth. Most of these families have learned to be careful about how they spend money for reasons ranging from not wanting the outside world to know how much money they have to not wanting individuals to be ruined by its abuses.
Individuals from more modest financial backgrounds who marry into one of these families almost always get caught in a complex web of seemingly contradictory and conflicting messages about what is acceptable and unacceptable money spending behaviour. To them, it seems they can never get it right. His or her spouses' parents tend to agree – "They just don't understand".
This norm can be seen to operate most clearly when a son comes from a conservative family of origin and marries a woman who comes from a family where the open enjoyment of money is practiced. The norm of the first family is to live very conservatively and never, but never, engage in any form of conspicuous consumption. An interesting exception in these families is education, such as expensive private schools and summer camps. Other possible exceptions are holidays and second (or even third) homes. But money is not spent on showy houses, fast cars or extravagant clothes. The exact opposite is true in all aspects in the other kind of family. It is not that the other family is being ostentatious or showing off their money; it is simply their family norm. Some interesting geographical patterns can exist. For example, in the north and north-east in the US, the more conservative pattern is the norm, whereas in the south and south-west conspicuous consumption is more accepted.
If a daughter-in-law is from a more liberal, conspicuous consumption family, she may receive negative feedback in various forms (probably not openly) as the conservative parents feel she is frivolously spending money. This norm gains extra strength if the parents' have floating, emotional fear or anxiety that if one is not careful, you could "lose everything". Her spending becomes an everyday, blatant example of what not to do.
These norms all have the same operative characteristics:
- They define who is and isn't 'family'.
- Because they are never openly discussed, they tend to fester and energy builds up around them.
- They create a lot of confusion, miscommunication, misperception and misunderstanding because they are not addressed and people do not understand their root causes.
- People tend to misattribute motives.
- They tend to cause problems in the larger family systems as well as the couple family system.
- Each person thinks they are 'right' and indignation adds fuel to the flames.
- They tend to multiply the negative impact of other problems.
- The dynamics become transferred to the couple family's children.
- They persist for years unabated.
Recognising these norms and how they operate can help families understand this source of puzzling conflict. Openly addressing these issues is the first step toward minimising their negative impact. Some families have been successful with 'orientation sessions' with a prospective spouse where a family mission and values statement can be discussed. Other families have developed "This Is Who We Are" statements that attempt to explain their expectations. This may be a difficult exercise because the family will not have good perspective on this issue and it is hard to see themselves as others see them. Sometimes the family member of the couple can understand these dynamics and counsel with his or her spouse. Whatever route is chosen, it's the first step to making everyone one of the family.