After the Wedding
Your relationship with his parents begins even before you meet them, starting as soon as he informs them of your special place in his heart. They will then have whatever reaction this news brings, based solely on the relationship between parents and their adult child. This means you will likely begin your relationship with your in-laws already in a box of their making. All of this should be taken into account when you consider how little the start of your relationship with your partner's mother and father has to do with you.
Of course, that doesn't mean you're helpless or can't determine how his parents will affect you and your household. It just points out that everyone brings into adulthood a complicated family history, with pre-existing tensions, unaddressed wounds, alliances, black sheep, and secrets. It wouldn't be a family if most or all of these elements weren't present. Because it's his family and not yours, you are in the unique position of having an outsider's (sometimes clearer) perspective on his family, just as he brings a fresh perspective to your family of origin.
Being in this outsider role is where all the potential for good and bad emanates from when it comes to in-laws. For example, you may be welcomed as a leavening influence if you bring a female perspective to a mostly male family, or vice versa. Your personality, whether reserved or outgoing, may also be just the right element to balance the pre-existing family mix. On the other hand, you may, through no fault of your own, represent a threat to the family's current way of doing things. Perhaps you're a straight shooter, and the unspoken rule in your in-laws' home is to mince words and ignore tensions. Conversely, they may relish a good debate, or tolerate emotional outbursts, while that behavior horrifies your more introspective temperament.
In whatever way the elements of personality and family style may eventually mix over time, how you fit in (or not) will be clear to you by the end of your first visit, whether it occurs before or after the wedding. Which is why, right from the start of your marriage, you need to establish realistic expectations of and clear boundaries with your in-laws. You must base these expectations and boundaries on your judgment of what sort of people your in-laws are, and how they behave toward you.
Examine Your Expectations
Be aware of your own family baggage when you begin this process. If you came from an emotionally difficult or neglectful upbringing, you may have a burning desire for a warm, loving family to fill this void. If your in-laws don't fulfill this dream you may take it personally and feel bad about yourself. Better to approach this new relationship with your partner's parents as you would any other new personal connection; be cautious at first, at least until you have cause to trust and confide in them. Conversely, don't assume just because you come from a different culture, class, or race that your in-laws will not be open to you. Expectations can get you in trouble if they cause you to miss the person standing right in front of you.
Your Partner's Relationship with His Parents Affects Your Marriage
It's understandable if you become distressed when and if you see the strong, self-possessed adult man you married suddenly transformed into a passive-aggressive little boy in the presence of his parents. If you feel as though your partner is falling back into the role of son at your expense, you need to first put the situation in context. He may not be conscious of his response to his parents. If he is aware of it, he may not like his behavior any more than you but may be unable to control it. Everyone carries unresolved issues from childhood. This only becomes a problem in your marriage if it prevents him from taking a necessary stand in support of you in relationship to his parents.
Another common parent-child dynamic that becomes unavoidably clear when meeting in-laws is the daddy's girl syndrome, which you may or may not have previously known to be part of your wife's character. Again, whether this becomes a quaint discovery about her or a threat to your relationship depends on how your wife and her father respond when you, as her new husband, are added to the family. If dear old Dad considers you an interloper or threat to his relationship with his daughter, there's bound to be friction. Again, the impact of this pre-existing dynamic on your marriage can be large or small depending on whether your wife treats the situation as an opportunity for emotional growth from Daddy's girl to woman.
The Unavoidable, Tough Challenges
Sometimes life hands one of your parents (and by extension you and your spouse) a curve ball. You will be severely tested if an illness, accident, or alcohol or substance abuse provokes a crisis with an in-law or adult sibling. If one parent passes away suddenly, the widow or widower left behind may become more needy or demanding of your partner's time or emotional resources. How much of your partner's time and how long this goes on are important factors in determining how you might feel about it.
The decision to have an elderly parent move into your household is a very, very complex one. It may be your first choice, and you may receive solid support for it from your partner. Be sure you discuss it thoroughly. Is one of you home during the day to provide care? What about costs?
Before an elderly parent joins your household, you may wish to explore other options that might be available, such as the possibility of private, insurance, or government assistance for a live-in helper. There may be a nearby assisted-living situation that would allow proximity and yet maintain independence for the elderly parent. Giving up independence is not easy for most adult children or the elderly parent.
All of these and other complex interpersonal dynamics come into play when dealing with in-laws and extended families. Confronting and dealing with them can represent avenues for personal growth as much as they also may present temporary challenges. In order for them to be positive growth experiences, these situations require a high level of communication and teamwork in your marriage.