Living far away from our extended families is increasingly the norm. Many husbands and wives feel fortunate to see their parents and siblings one or twice a year. All the rest of the year, spouses depend on each other to help them to truly know and love each other’s families.
This is difficult. I’ve made at least a few errors doing this. We’ve also managed to do some things really well, so I hope you will find this article useful as you learn from my mistakes and triumphs.
Keep in touch with your family
If you don’t make it a point to know and love your family, how can your spouse? Make phone calls, send cards and visit as often as you possibly can. Technology allows families to stay in touch with ease, no matter how far apart they are.
My brother-in-law video-chats with his mom every Sunday. Much of their conversation revolves around the antics of my 2-year-old nephew, but then, my nephew is pretty much the center of my brother-in-law’s life. It’s only fitting that they talk about and enjoy him in these weekly chats.
Make it possible for your spouse to be in the same place as your parents and siblings
Every other year, we visit my parents for Christmas. This involves the expense of gas and food, the inconvenience of a 12-hour drive and some improvised sleeping arrangements once we get there. Despite these challenges, we go anyway. These trips allow my husband to share activities with my parents and younger brother. Shared activities are a meaningful source of bonding and, especially for men, are often more powerful than simply conversation.
When you visit your spouse’s family, make sure to spend time doingthings with them. You may need to take some initiative and suggest activities, but chances are good that your in-laws will be happy to oblige. This could mean playing board games, going to a museum or even just watching a football game. With these kinds of intentional activities, you can go home with a better idea of the things you all like to do together. Shared activities also provide a context for getting to know who a person really is, even beyond simply his interests.
You can also go the extra step and make sure each spouse’s parents are invited into your home as well. Seeing someone on his own turf can be a special way of getting to know who he really is, and opens up a lot of opportunities to come to know each family better.
Encourage conversation by pointing out commonalities
During a recent phone call to my dad, he told me about a new project he had started. “Oh wow,” I told him, “that sounds like just the sort of thing my husband would find fascinating.” I followed that up by telling my husband about it, and suggested that he ask about it on our next visit. Fast forward to Christmas, and there they were, chatting happily while Dad introduced my husband to what he had done so far. I was ecstatic.
Even with shared experiences, sitting in the same room as your in-laws can be awfully intimidating. It’s hard to know where to start a conversation that will be pleasant for both of you. That’s one reason it’s so essential to keep in touch with your own family. You know what they are up to and what matters to them, so then you can share it with your spouse.
Encourage your spouse to be himself or herself
As with any new relationship, it’s easy to become anxious and uncomfortable with in-laws. However, my experience tells me that this most often creates obstacles to meaningful interaction. That’s why I encourage my husband to just be himself on our visits. He brings a special dynamic to my parents’ home just by being there — with his easygoing, intellectual nature — and we all love him for it. Before we visit, I remind him how much my parents like him and that they want to know him better. This puts him a little more at ease, which in turn opens him up to participating in conversations and activities that he might be too nervous to enjoy otherwise.
Share positive stories
To some degree, it’s really nice to be able to vent to your spouse about your family. Your spouse is your family now, after all, and your spouse was actually your choice. This puts him or her in a uniquely intimate place in your life. On the other hand, that also means that your spouse wants to be closely connected to the people who are connected to you, like your family.
One frustrated afternoon, I’d been filling his ears with all the ways my crazy family has impacted my life negatively. Finally, my husband very sweetly turned to me and asked, “Will you tell me good things about your family?” It was a cry for help. All he really wanted to do was support his wife and feel kindly toward his in-laws at the same time. His comment sobered me, and I spent the rest of the day recounting family traditions and acts of kindness from my delightful, maddening, normal family. This helped him to see why I adore them so much, even if they do make me crazy sometimes.
Your spouse will become part of your family and you his. It's important to feel comfortable together. Some of the most useful things are simply being in the same place, sharing a meal or a football game or just a conversation. As you help your spouse to be more comfortable with your parents and siblings, his or her love for them will come naturally. The same is true for you and your in-laws. Get started today.