by Lisa Galea I Do! Magazine
Have you ever thought of the fine line between in-laws and out-laws? Well once you tie the knot you will really be able to tell the difference says Lisa Galea
The Maltese are, by large, a very kind people. Once the couple settles down though, the expectations some parents have of the extent of their presence in their children’s lives tends to increase. That is when, as a couple, you have to decide what to do. You can either be at your parents’ or his parents’ whenever they need your attention. Or you can start life together without creating any traditions of any kind, enjoying a quiet weekend or a day in Gozo in peace.
The first year is a year of adjustment to a new way of life, during which many things are determined.
Most of today’s couples both work, therefore they have to combine housework, work routines and free time. It is tough in its initial stages, yet one gets accustomed to working it all out. Leading such hectic lives makes it a prime necessity for the couple to spend time doing things together and enhancing their communication skills. For example, going for a walk twice or three times a week after dinner can allow the couple to unwind and talk after a day’s work, besides helping them to keep fit. There is no need to increase the number of ‘love handles’ once you tie the knot.
But how many times have you been to restaurants and seen couples sitting at a table with their mouths shut? Is it possible to be in a place to unwind and instead be as rigid as a rock? The best ingredient for a happy couple is a deep sense of complicity. Couples that have created a space of their own, and treat it as a holy shrine, can challenge anybody who tries to disrupt their balance. It is difficult to be disciplined with your own kin, yet a relationship should be safeguarded from a possible invasion of privacy.
Unfortunately, many arguments that couples have during their married lives are created by third parties.
Certainly, some parents are very loving but they transmit their affection by unknowingly becoming too invasive. That is where emotional blackmail starts. When you allow parents to get into a routine, their expectations increase. Imagine if you go to your parents for dinner every Saturday for a couple of months, and one fine day you decide you have other things to do. They will probably think:
1. That you are boycotting them because they said something that irritated you.
2. That your husband/wife does not want you to go.
3. That you might be sick in bed.
The most possible scenario is always the least on their minds, and that is when things are normally blown out of proportion and interference becomes rampant. That single episode can create a mountain out of a molehill.
So what role should the in-laws play? Sometimes couples are at fault in encouraging in-laws’ interference, simply because they are not capable of staying alone. For some, being alone is scary. There is a strong fear of boredom so, at least, being at his Mum’s or your Mum’s means there is more of a lively crowd. In this case, however, if in-laws become outlaws we could diagnose this as ‘self-inflicted outlaw interference’.
In-laws are often confidants. Mothers who bond well with their son’s wife might even be used in marital conflicts. But that confidence in their daughter-in-law might make them defend the poor girl against their own flesh and blood, even if she is wrong. There is always a shadow of female solidarity in this kind of scenario.
Once a couple is married they should work at nurturing their own space. This does not mean imposing on each other, or not visiting parents at all. It is all much nicer if a balance is struck, otherwise silly arguments at quantifying time spent at his Mum’s and hers can take up most of the precious hours spent together. It really boils down to not creating traditions that can turn into ‘musts’. Like: Christmas at my Mum’s, New Year’s at yours. And what if you go abroad next year? Will you manage Christmas at both homes or separately? The same can be said with obligations for Sunday lunch. What happens when you don’t feel like it, or when the summer sun is too hot to drive around?
Once these habits are established it is very difficult to get out of them, for parents will expect that these routines are kept up. So, do not make routines.
Of course, the price to pay is that your in-laws can become outlaws. They can accuse you that you are not letting your partner visit. You can get subtle or not so subtle innuendos of “how strange and reserved you two are becoming!” When you visit you can be made to feel that you are the freak of the family if you politely decline offers of food because you will be eating in half an hour or because you have eaten too much in the festivities. In your view they become outlaws - in theirs you become an outcast.
What makes an in-law or an outlaw?
Simple: all that irritates either one or the other of a couple.
The in-law/out-law market can be divided into three categories: ‘Dictating outlaws’, ‘involuntarily outlaws’, and ‘in-laws’.
Some parents are naturally outlaws because they dictate to their grown babies and command every move the couple makes. They decide what they are to do on weekends, where they are to eat and sleep. They do not let them live in their matrimonial space and occasionally create crisis and fronts between the couples. Sadly, these circumstances do not leave much breathing space and the stress placed on the husband and wife can be too huge to shoulder. I like to think that there is a small percentage of these people.
The other section is ‘involuntarily outlaws’, those who cross the line but do not realise it. These are generally well-meaning parents, who think they are helping. They think their excessive kindnesses are appreciated, and even though there may be signs from the couple’s end to the contrary, they insist and finally impose politely.
Finally there are the in-laws. The normal Mums and Dads we all love. I like to think the vast majority, are like these.
Having said that, couples can suffer from ‘outlaw syndrome’ as well. This is normally manifested when they make their own plans and dump the kids on their parents, irregardless of whether they were previously engaged or not. Or when their parents ask them for an important favour and they make themselves unavailable. Or when they leave parents alone and in helpless conditions when they are old. Sadly, this behaviour is usually shown towards the ‘in-laws’, who are the most accommodating of the three categories.
How solid a couple’s relationship is depends on how willing they are to defend their space and on how many common interests they cultivate. While being together all the time has its own hazards, looking out for each other can makes that bond stronger. Space, communication and complicity are paramount. Yet this is not a one size fits all formula. All crisis come with their own stories and all stories are different. Just do not let the ‘outlaw syndrome’ get at you or your loved ones.