When it comes to “for better or for worse,” it doesn’t get much worse than nosy, critical, undermining parents-in-law. Columnist Paul Nakayama may have gotten lucky with his, but he’s heard his share of horror stories. If you’ve got (potential) in-law issues, follow his plan of attack for turning one that’s meddling into manageable.
I’ve been in relationships that I felt would have survived had we been stuck on a deserted island together. I often (and mistakenly) credited forces outside of our relationship with causing these ridiculous arguments, which would then highlight other issues and spiral into a big breakup countdown. I realize now that those relationships were doomed to end regardless. But you can imagine my fear on the night before I met my in-laws, a potentially big external threat to a happy marriage. If I had to describe my fear in one word: incontinence. Thankfully the gods acknowledged the chickens and goats I ritually sacrificed and my in-laws ended up being incredibly nice people. And my wife gets along with my family, so that’s great. But in an alternate timeline, there were some potential in-laws that could’ve been a desperate and dark hell for me, the kind of hell I hear often about from my friends and co-workers.
My fears are not unfounded, by the way. It’s in recognition of a long-standing practice of fathers protecting their daughters, something I’m sure I would do and even escalate should I ever have girls. I remember a time when I called a girlfriend’s house to confirm her address before heading over with some cake for her family. Her father answered the phone and told me that she’s moving to Europe and to not bother coming over. Seeing him a couple hours later was how I learned how to smile while being completely uncomfortable. Another girlfriend’s father often remarked how nice I would be for his daughter if I were taller — while I was actually dating her. I can’t fault these fathers though — they have to at least try to take me down. It’s a coping mechanism.
Being Asian American compounds the in-law issues with unique cultural dynamics, and by dynamics, I mean sh-t we have to deal with. For example, dating someone that isn’t prestigious enough (e.g., doctor, lawyer, Internet millionaire) for your parents means they’re going to dive in and introduce the concept of arranged marriages to stir things up. Or if you have a baby, your in-laws will use that opportunity to establish your home as their brand new timeshare and engage in their favorite pastimes, like laughing at your naïve view on child-rearing, undermining your authority or judging your life choices. And since America is a multicultural shabu shabu, that means you’re probably dealing with this in a language you don’t understand.
With that in mind, here are some tips on how to survive and manage a relationship with the ’rents-in-law.
1. You and your spouse are the Home Team.
Everyone else, even the people who raised you, are now the Away Team. While respecting the relationships with our parents, it’s all about making a home and a family that you and your spouse envision. So make sure you defend each other against the in-laws. Nullify any smack talk and hazing your parents might try on your spouse. This includes setting agreed-upon boundaries. And anyway, as you and your parents get older, roles do reverse, and you have to take care of them, so it’s time to lay down the law. (Oh, it’ll feel so good.)
2. Find some common ground, or divide and conquer.
It doesn’t have to be an antagonistic relationship, even if they’re hazing you. You can make them feel more welcome by making an extra effort to learn some words in their native language or preparing a gift with a personal touch. If broad kindness doesn’t work, then you gotta choose which in-law you have the best chance of winning over and go all Game of Thrones on them. Make them your ally, and have them fight your battles for you. If you need a reference, check out how the Lannisters got the Boltons and Freys to do all their hard work.
3. Never complain about your spouse to your parents.
Your parents will almost always be on your side, so any lodged complaints will stay with them, and eventually they’ll think your spouse is a douche or a bitch, even if you’re long over it. Your parents will give you the “I told you so” talk, and it’ll be annoying all around. By the way, this includes openly complaining on Facebook or Twitter, which usually serves to make you look crazy and your spouse a subject of pity.
4. Be the bigger person.
Sometimes it’s not about being right; it’s about being strategic in the long haul. Lose the battle to win the war. His mom is driving you crazy by insisting that her [insert cultural dish] is much better than yours, and you should follow her recipe. Fine, do it. Who cares? Another week and you can take the MSG out of your stew recipe.
I’ll stress again that I have great in-laws (never know if they might one day decide to start reading American publications), but even with cool people, there are going to be moments I’m not happy with or that test my patience. I accept that, because I’m in this for the long game. I’m in this for her, and I don’t need to give her any (additional) reasons to leave me behind and move to Europe.
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here.