However, becoming a part of your spouse’s family, learning the new family rules and learning to love this family can be a much more arduous journey than many of us anticipate.
When my daughter decided to move to China, she spent months learning about the Chinese culture—which practices are important and which are taboo, the holidays they celebrate and how, the roles of men and women within the culture, etc. Even with months of preparation, she found herself frustrated, uncertain of what to do and longing for the familiarity of home at times.
Every family, like every country, has its own culture. Joining your spouse’s family is much like moving to a foreign country—some things look the same but mean different things and some things look very different than anything you have ever seen. While this may catch you off-guard, it doesn’t have to become the nightmare in-law scenario often portrayed in the movies.
Adopt a posture of curiosity
As you interact with your spouse’s family, try to think of it as an adventure. Allow yourself to be curious about the way things are perceived and done in this family.
Families value different things—for some communication includes loud disagreements while for others conflict is avoided at all cost. Try to avoid labeling things from your spouse’s family as “good” or “bad.” As you encounter unfamiliar rules and norms, observe how others act and react to help you understand what the values and expectations are. Pay attention to both the verbal and nonverbal communication of others to get a more complete picture.
Understanding your spouse’s family, how you fit into this family and how you are expected to function within it is a complex task. Asking good questions can help you understand what this new family values, why they value it and what they expect of you.
Ask questions of both your spouse and other family members. Consider questions such as:
- “When I was growing up, conflicts were loud and went on for days. How does conflict work in your family?”
- “Why does Grandma keep asking me what my favorite colors are?”
Making Mistakes is Inevitable
You will make mistakes as you learn to navigate this new family. If you can find the humor in these situations, others will likely respond to you with friendliness and support. Just as important, remember other family members are also going to make mistakes as they learn how to interact with you. Handling misunderstandings and bloopers graciously allows everyone the freedom to learn and grow in this process
The process of adjusting to a new family requires time—measured in years not in months. The first year of marriage, you are doing everything with this new family for the first time so it is all new. It can take three to five years of married life before you have a sense of how this new family operates and how you fit into it.
Refrain from Criticism
Remember, there are parts of every family—including your own family—you dislike. Adjusting to a new family doesn’t mean you have to change your values, but it does mean you need to learn how to respect the values of this family as well.
Adapting to your spouse’s family is an ongoing process. It may be challenging at times, but going through this transition will help you learn more about yourself and your spouse.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and Clinic Manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.