In my fantasy marriage, I introduce my parents to my prospective in-laws and they immediately find 10 things in common and become fast friends. Conflict about planning the wedding? No; My parents and his parents are two long-married couples who want nothing but our happiness and have no "ex" axes to grind. Conflict about where we spend holidays? No; Everyone lives just blocks apart, enjoys the same traditions and is thrilled to make it one big happy-family get-together.
Like I said, it’s a fantasy. But I’m still pretty fortunate: In my real-life marriage, there’s no animosity; everyone’s polite and friendly. Then again, there are no in-law bridge parties either. I’ve had to change my expectations for the relationship between my parents and my in-laws but, to be honest, the reality works just fine.
"I think that all of us have that myth," says Leslie Parrott, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist who, with her husband Les Parrott, runs the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. "We believe that because our respective parents love us and want the best for us, that a relationship between them will naturally form." When it doesn’t, it can be quite a shock. "Letting go of that myth can be tough." My husband and I come from the same area—we’re both New Yorkers—and share the same religious background. Neither of our sets of parents is divorced. In these days of people marrying across regional, religious, racial and economic lines, not to mention juggling families filled with multiple step-parents, that should have made things a lot easier. But with in-law relationships, "easy" is a relative term.
"On the cycle of all the important events in the life of a family, a marriage is, in some ways, considered a crisis because it changes so many things that the family has to adjust to," says. Barbara Zax, Ph.D., co-author of Mending the Broken Bough (Berkley, 1998), a book about mother-daughter relationships. "With two families coming together, you’ve got two families dealing with a crisis."
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