Your Parents are From Mars…
Your fiancé is, in many ways, a preview of coming attractions. Dr. Zax tells the story of one woman—let's call her Linda—who brought her fiancé, Ted, home into the warm, extroverted, boisterous arms of her family. Overwhelmed by their customary familial camaraderie, Ted backed off, and began shunning family events. His family is formal; the home he grew up in maintained clear separations between parents and children. Thoughtful communication saved the day. Linda gently explained to Ted that her parents weren't trying to take over their lives, only to enjoy their company. And she spoke to her parents to let them know that Ted needed time to adjust to their enthusiasm and not to give up on him.
The meeting of the couple's parents could have been deathly. Yet, when it came time for everyone to get together, Linda forewarned her parents, asking them to tone down their usual exuberance so as not to overwhelm Ted's conservative folks.
In what can be a highly charged emotional situation, it's important for a couple to establish realistic expectations. "You want to create that relationship but not force it," says Dr. Les Parrott. "Remember that these are relationships that your parents wouldn't have chosen if you weren't getting married. But now they have this thing in common, their kids are getting married." If your parents can develop a friendship—even a superficial one—it'll be beneficial to everybody.
Part of setting realistic expectations is not underestimating your own parents in the equation. "My parents are fun and easy to get along with," says Suzanne, who's been married for several years. "But Michael's parents… I suppose they're well-meaning but they can be both dull and didactic. Conversations aren't give-and-take—they're more like lectures or monologues." Thinking she was helping, Suzanne took it upon herself to "save" her parents from her fiancé's, breaking into conversations when they seemed to drag on too long, and always being present when the foursome got together.
But Suzanne was underestimating her folks. "If Suzanne's parents really are fun and easy to get along with, then they've dealt with couples like this in social situations before," says Dr. Zax. "It seems this is more likely Suzanne's issue—her parents and in-laws don't have a problem at all. Suzanne should back out of it; remember that all four parents are adults and can handle it. "
In fact, acting like adults is something brides and grooms should be able to expect from everyone—including themselves. That means that Dad limits his pre-dinner scotches, Mom restrains herself from showing too many baby pictures, ex-husbands and -wives act civil or remain at a distance at family events if necessary, and newlyweds don't ask their parents to be people they are not.
Sometimes, acting civil is the best a couple can hope for. "There was one situation where the in-laws were competitors in a professional arena," says Dr. Leslie Parrott. "One of the fathers was on a board that was trying to oust the other in-law, who was president. That was about as tense as you can imagine. "We sort of lowered expectations so that, while they didn't expect their families to be friends together, they could create moments that would become traditions and that would create some memories to bind them," she says. It was important for the couple to leave behind completely the expectation of their parents being friends. "Basically, they went to their families and said, ‘You love us. We're your kids. We see our marriage as a lifetime commitment so even if it's a high-maintenance relationship for you guys, it's not one you can walk away from because we're in it for the long haul.' It took about two years for some real change to occur," remarks Dr. Parrott.