Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

In my study of more than 700 long-married older people, I often heard people say, “You don’t just marry a person; you marry his or her family.” Indeed, many of the elders I spoke with regarded this statement as a fundamental truth. Despite the fact that most dating couples do not spend much time thinking about their partner’s family, elders will unequivocally tell you that in-laws matter.

It’s no coincidence that popular culture focuses heavily on in-law relationships, from Everybody Loves Raymond to the Meet the Parents movies. These images reflect deep-seated worries about balancing loyalty to one’s spouse with life-long bonds of attachment and obligation to parents, siblings, and other kin. This is not an irrational worry: Research also shows that in-law relations are a key determinant of marital happiness.

What should you do? As I combed through hundreds of reports on in-law relations—ranging from loving and respectful relationships to “in-laws from hell”—I uncovered three terrific lessons for insulating your relationship from problems with each other’s families. These rules for in-law relations have been tested by hundreds of the oldest Americans for decades. And given what’s at stake, we should pay close attention.

1. Your loyalty is to your spouse.

Life is full of difficult decisions in which no solution leaves everyone happy. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a difficult in-law situation creates—a classic example of ambivalence that in a worst-case scenario may persist over years or even a lifetime). But sometimes the elders cut through the complexity and tell you what to do. Here’s their advice on dealing with the supposed ambivalence of in-law relations:

In a conflict between your spouse and your family, support your spouse.

The elders are unequivocal; it is your duty to support your husband or wife and manage your family in a way that consistently conveys this fact. Further, you must both present a united front to your families, making it clear from the beginning that your spouse comes first.

In couples where this allegiance does not happen, marital problems swiftly follow. In fact, some of the bitterest disputes occur over a spouse’s failure to support his or her partner. When I asked Erin, 66, to describe a conflict that came up in her marriage, she didn’t hesitate:

"Oh, yeah, his mother. A lot of conflict. I had the impression she didn’t like me very much. I could live with that, but my husband never stuck up for me, so we fought about it. The apron strings were tied to him, and you just didn’t go against Mommy. And we fought about it because he would say, 'Oh, you’re crazy, she never said that.' And I’d go, 'I don’t believe you don’t believe me.' And arguments would start. And after it was over I’d say, you know, how stupid that we’re arguing about this, God forbid we get divorced over her. My husband would never say anything like, 'Hey mom, that’s my wife, cool it.' I never got that."

When there is conflict between your family and your spouse, don’t feel caught in the middle—your place is on your spouse’s side. To do otherwise is to undermine the trust that is the underpinning of your marriage.

2. Remind yourself why you are doing it.

This tip is one that many have used like a mantra in difficult in-law situations. Tell yourself that the effort to accommodate your partner’s family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer in your marriage. You are used to putting up with your own relatives and you accommodate their quirks and foibles. And now you have to do it all over again. The closest thing to a “magic bullet” for motivating yourself to put the effort into in-law relations, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your spouse.

Most important, by staying on good terms with his or her relatives, you are honoring and promoting your relationship in one of the best ways possible. Gwen, 94, who's been married for 67 years, put it clearly:

"You may not like your mother-in-law or your father-in-law or your in-laws very much, but you certainly can love them and stay close to them. Remember that they’re your loved one’s family. I learned to love them. I mean, I loved them because they were my husband’s parents and I loved him."

3. Eliminate politics from the discussion.

Here’s a tip that could not be more relevant right now: Keep political arguments out of in-law relations. It can be the biggest bomb in the minefield, and elders say that these conflicts are unnecessary. There is simply no need to engage your in-laws in political debate or to try to convert them.

The urge is often to make parents-in-law “really understand” what’s going on in society and show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are. I've heard many accounts of holiday dinners and family gatherings disrupted by debates about the President, Congress, abortion, the death penalty, and so on.

According to the elders, you may not be able to avoid conflict over your in-laws’ disapproval of your marriage, job, lifestyle, or parenting approach. But you can make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. (Remember: We’re not talking about a lively, enjoyable political discussion, but the kind that ends with slamming doors and a spouse crying in the car.)

Let’s return to Gwen for her advice. Gwen made in-law visits much more tolerable by following this lesson and cutting politics out of the interaction:

"My husband didn’t care for my dad because my dad was a completely different kind of person. My dad was the boss of everybody and everything. He was never aggressive; he never hit us kids or my mother. But he was a total boss. What my dad said was law and order and we all knew it. And my husband was a gentle, soft-spoken, easy-going person who would rather die than make a fuss. He was a completely different personality. In particular, they didn’t see eye to eye about the government. My dad was a Democrat; my husband was a Republican. They’d get into those arguments.

"So finally, I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: 'If Dad starts in about the Republicans, I’m going to walk out of the room and you come see what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to hear this anymore.' I guess that was the only problem in our early marriage. Of all the big decisions we had to make, I think the most important was deciding that I wasn’t going to listen to that problem between my father and my husband."

You may wish to apply this same rule to other “hot-button” issues (based on my own extended family, I’m tempted to include the Red Sox vs. the Yankees). When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, leaving the room is an excellent—and potentially relationship-saving—option.