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Dating Advice #32 - In-Laws and Outlaws

May 8, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Keeping the in-laws happy is one key to a happy marriage -- especially when cultural differences come into play.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I recently got engaged to a girl I love very much. Thank God, we have a very good relationship and things are going well as we plan for our wedding. However, there are two situations we have to deal with.

My family is from Iran and they have very traditional middle eastern practices. They always like to have the whole family around as there is a strong emphasis on familial infrastructure. They speak Persian at the table and the men are very loud. Although I was raised in America, I have learned to accept, and even appreciate, these practices because I grew up with them. My bride to be is from a European background and is as American as apple pie. She is somewhat intimidated by all the hoopla that usually goes on at my house. She appreciates the fact that my fairly large family consists of many really warm people, but at the same time she is overwhelmed by it. It is extremely difficult for her to sit at the table while all of the adults are conversing in Persian. She even worries that they are speaking about her (which they really never do).

Here's one example of the difficulties my future wife is experiencing. At our informal engagement party, my family started to have a little Persian ceremony in which people give the bride jewelry with a lot of candy and things like that. Everyone was enjoying it, especially the Americans, who thought the custom was thoughtful, giving and . There was one person who looked like she was having a miserable time, as if she was watching some sort of horror movie. You guessed it -- my bride. As much as I try to understand that all of these things are a new experience for her and must be very difficult for her, I keep wondering why a woman could look so lost and unhappy when she receives so much jewelry. (I was always under the impression that women love jewelry.)

Its also sometimes difficult for me because I know my relatives are all very sweet and warm, but because my bride feels intimidated she doesn't fully appreciate the beauty of my family and a lot of their values. That's one side of the story.

On the other side, I am having some difficulty adjusting to my bride's family. It is certainly easier for me because I basically grew up with American friends and am much more accustomed to their lifestyles than she is to Persians. However, it is very different when you actually become a member of a family. One difference is that in my family and many other Persian families, it is rare for us to say, "I love you." In fact, there's no similar expression in the Persian language. It's basically just understood that family members love each other, and words are considered cheap when action and self-sacrifice count. Well, my fiancee's family says, "I love you" more than anyone I have ever met. In the beginning, it made me feel very uncomfortable, although I didn't mention it to her and am getting more used to hearing it said so often.

However, there is something I can't get used to. Her family, especially her mother, always exhibits a constant cheerfulness/hyperness, and although I think that is great, it is simply not my personality to be like that. I always try to be polite and pleasant, and sometimes I am very energetic, but I cannot always be cheerful. Sometimes, I like to be quiet, to myself, and sometimes even downright introverted, and I can't put on a phony face during those times. My future mother-in-law actually said to me, "We appreciate a happy face." I am a little resentful of this statement and that her family expects me to constantly be smiley and hyper.

I am having difficulty with one more thing. I was raised in a house where my mother and sisters basically always did the housework. Now, I realize that this will change a little when I am married, but my fiancée is also fine with the fact that doing the dishes is not exactly going to be a hobby of mine after we marry. Her mother feels a little differently. She believes that she must remind me every once in a while that I need to do house chores, and although I realize this I do not need my future mother-in-law to remind me. I can work this out with my future wife.

How do both of us deal with our in-law situations? I hope you can write back soon, as I am sure you will have some wise advice for both of us. Thanks a million.

Rafi in LA

Dear Rafi,

Your letter beautifully highlights some of the problems that arise when two people from different Jewish cultures become engaged. It's very natural for you and your fiancee to feel these emotions. The key to resolving the discomfort you both feel can be summed up in two words: education and communication. If you pay attention to both, beginning immediately, you'll be able to minimize the conflicts that will present themselves over the first few years of marriage, and you and your bride will find the best way to strike a balance between your different backgrounds.

We suggest that you approach education and communication in these four ways:

1. Your fiancee would benefit from an ongoing, informal mini-course in Persian Jewish customs and rituals. You and perhaps another family members can describe them, the reasons they are followed, and your family's way of following these customs in advance of each family gathering or holiday. We imagine that an event like your engagement party would have been much less overwhelming, and probably much more enjoyable, if your fiancee would have been well coached about what to expect.

2. Your family seems very warm and loving, but they probably don't understand how overwhelmed your fiancee is with the cultural and language differences. They would probably be receptive to ideas that will help her feel more at home among them. Ask them to consider including her in family conversations by addressing her in English and letting her know what's going on during your family "discussions." It might also be helpful for you to enlist a couple of your siblings or cousins to take her under their wings, periodically telephoning her, offering to go shopping together, and making sure she feels included at family gatherings.

3. Just as your future wife will have to get accustomed to your family's customs and expectations, you'll have to get used to hers. For example, you were raised in a home in which women did virtually all of the housework, but your in-laws (and undoubtedly your future wife) have different expectations. (In fact, a lot of women hate housework as much as men do.) Even though you and your bride plan to work out household responsibilities after your marriage, it might help your relationship (as well as with her parents) if you took some action now. Consider helping clear the table or drying the dishes next time you're at your in-laws' -- it will make your future mother-in-law happy that you're thinking of her feelings and that you want to be a helpful husband to her daughter.

This suggestion will help you with a lesson that most people learn after several years of marriage: Almost all in-laws are "guilty" of offering unsolicited and unwanted advice. Practice ways to politely acknowledge or give thanks for this advice, even if you don't plan on following it most of the time. If you accept your in-laws' well-meaning suggestions as a fact of life, and convince yourself not to resent the suggestions or their makers, you'll be much happier.

Try to focus on the qualities you like about your in-laws, and accept as a fact that they may sometimes do things that drive you absolutely crazy. This will make it easier for you to bear them and someday actually love them. Remember that they raised your fiancée, helped influence her to become the woman you love, and they love her dearly. It will make them glad when they see how much you love their child and want to make her happy.

4. We empathize with the discomfort you feel when your future mother-in law expects you to constantly reflect the family's up-beat attitude. She probably feels an equal amount of discomfort when you are introspective or quiet, and may think that this means you don't like her or the family. We think that both of you will be relieved after you two sit down for a brief talk in which you explain that you admire her cheerful personality, but that you sometimes need to be quiet and introspective. Once she understands that your quietness isn't an expression of sadness or dissatisfaction with her, she'll be a lot more at ease. You can even explain what you've told us about your discomfort with the free use of the expression, "I love you." Sincere communication, done in a non-accusatory manner, goes a long way to helping people understand each other.

Now we're going to give you our own unsolicited advice about the phrase, "I love you." Say it to your wife, even if you feel uncomfortable doing it, at least a few times a year at appropriate occasions. Most women like to hear their husbands say these words.

Finally, it's vital for you and your fiancée to use your engagement and early marriage as a time to develop good communication skills that you will use for the rest of your lives. Every husband and wife were raised differently, and these differences can become sources of conflict. Since you and your bride come from different cultural backgrounds, you may have more areas of potential conflict than other couples. We think the two of you (and, in fact, all engaged couples) should discuss expectations before you are married, and jointly decide how to compromise and accommodate each other.

You should also discuss issues that crop up during the marriage at a convenient time and in a non-accusatory manner. For example, let's say your wife gives you a personally designed birthday card, with a poem she wrote just for you, and you react in disappointment and anger because she didn't bother with a cake or a present. She can't imagine why you are angry and thinks that you don't appreciate her efforts. Both of your feelings are hurt. Since the two of you never discussed birthday celebrations, she didn't know that you expected a gift and fanfare, and you didn't realize that her family treasures handcrafted cards as an expression of love. It's not too late to talk to each other about why and how each of you expected to celebrate this birthday, and agree upon a way each of you can enjoy future birthdays together.

You letter showed us a sensitive and open-minded man who is good at expressing himself and his concerns in a balanced and honest way. We hope you can use these skills to have constructive verbal communication with your fiancee and both of your families that can lead to a strong, healthy marriage.

Rosie & Sherry


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