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Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family
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Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family

by Ruth Nemzoff

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More than two million couples wed every year in the United States, bringing together a whole new family unit. The extended family may now include a hard to please mother-in-law who criticizes her daughter-in-law's childrearing; or a patriarchal father-in-law who expects all the kin round the dinner table every Sunday; or a new spouse, who a year or decade out,


More than two million couples wed every year in the United States, bringing together a whole new family unit. The extended family may now include a hard to please mother-in-law who criticizes her daughter-in-law's childrearing; or a patriarchal father-in-law who expects all the kin round the dinner table every Sunday; or a new spouse, who a year or decade out, still gets shellshock visiting the in-laws. If that wasn't cause enough for a stiff drink, more than a million couples divorce each year, creating hard to define family structures. How do families handle the inevitable friction and how do they make sense of evolving family relationships? Ruth Nemzoff, an expert in family dynamics, empowers family members across the generations to define and create lasting bonds, including how to:

*Welcome a new in-law from a different culture and religion into your family.

*Not let differences of politics or philosophy impact quality time with the extended family.

*Respond to major life changes in an in-law's life, including financial crises, illnesses, or career changes.

*Retain warm connections with in-laws even amidst divorce and remarriage.

This is a must read for anyone dealing with a difficult in-law as well as anyone who will soon be welcoming a new member to their family.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nemzoff (Don’t Bite Your Tongue) advises how to improve troublesome relationships with a variety of nonblood extended family members. She encourages parents to work diligently on avoiding confrontations with their children’s spouses and concentrate on their children’s happiness rather than their own disappointment. Adult children are advised to focus on the good qualities of their parents-in-law, to always be civil, and to be generous in what they accept as an apology. While in-law sibling issues can run the gamut from accepting a transgendered sib-in-law to participating in long-term care for a sibling’s disabled spouse or partner, or dealing with sib-in-laws who don’t share the family’s values, Nemzoff also provides useful tools for readers dueling with their child’s in-laws over the love and attention of their children and grandchildren (who gets to spend more time with them? who offers more financial aid?). She also has advice for those with in-laws from different cultures, religions, and races. Offering plentiful composite case studies, the fair-minded, inclusive, and congenial Nemzoff doesn’t promise quick solutions and realizes some problems are unsolvable, but she focuses on helpful ways to improve relationships that with time and effort can be fixed. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

“Offering plentiful composite case studies, the fair-minded, inclusive, and congenial Nemzoff doesn't promise quick solutions and realizes some problems are unsolvable, but she focuses on helpful ways to improve relationships that with time and effort can be fixed.” —Publishers Weekly

“Family therapists know that the main difference between humans and animals is that humans maintain relationships with their in-laws. Ruth Nemzoff's Don't Roll Your Eyes is a trenchant and insightful exploration of that species-specific behavior.” —Brad Sachs, PhD, author of Emptying the Nest

“Indispensable advice! Ruth Nemzoff's recipe for healthy in-law relationships rests on impeccable research and a wealth of real-life experience, but it is also well-seasoned with a depth of wisdom and common sense that is truly exceptional. Her straightforward strategies make this book the perfect wedding gift--not just for the bride and groom but for their parents and siblings too.” —Gina Stepp, Family and Relationships Editor, Vision Media

“Ruth Nemzoff thinks wisely and deeply about family connections. She presents a carefully nuanced consideration of this oldest of topics. Don't Roll Your Eyes has something to teach everyone. It would make a wonderful gift to any family member and is an essential addition to the bookshelf of any professional working with families.” —Judy Osborne, author of Wisdom for Separated Parents

“With her characteristic wisdom and wit, Ruth Nemzoff treads into the minefield of in-law relationships, from extended families to grandchildren, money, religion, and myriad other issues. She offers examples and expert advice to help us keep in-laws from turning into out-laws. An indispensible field guide for generations on both sides of the in-law divide.” —Mary W. Quigley, www.mothering.21.com, NYU professor and author

“Dr. Nemzoff's clarity and candor, wit and wisdom really shine through. She is not afraid to tackle any issue, any modern permutation of the extended family in the 21st century.” —Joan Wise, former general counsel AARP

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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Don't Roll Your Eyes

Making In-Laws into Family

By Ruth Nemzoff

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Nemzoff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-03927-9


Why We Make In-Laws into Outlaws


Any family relationship is complex, but in-law relationships are particularly difficult because they have the obligations and expectations of family without the benefits of intimacy, comfort, and support. This is especially true when the relationships are new. In-laws do not know each other's personality quirks and passions. They have little idea which buttons they can push, what happens when they push one, and which buttons the new person will push in them. They have not survived disagreements and arguments. In-laws do not share a common history. They are virtual strangers.

The expectation that these strangers will immediately become loving members of our clans is unrealistic. It takes years to merge a newcomer into the family. Many misunderstandings may be suffered before in-laws can trust that they can truly work together, and many never do. On the positive side, in-laws also lack the "baggage" that comes from years of less-than-positive family interactions. That can make the new in-law easier to deal with than one's own offspring or one's own parents.

Nonetheless, from the very beginning, in-laws are expected to be present at events only open to family. Or in-laws may be imposed upon for favors or commitments usually reserved for close friends. Sometimes they are asked for financial or personal sacrifices greater than they would request from their closest friends. Either generation might resent these requests from someone related by neither blood nor choice.


We become an in-law by a decision made by someone else. The younger generation makes the choice of partner, but they have no say in all the relatives who come along with their mate. The older generation often has no input. Both generations feel resentful that they are saddled with relations and obligations they did not choose. Those who wish to control their own fates are frustrated. Parents assumed their child would marry someone from their own socioeconomic, cultural, national, or religious group, but the child chooses differently. Or the parents assume their child would marry a perfect superstar, but instead he or she marries a mere mortal. In short, the reality does not measure up to the parents' fantasy. The in-law child, too, faces disappointment. Some have barely met the in-laws before they find themselves enmeshed in their spouse's family. The new family differs in ways large and small. One family may be closer, the other more distant. The new in-law family may have all the friction of one's own family plus some new and unfamiliar problems. How easy it is for everyone to be disappointed. Other times, parents are thrilled at first and disappointed later. The disillusionment can come for any number of reasons. Perhaps the parents had hoped they would be included in the lives of their grandchildren and they are not. Or perhaps siblings are asked to babysit more than they want. Sometimes parents become irate at the in-law child because they cannot protect their own children from mistakes and so they fault the in-law child. Parents often blame the in-law because it is too painful to admit that their own children and grandchildren are just as imperfect as their own families. In brief, they have their own version of ideal, and they blame the in-law for the imperfections that are part of life.

In-law children may have expected no relationship with the parents of their new spouse and discover that they are embedded in a whole circle they did not bargain for. They may be expected to help out their spouse's parents and siblings on the weekend or socialize with family, when they don't have time for their own friends and family. Or they may have expected the in-laws to fill in all the holes their parents left and they do not. They may have wanted the perfect parents who are all-forgiving and who give money and time generously, only to find their in-laws are just as flawed as their own parents. The parents-in-law may be completely involved in their own lives and have little time or interest in getting to know the new family member. Both generations must cope with the imperfect.


Women are still held responsible for fostering kin bonds. Mothers-in-law often assume that their daughters-in-law will take on what were the sons' responsibilities toward his parents. They expect their daughters-in-law to be the family communicators because at one time they were required to be. However, the role of daughters-in-law has changed. Now families divide communication, if for no other reason than the advent of personal communication devices.

Today, many of us have our own cell phone and e-mail account. The young couple negotiates how and who will be responsible for their social connections. Some couples divide the responsibilities for social life along gender lines, others divide along affiliative lines, and still others divide by time: he's in charge of the weekend calendar; she's in charge of the weekdays. The woman is no longer the only one responsible for family life. Mothers-in-law are hurt when their daughters-in-law do not remember birthdays or anniversaries or call to chat. When the son does not call, the parents assume the daughter-in-law failed to remind him, though she may figure her husband has taken care of the communication. It's easy to blame the daughter-in-law.

Complaints about in-law children often are based on outdated notions of what is appropriate for each gender. Most frequently, mothers complain, "My daughter-in-law raises the children with too many [or too few] rules." Fathers complain, "My son-in-law is not a good provider" or "My son-in-law can't fix anything around the house."

But gender roles have changed. Many fathers participate in child rearing and influence their children's characters and behaviors. More and more women work outside the home. Some earn as much or more than their husbands. Gender-based criticisms miss the mark today.

Daughters-in-laws' expectations, too, can affect the quality of the relationship along gender lines. If daughters-in-law expect a second mother or a readily available babysitter and the mother-in-law wants to forge ahead in her own career and has limited time for family responsibilities, both will be dissatisfied. Mothers in the parent generation may also be working outside the home or be engrossed in their own activities, or they may simply feel that they raised their own children and have no desire or feel too old to repeat the experience.


When a person marries into a family, it is as if he or she is entering a new culture. Gradually we teach the outsider our inside jokes and our ways of doing things. However, the new in-law will inevitably step on a few toes while figuring out the values, customs, and traditions of his or her in-law family. It is easy to judge the new family member as lacking or unfeeling, when he or she may merely have different boundaries, manners, values, expectations, and rewards. Newcomers are likely to miss the cues telling them which subtle behaviors are acceptable and which are not important in the new family. It can take years to figure this out. The family must decide whether to see the new member's faux pas as part of a learning process or as an insult. They can choose to be gracious and assume the best of intentions on the part of the new family member, or they can assume the offender had malicious intent. Their attitudes can set the stage for stressful relationships or build the foundations for good ones.

The truth is that most of us cannot even articulate exactly what our sacred traditions and subtle boundaries are. Indeed, we often only realize them once they have already been overstepped and we feel hurt or disrespected. Newcomers notice habits that we take for granted. Seeing ourselves and our families through the eyes of an outsider can be disquieting.

Marianne hated Sunday lunches at her in-laws. It seemed to her that the family only argued and yelled. They discussed everything controversial — money, politics, religion. They constantly turned to her for her opinion. She felt they were rude and pompous. Her husband, Andy, was confused. How could Marianne possibly consider these stimulating intellectual discussions rude? How could she think his family was intruding on her private thoughts by asking her opinion?

At first, Andy was upset that Marianne would call his family rude. When Marianne revealed her thoughts to her husband, she realized that in her family, mentioning any controversial topic at the dinner table was taboo. It never occurred to Andy that a newcomer might find his family discussions threatening. When he saw things through Marianne's eyes, he realized he had never questioned his family's mode of communicating. He could now see how a person could interpret his family's fiery discussions as arguments. He also now understood how Marianne might interpret his family's request for her ideas as pressure to respond. Had anyone asked Marianne before, she would not have thought of herself as reluctant to share her opinion. Neither partner had been fully conscious of their respective family's assumptions, but both realized them through each other's perspective. Even when people are from the same religion or the same nationalities, they have different family cultures.

* * *

The in-laws blame one another when unspoken expectations are not met. This blame can manifest itself around small social interactions, or it may be the grounds for more substantive disagreements. For example, in a family in which all relatives hug and kiss when they arrive or leave, a newcomer who prefers to shake hands is seen as cold. Those who come from families that share every detail with all members do not understand those who see such communication as a personal infringement.

Shandra comes from a blended family with a mother and father and two stepsisters. Her parents divorced when she was nine. Shandra has spent her life carving out privacy for herself. Her stepsisters, from her point of view, would completely run her life if she gave in even on the smallest issue. She marries Martin, who comes from a large extended family. They make her uncomfortable when they get close, but she has no idea why. Their constant hugging and kissing and sharing what she considers secrets make her hate family gatherings. Initially she attends these and stands aside, not participating. Her mother-in-law considers her a cold fish. She does not realize, however, that Shandra protects herself out of fear of being taken over by the family. She and Martin's family speak two different body languages, and they have different definitions of what should remain private.

Shandra has learned to protect herself in her stepfamily by keeping all of her news to herself. What her husband's family tells as news, she hears as sharing intimacies, and that makes her uncomfortable. She is also unaccustomed to showing social warmth by physical contact. Thus, she cringes when extended family members greet her in a manner that to them denotes friendship and caring but to her feels like an invasion of her personal space.

* * *

Sometimes, the clash of cultures stumbles on what seems like trivial social customs but are really about deep-seated values. Other times what seem like really important issues are really quite trivial. One family considers every act, including what they eat, as an important political statement, and another family sees family meals as a time to socialize and bond. Consider the experience of Phyllis, a mother-in-law and a gourmet cook.

Pascal, who works for an animal rights group, is a strict vegan and finds the very thought of eating animal products repugnant. His mother-in-law, Phyllis, is a gourmet cook who always has a huge meal prepared when he and her daughter visit. Her family has always relished these mealtimes together. Phyllis thinks she is being thoughtful by including at least two vegan dishes so that Pascal will have plenty to eat. But Pascal is so completely repelled by the sight of meat that he refuses to sit with the family. He feels that his diet is morally superior to that of his in-law family and will not be a part of any rite that includes animal food products. Phyllis is not only hurt by Pascal's lack of acknowledgment of her efforts, but also worried that her daughter will not get the protein necessary for good health. The family is insulted by his refusal to eat with them.

It is not surprising that food becomes a battleground. All of us eat. Food is fundamental to every culture, as it helps define national identities. It maintains ethnic ties and is one way individuals define themselves. We all know people who have little knowledge of their ancestral country but who eat and serve its food. We differentiate ourselves through food and its presentation.

For Phyllis, the meal and her family are the top priorities. To Pascal, the issue of animal rights trumps family relationships. Neither fully understands why they are so annoyed with each other. They obviously have different ideas on when and where to express political views and what constitutes a good-faith effort in accommodating the needs of others.

Phyllis, for her part, escalates her frustration with Pascal into a worry about her daughter's health. She worries that living on Pascal's low-protein vegan diet will make it hard for her daughter to get pregnant. She has read that protein is important, and she knows that animal products are the most readily available source of that protein. True or not, Phyllis believes Pascal might harm her daughter. She also fears that Pascal's definition of self as an animal savior will crimp her daughter's ability to participate in her beloved family meals and, thus, that Pascal will alienate her daughter from her nuclear family. She conflates these concerns with the immediate issue of how to satisfy her other children's cravings for her home cooking with her desire to incorporate her vegan son-in-law into family gatherings.

Phyllis has options that she may not realize. Phyllis could and should learn more about vegetarian and vegan diets. In this way, she can show Pascal that she respects his ideas on animal rights and diet enough to learn about them. Perhaps he will return that honor in kind by joining the family. At any rate, she will be modeling behavior that demonstrates that differences can be an impetus for new knowledge. She can suggest that Pascal prepare the meal for the whole family. However, because she likes to cook, this will likely feel like a real sacrifice, and she would need to be willing to make it. Or she could invite him to cook a vegan meal for the family with her. In this way, she would build a relationship based on their shared interest in food. The family might have to sacrifice their favorite dishes, and Phyllis would have to be willing to share her kitchen. Everyone would get the proverbial part of the pie. Or she could suggest that Pascal join the family after dinner. Again, she would have to be willing to forego her dream of having all her children and their spouses gathered at the table for a whole meal. She would, however, avert her children's disappointment in not having their favorite foods. She might even be averting a crisis between her daughter and the siblings.

Right now Pascal has rigid boundaries. His whole self-concept is tied to being sensitive to animals. It may not be so forever. He may continue his passion for animals and vegan eating but also become a father. Then, the extended family may take on a more important place in his thinking. He may incorporate many definitions of self into his persona, as many of us do. He may learn many new tools to encourage others to become vegans. He may be forced to eat with nonvegans at his next job and thus become more flexible. As a result, he may decide to bring his own food with him and eat beforehand or at another table, but in the same room as the family. As Pascal becomes more confident that his mother-in-law is not trying to convert him into a meat eater, he may be more comfortable sitting at her table.

Phyllis could decide that while her own story is bound up in the importance of family gatherings, the exact type of food is less important than the being together. As Phyllis and Pascal begin to share their stories, they may be able to build a new chapter that will link them and the family. As we invite others into our worldviews, we strengthen the possibilities for fruitful interactions.


Excerpted from Don't Roll Your Eyes by Ruth Nemzoff. Copyright © 2012 Ruth Nemzoff. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ruth Nemzoff is the author of Don't Bite Your Tongue, and a popular speaker on the topic of parenting adult children and family dynamics, including at the AARP. Ruth was profiled or interviewed for many national and local papers and radio and television, including The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Jewish Advocate, and InterFaith Family. She is a resident scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center, and lives in Boston, MA.

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