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Adding Insult To In-Laws

By Doni Joszef
Previously on “In-Laws” . . .
We began touching on a touchy topic: the in-law complex.
We discussed expectations, resentments, and defenses—three common ingredients that serve to stir the pot and ignite the sparks for familial friction. Once these wheels get rolling, the complex is soon in full swing. Car rides to family events are spent emotionally prepping for the inevitable insults, and car rides back are spent fussing and kvetching about that for which we inadequately prepared.
Here we pick up right where we left off.
If—and when—this complex is concretized, we soon find fuel for the fire in many familiar places.
Some of the usual suspects include . . .
Strings Attached. Parents and in-laws give what they can and ask nothing in return. Except that we figure out what they want in return without them having to express it (givers hate begging). Sometimes, though certainly not always, they generously give of their time or money (or both) on unspoken (but assumed to be understood) conditions. Your in-laws build you a gorgeous house (on the condition that your mother-in-law gets to decorate it to her liking, even if it’s to your spouse’s horror). Your father-in-law buys your kids brand-new bikes (on the condition that they remember and repeat out loud which Grandpa covered the cost, and which Grandpa they love most). Your parents watch the kids while you take an anniversary vacation (on the condition that you remember who really has your back as soon as you get back). They may love us unconditionally, but they bribe us conditionally. Not purposely, and not even consciously. But between the lines of the card, inscribed in invisible ink, is the phrase “Don’t forget where this came from.”
Ingrate. When parents and in-laws give conditionally, we tend to respond rather ungraciously. I’m a member of a particularly spoiled generation, and part of being spoiled is feeling entitled. I don’t like strings, and if you attach them to your gifts, I’ll probably use them as slingshots from which to reciprocate with insincere appreciation and a pathetically disingenuous “thanks.” I know I should be more grateful. I know I should be more cordial. But it’s hard to be appreciative when that very sense of appreciation is a conditional part of the deal. Especially when you’re as helplessly entitled as I am. We millennials are many things, but gracious is hardly one of them. That our in-laws need to learn this lesson the hard way is redeemed only by the fact that they now get to blame our parents (the “other side”) for raising us so poorly.
Border Control. Perhaps most common among in-law complications is the issue of boundaries—where they start, where they end, and who decides if, and where, to draw their lines. Parents and in-laws like to think of themselves as involved and needed and loved. It gives them a sense of purpose, a sense of fulfillment, a sense of parental pride. But there’s a fine line between involvement and enmeshment. When parents’ need for constant contact gets awkwardly intrusive, it can become suffocating. This may be a good time to inform them (gently) that puppies can be really cute and tend to remain loyally dependent on their caregivers. Please leave our house (but please leave your credit card; our boundaries end where our expenses begin).
The Guilt Game. “After all we’ve done for you . . .” These are the six words with which parents like to begin their most commonly ignored sentences. The guilt trip is an old trick, which Jewish moms (and sensitive dads) wield wildly. It’s a cheap shot. The guilt card is a manipulation technique that grandparents seem to master with age.
Why don’t you ever call?
Why don’t you ever visit?
Why don’t you ever invite us?
Um . . . because (insert lame, obviously fabricated excuse here).
Our Way Is Better. When two totally different families converge for the sake of holy matrimony, the merger is not always a smooth one. Each side likes to consider itself superior to the other. Instead of “us and them,” it becomes “us against them.” The values and lifestyles of each side soon find themselves under the moral microscope of the other. All of our genes may collaborate in the composition of shared progeny—but let’s not forget where the “good genes” came from!
• • •
These are some of the common confrontations and complications that invariably ensue as time takes its toll on the match made in heaven.
By the end of a family function, you may feel impelled to kick, scream, and kvetch about them, and they’ll probably feel impelled to do the same about you. Worry not: You have the entire car ride home to release what you’ve been restraining for hours.
What else are car rides for? v
Doni Joszef, winner of the 2014 Cedarhurst “Best in Mental Health” award, works in private practice with individuals, couples, and families. Trained as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, he is completing his Ph.D. in media psychology. Doni presents innovative workshops at schools and organizations on a variety of psychosocial topics. For more information, visit or e‑mail

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Posted by on September 11, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.