When you decide to spend your life with someone, the commitment goes beyond just that one other person. What is yours becomes theirs and what is theirs becomes yours. No facet of life goes unshared. You take on your partner’s joys, afflictions, habits, perspectives, responsibilities, and even their people — for better or for worse.
The web of your partners’ family will become inextricably woven into your life. Much like the family you were born into, you won’t have a choice as to who they are. As long as they are important to your partner, they are important to you. As long as they are an actively involved in your partner’s life, they will be actively involved in yours.
We’ve all heard the horror stories of “monster in-laws” and meddlers, whose attempts to control or sabotage their adult child’s relationship extend far beyond the wedding day. For many people, these are more than stories. They’re a cold reality.
Less frequently, we hear about the kind of in-law bonds that begin as water and thicken to imitate blood.
What are these bonds like?
They involve the kind of people who make their adult child’s partner feel comfortable right away. They involve the kind of people who do not hold their future daughter/son in-law to superficial standards (“Well, he’s not the doctor I had in mind for you…”) because the kind of in-laws you need are the kind that recognize a happy and healthy relationship as sufficient.
The ideal in-laws realize that their child may not wind up with someone of the same race, religion, or even of the opposite sex. They understand that even more important than skin color, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation are the ability to provide for one another, capacity to support each other, and readiness to tackle life as one half of a team.
If you’re fortunate, you will feel at home with your significant others’ family. You’ll hang out with them alone and you won’t feel awkward. In fact, you’ll use that time to get to know them better and perhaps even bond over their child’s annoying habits. You will need people who understand how maddening it is to live with someone who constantly leaves dirty dishes in the sink, or who responds to criticism defensively. You’ll need people who can share a knowing look with you from across the room when your partner, overworked and stressed, slams their phone onto the table with a string of curses. Later, they’ll give you some tips for dealing with it (“We’ve found that it’s best to just stay out of her way when she’s in that kind of mood”). When the inevitable arguments arise in your relationship, they’ll do their best to stay out of it and remain neutral. However, they’ll offer constructive input and mediation asked (or when necessary).
Consider yourself lucky if your partners’ parents share their lives with you and let you share yours with them. They’ll invite you over for dinner and cook their best recipes. They’ll proudly introduce you to their friends. They’ll whip out a box of your fiancés grade school art projects and photo albums so you can understand a piece of their history. (And so you can have a good laugh together!) They’ll let you stay at their house and there will come a point where they’ll stop shielding you from things like family arguments or the way they look first thing in the morning. When the time comes, they’ll have your parents over for dinner despite their nerves about making a first impression.
Treasure the kind of people who will treat you as if you are their own son or daughter. They will cheer your successes and be there to comfort you in your time of need. They won’t expect you to be perfect, but will love you regardless — even if only for the fact that their child loves you. They will recognize the ways in which you enrich their lives, and won’t be afraid to tell others about it. Twenty years later, they’ll still be talking about that garden you planted for them or how nice it was of you to take them to their doctor’s appointment before surgery. Their eyes will beam with love as they tell their grandchildren about your dating years — like the time you roared into the neighborhood to pick up their daughter on a motorcycle, and wound up taking you for a spin on it before they left. They will send birthday cards to your siblings’ kids and will never fail to ask how they’re doing, because they’ve welcomed your extended family as part of their own. They’ll look back and smile remembering how nervous they were to meet your parents when, just a few years later, they sit across the table playing cards with them before holiday dinners.
When you have in-laws like that, you begin to treat them as if they were your own parents, too. You don’t do this simply because it means a lot to your spouse — though that’s part of it. The other part is that they’ve welcomed you and supported you and changed your life in ways you will never quite be able to untangle.
You care for them as they age, not only as repayment for the ways they took care of you — though that’s part of it. The other part is that you’ve come to love them in the way that you love people you can’t remember not knowing, and genuinely want to be there to ease their pain.
When you decide to spend your life with someone, you decide to spend your life with their family, too. Like roots of trees that grow together after years in close proximity, they’ll become a part of you. Not only because they are legally bound to you — though that’s part of it.
The other part is the gift they choose to give you, the kind of gift so special you have to pass it on to someone else. So you do. You give by example. When it’s your turn to open the door and greet the person who will become a part of you by way of your own child, you will remember the gift you were given. “Come in,” you will say. “Welcome to our family.”