Loving Your In-Laws

Before you resign yourself to a lifetime of awkward family dinners, consider that one of the first in-law stories on the books is that of Ruth and Naomi, the biblical mother- and daughter-in-law duo whose names have become synonymous with mutual love and loyalty. “Whither thou goest, I will go,” Ruth pledges to Naomi, “and where thou lodgest, I will lodge” (Ruth 1:16). For in-laws who have trouble being in the same room together, that kind of friendship is hard to believe. However, have a loving a respectful relationship with in-laws is not only possible—it’s important. Take a few tips from the masters: not just Ruth and Naomi, but also the five families LDS Living profiles here. They’re not perfect, of course, but they’re happy with each other

Don and Margie Jensen
Tillamook, Oregon, and their daughter-in-law, Colleen Jensen, 46, of Eugene, Oregon

How long they’ve been in-laws:
Colleen married John Jensen, Don and Margie’s youngest, twenty-three years ago.

Why their relationship works: Amazingly, it thrives on close contact. For most of Colleen and John’s married life, they shared ten acres of rural Oregon land with John’s parents, Don and Margie. “Our kids would get up in the morning and run over to Grandma’s for breakfast,” Colleen says. “For a while I was working full-time, so my mother-in-law did all the child care, got the kids off to school, and took them for orthodontics appointments.” Sure, it got a little hairy at times, concedes Margie, but clear rules and the follow-through to enforce them cut down on discipline disagreements.

“[Don and Margie] were typical grandparents in that the kids knew where the candy drawer was,” explains Colleen, “but they were like typical parents in that the kids also knew that if they didn’t deserve the candy, Grandma wasn’t going to let them have it.” The payoff for Margie and Don: tight relationships with John and Colleen’s eight children. This summer, after they moved to Utah to be near another son, their fifteen-year-old granddaughter spent two months with them, says Margie. “And the kids always write letters to Grandma and Grandpa Jensen.”

What they’ve learned from each other: It’s okay to have fun with your in-laws. An inveterate practical joker, Colleen had her father-in-law “arrested” by the local deputy sheriff to get him to a surprise retirement party she threw for him. She’s also a fan of spur-of-the-moment together time.

“Imagine it’s a half-hour before dinner and you’re right in front of an ice cream store with your mother-in-law¯or better yet, your father-in-law, because they always pay,” laughs Colleen. “Just say, ‘Let’s have an ice cream sundae and not tell anybody.’”

Her “J. Golden Kimball–like” ability not to mince words threw John’s big family for a loop, says Colleen, who joined the Church just four months before her wedding to John. But Margie, also a convert, says they love their daughter-in-law’s openness. “I felt like I could be more honest with her because of her background and my background. She has her weaknesses, but so do we.”

Making it work for you: Two families on one piece of land meant plenty of face time for the Jensens, and that created a closeness with Colleen that Don and Margie love. “Colleen is more like a daughter to us,” Margie says. “I can say what’s on my mind, and she can too.” But with a little effort, long-distance in-laws can develop their own bond. “Every daughter-in-law should have a way to communicate with her mother-in-law that’s hers alone,” says Colleen. “Every Sunday by a certain time, call, or, if you can afford to, send flowers once in a while. Grab a postcard¯a funny one, something that’s not flowery. Something that’s kind of off-the-wall to create a relationship of your own.”

Johnny and Kathy Breedlove
Snowflake, Arizona, and their son-in-law, Mark Pew, 42, of Lehi, Utah

How long they’ve been in-laws: Mark has been married to Tammy, Johnny and Kathy’s daughter, for twenty-one years.

Why their relationship works: “My grandmother treated her daughters-in-law and sons-in-law as her own children,” says Kathy. “That’s the way I treat my sons-in-law. They’re not my sons-in-law, they’re my sons.” So when Kathy phones her daughter Tammy, she makes sure she chats with Mark, too. But she doesn’t give any heavy-handed motherly advice, even if it means biting her tongue on occasion. “We’ve been involved in their lives without being interfering,” Kathy says. “I think that’s the secret.”

Although Johnny and Kathy are careful not to overstep bounds, they offer help judiciously: when the Pews moved into a new home, the Breedloves helped them finish their basement and build shelves in a newly enclosed carport. Mark says he’s more than happy to have his handyman father-in-law pitch in. “He’s very good at building and repairing, and I am absolutely not. We just bought a new refrigerator and we need to have the ice and water machine hooked up, and I’m waiting for him to come and help me do it.”

What they’ve learned from each other: Kindness counts. Several years ago, Mark and Johnny stopped at a gas station, but after Johnny went inside to pay, Mark says, “He didn’t come out, and he didn’t come out, and I got kind of worried.” Eventually, Mark realized what had happened; his father-in-law had struck up a conversation with a complete stranger, “and they were just talking away. I’ve learned that they really could care less what color a person is, or what their religious beliefs are. They value people with the mindset that they’re their eternal brother and sister.”

The Breedloves have their own reasons for admiring Mark, an elementary school principal and a PhD student at the University of Utah who’s also the father of eight children, including a twenty-year-old missionary and a toddler with Down’s syndrome. To Kathy and Johnny, their son-in-law is the epitome of patience. “When we start feeling that we have a lot to do, we look at Mark and think, “Gosh, we have nothing,” Kathy says.

Making it work for you: Every relationship has its ups and downs; the trick is making the effort to quickly recognize and smooth over trouble spots. “There was one time Mark got his feelings hurt, and we realized it. We just talked to him and let him know we loved him and we appreciated everything that he did.” Mark admits, “I have a tendency to quickly blow things out of proportion, but one reason I think my relationship with my in-laws is very positive is that it hasn’t been perfect. It’s kind of like a marriage: If you think you’re not going to have differences to work through, you have some big perspective changes coming your way.”

Willard and Anita Powell
Bogalusa, Louisiana, and their daughter-in-law, Conneen Powell, 36, of Lake Charles, Louisiana

How long they’ve been in-laws: Conneen’s been married to Willard and Anita’s son, Kevin, for sixteen years.

Why their in-law relationship works: It almost didn’t, Anita admits. Kevin, the second of the Powells’ six children, was just eighteen when he married twenty-one-year-old Conneen, and the couple’s young age, combined with some other difficulties, got things off to a fairly rocky start. “I was very nervous when they got married,” Anita says. What changed her mind? Recognizing how fervently Conneen loved her son. “He is just everything to her. She always says that everything that she is, is because of him. They both feel that way.”

Whatever Anita’s original misgivings, they didn’t affect how she treated her daughter-in-law. “Willard and Anita are the most nonjudgmental and flexible people I have ever known,” says Conneen. “Because they are nonjudgmental, I have learned to be more open-minded and compassionate.” Anita and her husband, Willard, also admire Kevin and Conneen’s ideals. “They always had perspective. They always knew if they got their education, how much better life would be for them and their children.” In fact, Conneen finished her PhD when her three daughters were small; now she’s a psychologist with the Lake Charles school system. “She’s an amazing person to me,” Anita says.

What they’ve learned from each other: Good parenting comes in all packages. “I consider myself a good parent, but they just parent differently,” says Anita. For instance, Kevin and Conneen never spanked their three daughters, now teenagers, and they don’t have a TV in the house. Anita says, “They have ways of disciplining that have been amazingly good for the girls. Because they’ve been sheltered a lot, they’re such innocent, sweet girls.”

Conneen says that Anita’s parenting style¯authoritative without being authoritarian, leading by example, not word¯is one she admires. But refusing to categorize differences as better or worse can help smooth over rough patches. “Accept that your in-laws aren’t your parents. As a result, they’re not likely to abide by the same rules your folks did.”

Making it work for you: Set guidelines about financial aid¯but be flexible. “It’s kind of a rule in our family that if you get married, you’re on your own,” says Anita. “If you’re in school we’ll help you, but if you’re old enough to get married, you just get a job and do the best you can. But we never let any of them go hungry.”

In fact, sometimes big-ticket help has been in order. When Kevin was in school, his parents gave the couple a reliable car to replace the lemon they were driving. “I don't know if they gave us the car because they felt sorry for us or for themselves,” Conneen laughs. “I can't tell you how many times Willard had to go rescue my husband on the interstate because our car had broken down again.” Grateful at the time, Kevin and Conneen are now in a position to return the generosity. “Conneen loves giving gifts,” Anita says. “For Mother’s Day she gave me pearls. She said, ‘Now, this is from Kevin,’ but I know she picked them out.”

Curt and Marti Sidles
Fullerton, California, and their son-in-law, Jason Bradshaw, 26, of Provo, Utah

How long they’ve been in-laws: Jason married Curt and Marti’s daughter Jessica three years ago.

Why their relationship works: Curt and Marti had a history of being hard on Jessica’s boyfriends, which made Jason feel like he had to raise the bar a little. “But if they did feel [critical of] me they never let on about it,” he says. “They are a tight-knit family, and they are protective of each other, so I was pleased that they were welcoming of me.” They were open to him, Curt says, because they were happy to meet a guy who treated their smart, outspoken older daughter as an equal partner.

“I like the way Jason deals with Jessica,” Curt says. “They show respect and concern for each other’s opinions, likes, and dislikes.” Jason’s also learned to be mellow about differences, like the fact that instead of his family’s traditional Christmas meal of ham and potatoes, Curt and Marti’s holiday table is strictly Italian. “The first year I thought, ‘Manicotti¯what is this?’ It weirded me out a little. But now I enjoy it.”

What they’ve learned from each other: Jason, who’s wrapping up his degree at BYU and starting a hectic new job with a Big Four accounting firm, takes his cues about work-life balance from his father-in-law. “Every opportunity he has, he’s doing something with his family. Of course, you have to earn a living. The trick is learning how to manage your time and prioritize things so that you’re able to spend time with your family, which I think Curt does very well.”

Curt has no doubts about Jason’s ability to succeed at his new juggling act. He admires Jason’s “patience to endure difficulties, and persistence and drive to seek and obtain goals. [He has a] positive way of dealing with issues. While other people may quietly accept setbacks, he stands up for what is right, and he finds ways to obtain a good outcome from a bad situation.”

Making it work for you: The key, says Curt, is recognizing “that a daughter’s selection of her mate is about her, not about me.” That means simply accepting his son-in-law as someone his daughter loves, focusing on his likeable traits, and welcoming him wholeheartedly into the family. “Rejoice in their accomplishments,” he counsels¯whether that’s an aced test, a career change, a raise, or a new baby (Jason and Jessica had their first child, Tyler, in September).

While you shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations, be glad when you’re treated as a member of their family. Says Jason, “I call them Mom and Dad, which I think says a lot about the kind of relationship we have.”

Tom and Connie Schroath
St. George, Utah, and their daughter-in-law, Angela Schroath, 40, of Boise, Idaho

How long they’ve been in-laws: Angela’s been married to Tom and Connie’s son, Len, for twenty years.

Why their relationship works: “When my husband and I got married, my in-laws still had six children living at home,” says Angela, whose husband is the second oldest of nine. “My mother-in-law was the stake Relief Society president and my father in-law was in the stake presidency, yet they always made time for us. In fact, we had dinner at their home every Sunday, no matter how busy they were.” Being so busy is exactly why they kept to a weekly dinner schedule with their grown children, says Connie¯“to have a regular time we could spend with them.”

Another plus: Angela’s parents live in the same town as her husband’s, which makes planning holidays and vacations a breeze. “Both my parents and Len’s parents are very easy-going,” says Angela. “One time Len and I went to Las Vegas for a couple of days and both our parents took one day each to watch the kids. We're so spoiled.” Though she and her husband try to divvy up vacation time evenly, their in-laws aren’t too concerned. “When they come down here I take them anytime I can get them,” says Connie pragmatically.

What they’ve learned from each other: With thirty-three bright, active grandchildren on the loose, Tom and Connie never cease to be impressed by how well their adult children¯and their spouses¯corral that energy. “I don’t think I had that much patience with my children,” says Connie. “Despite me they grew up okay. But I’ve learned a lot just watching how they very gently pull their kids on their laps and talk with them as a method of disciplining.”

For her part, Angela’s benefited from the patient instruction of her mother-in-law. “When we were living in the same ward, they needed a new organist, so they called me and gave me three months to learn,” she says. “She patiently and lovingly taught me to play.”

Making it work for you: Learning to love your in-laws doesn’t have to be an us versus them equation. “My in-laws were a big factor in deciding whether or not to marry my husband,” says Angela. “I have an awesome husband¯because he was raised by awesome parents.” Coming from a similar family background made her transition into the Schroath family more comfortable, says Angela, and it didn’t hurt that Len’s sisters, close to her age, offered instant friendship.

But whether or not the new in-law is a perfect fit, Connie counsels unconditional acceptance. “Obviously there must be something good in that person if your child has chosen to be with her. Even if you can’t see it, give her the benefit of the doubt and learn to love her good qualities.” According to Connie, her daughter-in-law walks on water most of the time. But, she adds, “We just accepted her because she was married to our son.”
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