by Sharon Simpson
“What is the difference between an in-law and an outlaw?” the elderly senior asked me. “I’m not sure. What is the difference?” “The outlaw is wanted.”
He melted into laughter at his joke. It was an unexpected answer and that caused me to laugh. As I left, I thought about it some more. The understanding of the joke is to understand that an in-law is not wanted.
There is a lot written on the in-law relationships. For example, up to 60 percent of women report stress in connection with their in-laws. This is compared to only 15 percent of men reporting this type of stress. Up until the 1920s, when couples began marrying for love, it was common that both husband and wife would remain closely connected with both of their parents. After the 1920s, the expectation shifted to the idea that the couple were going to form their own household and their in-laws would be a part of their life, but not an essential part of their marriage.
Shifting family experiences
With this shift came the reality that an in-law would shift the long-experienced family dynamic of the family into which they married. This caused stress for both the new family member and their new spouse.
Stress is also reported for the in-law parents. They are looking at a new and different future with their child. They are primarily concerned how a new member of the family will affect their connection with their own child.
Psychologists explain the awkward and unique relationship with in-laws because we don’t have any prior behavioural scripts or repeated experiences to fall back on or teach us how to behave toward each other.
There are in-law parents, in-law children and in-law siblings. All of these relationships take adjustment and begin with the unknown. Not all in-law relationships are easy or comfortable, but they can be deeply meaningful.
I got thinking about this all one day when I helped an elderly gentleman find a parking spot close to our main residential care entrance. He had recently had a hip replaced and wasn’t able to negotiate the tight space for his large truck. He was grateful for my help and I took the opportunity to find out a bit more about him. He told me that he was visiting his brother-in-law and that both of their spouses had passed away in the past five years. His brother-in-law was living in residential care and he came to the Care Home every other day to pay a visit.
I was surprised and told him that I commended his faithful visiting schedule. It was then that he let me in on a little secret. He said, “It’s not a commitment. It’s a friendship.” He said that they had been friends and in-laws for more than 70 years and “a little bit of dementia isn’t going to stop that.”
Up until this conversation, I hadn’t considered the depth of friendship that exists between in-laws who have done life side-by-side. They have lived through the good times, the hard times, the sickness and the health. They have been entrusted to care for their spouses’ needs by the parents and siblings who first loved that person.
Not long after this encounter, I toured an elderly couple through our assisted living apartments. The tour took place just prior to lunch and I invited them to join me for a complimentary lunch. It was then that they shared how they would love to sit with his brother-in-law for the lunch meal. I got his name and made the arrangements for a guest table to be set up.
As he approached his brother-in-law, a massive smile crossed the face of the assisted living resident. He recognized that his brother-in-law was there for a visit and a meal. It brought immediate joy.
I joined these two men for lunch. They were quite content to sit alongside each other and eat their meals. I was curious, however, about the relationship. I asked them when they first met. They shared how they worked together in construction as young adults, how one of them introduced the other to his sister, how they worked together to build each others’ first homes and how they were both missing their mutual loved one – a sister and a wife.
It was tender and it touched me deeply. In-laws walk life side by side. I am in my 50s and I had never thought about how important my siblings’ spouses are to me. I had never thought about how important my husband’s siblings and their spouses are to me. In fact, I’ll say that I’ve taken their friendship and input in my life for granted. I thought about meeting up with my sister-in-law as elderly women and reminiscing about our mutual love for my brother, her spouse.
I felt as though my eyes were being opened in a new way to the depth of friendship that is mine through the people that are in my circle through marriage.
Along with this, I’ve grown in the depth of love for my own son-in-law. When he came into our lives, he brought along so much goodness and made our daughter so very, very happy. They were young and I was anxious for how their lives would play out in those initial months and years. He is a good man and I’m grateful not only that he loves my daughter, but that he loves us as well. I’m blessed.
After seven years, I am so grateful to add another in-law into my clan – it was only a week ago that my son proposed to his wife-to-be – my next daughter-in-law. Again, I see a very, very happy child of mine embraced by a wonderful new addition to our immediate family. Until recently, I had not included in-laws in my thoughts about walking this journey of life together.
I know that not all in-law stories are filled with this kind of hope and optimism. There are in-laws who are inflexible, jealous, demanding, judging or abusive. I have witnessed the heartache in the lives of parents who are sideline observers while their children’s marriages come to an end.
Nonetheless, I am reminded that life opens up with in-laws. Our circle is larger and includes those we are born to walk alongside as well as those who are chosen through marriage. They are deep and meaningful friends. “A friend is always loyal and a brother is born for times of need.” Proverbs 17:17. In-laws can be loyal friends. I’ve seen it in action in these past few weeks. Precious friendship, deep loyalty. Siblings and in-laws walking life together even in the final months, days and moments. And so, today, I am grateful for the large circle of in-laws who grace my life. My parents-in-law, my sister-in-law’s, my brother-in-law’s, my son-in-law and my soon to be daughter-in-law.
Sharon Simpson is the Director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Place in Abbotsford.