When I asked for topics for a new piece on marriage, "handling in-laws" topped the list. This suggests the universal nature of this struggle with new relatives. But it doesn't have to be so.
Starting with the parents themselves, it's helpful to determine if there are any rules for being an in-law. There seems to be very few books and teachings. So we asked a local rabbi (and experienced father-in-law) about the role of in-laws. His words were clear and succinct. The in-laws should provide financial support and keep their mouths shut.
Simple advice, but hard to accept -- and act on.
While providing financial support can certainly be a challenge for some, the second part of the advice is what trips most of us up. Particularly when the parents are following the first part! It's very hard to give with no strings attached. It's very hard to give with no expectations. It's very hard to give with no advice. It's very hard to sit back and let your newly married child make it on his/her own. But we must do it. (Unless they ask)
In a misguided effort to be involved in their lives, we can actually create a greater distance.
Not only can we do damage to the fledgling marriage, God forbid, but we can ruin our relationship with our own child by being too interfering. In a misguided effort to be involved in their lives, we can actually create a greater distance.
"Tell your wife to make that chicken dish for you like I said," complained Raphael's father. "Tell her to send photos. Why isn't she reaching out to us? What kind of girl did you marry?"
All Raphael's parents want is to be close to their new daughter-in-law. Their strategy will have the opposite effect. Not only are they pressuring him but in criticizing his new wife, they are putting their son in an untenable position.
He can side with his parents and put his marriage at serious risk. Or he can side with his wife and create a wedge with his parents. Who's happy now?
The Torah teaches us that a man leaves his parents' side and cleaves to his wife. This suggests that the marital relationship takes precedence; a man's primary responsibility is to his spouse. We don't want to force our children to choose. Either way we won't be happy with the outcome.
Not only do we not want to be critical of our new child, we want to avoid criticizing our natural offspring as well. It doesn't help the young couple if we are frequently pointing out our son's or daughter's flaws. Our job is to draw attention to their positive attributes. "Doesn't she look beautiful?" "Aren't those cookies she baked delicious?" "He is so kind and considerate." "That was so thoughtful of him to get you flowers for Shabbos."
Shalom Bayis, domestic harmony, mandates constantly praising one spouse in front of the other. Outside our own marriages, whose shalom bayis is more important to us than that of our children?
In general parents require a constant reminder that it is not about us. It is not about our needs, ambitions or goals. It's not even about our relationship with our children. It's about creating healthy, whole adults who can make responsible choices (with the Almighty's help of course). This holds true through infancy, childhood, adolescence (where it's really tested) and young adulthood. It's especially true when our children marry.
So we should give support and keep our mouths closed. Unless of course we have something nice to say.