What They Really Mean By 'You Marry Your In-Laws'

by Dina Algharabally
Originally Published: 
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Like most married couples, my husband and I have a lot in common. For one, we share the same values we want to pass on to our kids. At 38, we’re spiritual but not religious, outdoorsy but not thrill-seekers. We’re also both control freaks (but only I will admit it). We’re self-aware, care too much what others think, and are generally the by-the-book types. In many ways, we’re practically the same person.

So when we got married at the age of 30, with the wisdom and hindsight gained in our 20s, I figured the meshing of our individual lives would be relatively smooth. Now eight years and three kids in, I’ve come to realize that all we have in common doesn’t guarantee that one of us won’t stare at the other at 1 a.m. as if they’d just landed from Mars.

It’s taken me this long to understand the root of most of our differences. Although we come from the same ethnic culture, a factor some might say makes marriage easier, we grew up in very different family cultures—family culture being the habits, behaviors, and pet peeves a family share.

One of the earliest signs of these differences for me came when I noticed that while my in-laws keep most, if not all, opinions to themselves, my family is overly generous with theirs. Where I went to school, who I married, whether to be a stay-at-home mom, my choice of friends (did I mention I’m 38?) were all topics considered up for discussion. This, of course, I believed was normal. Even worse, I believed that it’s how you show love. How else would one know you loved them if you didn’t take their decision of whether to breastfeed personally? Silence meant indifference, and we are never indifferent.

My in-laws obviously aren’t indifferent to their children. They’re not monsters! They just generally exercise more self-control than my family and wait for their kids to solicit their advice—a concept that would probably confuse my parents. If their opinion wasn’t explicitly sought, my in-laws would listen, nod and move on with their day. You can imagine which one of us lays out a 6-part action plan for how our 6-year-old should deal with a classroom bully and which one offers little more than an “uh-huh.”

If self-care was a sport, my family would be drowning in Olympic gold. I can’t remember a time I laid down on my parent’s couch when my mother didn’t rush to cover me with a blanket. If I so much as sneezed, I was immediately waited on and catered to as “the ill one.” Soups, teas, snacks would flow in my direction for the duration of my illness. This continued into adulthood. When I developed chronic shoulder pain from carrying my kids, my sister suggested I get a professional massage at least once a week. She was not joking. Although warm and nurturing, this resulted in a very limited threshold for discomfort in our family.

On the other side of the spectrum come my in-laws. Massages, for instance, are viewed as almost unnatural. “What do you mean someone puts oil all over my near-naked body and rubs it?” At nearly 70, my mother-in-law will clean the house, buy groceries, cook, play piano, go for a long walk, do yoga and maybe also some knitting and then refer to that day as a lazy one. When she had a foot injury, she tried to heal it by “walking it off.” This may explain why after a weekend spent enjoying downtime with the kids, walking on the beach and watching some late-night shows together, my husband usually falls into a semi-depression Sunday nights for having just had an “unproductive” weekend. I, on the other hand, feel no such shame.

Because a sneeze rendered me ill as a child, I have no issues admitting weakness. If I have a headache, I take a Tylenol. When I offer the same to my husband, he takes offense to it. He is puzzled by the offer, as if his brain can’t make the connection between the statement “I have a headache” and my offer of Tylenol. They do not get sick. They walk it off. My mother-in-law, as I type this, is recovering from what was finally diagnosed by a doctor as pneumonia, which she has been self-treating with ginger and lemon teas for almost a year.

“I’m not sick,” she would say for months, “I just have a stubborn scratch in my throat.” Now that we have children of our own, I enforce a jackets-on policy all winter long while my husband seems perpetually oblivious to the seasons. When they’re sick, I set them up on the sofa with a blanket and their favorite show—the ultimate R&R formula—much like what my mother did with me. My husband gets home from work and convinces them a bike ride is what they need to fight the flu.

Along with being extremely productive people, my in-laws are also great at managing their finances. My family, on the other hand, is the if-there’s-money-in-the-bank-you-spend-it types. While the concept of “savings” did not enter my consciousness until years after I started working, my husband was able to make his first investment after graduating high school! He had been saving for years at that point. A few months ago, I was leaving for a trip and my mom was helping me shop when I explained that I needed a pair of shorts and didn’t have much time to find them. She then spent ten minutes trying to convince me to buy the beautiful coat she was holding “for the airplane.” I again explained that I was in a hurry and had absolutely no need for a new expensive coat, but that argument would just not register. She couldn’t make the connection between “I don’t need a new coat” and my refusing to buy one.

My in-laws may be great at managing their finances, but the same cannot be said of their possessions. I found their reluctance to part with any and all objects they’ve accrued over the years to be fascinating. My family, again, is the opposite. I’ve “lost” many an old pair of pants to Goodwill that my mother took upon herself to donate when I refused to give them up myself. The list of my involuntary donations has also included but was not limited to trinkets, art work, shoes, stuffed animals, and musical instruments. Meanwhile, my husband, who’s still holding onto sweaters from high school, finds it endearing that most of his 45-year-old brother’s toy cars are still around for our kids to play with. He was also amused by the bottle of witch hazel we recently came across which had expired in May of 1982!

The differences you bring to a marriage can be frightening. But they can also be hilarious, and that, to me, happens when they manifest themselves as pet peeves. Pet peeves are funny because they’re rarely rooted in logic and almost always elicit a reaction, which, of course, the person peeved is alone in thinking is warranted. They’re also interesting because you feel so strongly about them when they’re not genuinely your own. You likely internalized them from one or both parents early on in childhood. At least that’s the case for me and my husband. I was introduced to one of my husband’s pet peeves one day when he passionately reacted to our son simply resting his hand on a wall. Yes, it was a white wall, but I feel it necessary here to point out that his hand was squeaky clean. My son looked up at his dad in amazement, who then looked at me with back-me-up-on-this eyes. I was too busy wondering who I married to help him. A couple of years later, I was having a lovely chat with my otherwise quiet, almost angelic mother-in-law when she leapt across the room and let out a high-pitched anxious warning to my nephew, who as it turned out, was resting his hands on her white wall. And there it was–I found the source at last.

My family isn’t immune to inexplicable pet peeves. One that my husband finds especially amusing is that we have unofficial assigned seating. So, when we, along with our spouses gather at my parents’ house a once week, we all sit in the same spots we’ve been sitting in for years. But when my husband joined our family, he gave it little thought and sat in the closest vacant seat, a safe move considering the absence of name cards on the sofas! He happened to sit in my mother’s spot though and was met with an eerie silence and a serious lack of eye contact from the entire family. To this day, he occasionally sits in the wrong place just to throw us off.

Differences in a marriage can be scary, but they are a blessing. They’re a constant source of entertainment in what otherwise can be a monotonous life. They’re also a daily exercise in compromise and, at times, tolerance. I find the balance they bring to my family to be crucial, especially for our kids … because when they notice that their mom is fuming because someone parked in her spot while their dad calmly waits, whistling while looking out the window, they, I hope, will land somewhere in the middle.

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