Q. My in-laws are not friendly people to begin with, but there is no mistaking the fact that they did not give their blessing to our marriage. I had this fantasy that after we got married they would come around, but they haven't. What can I do if my in-laws don't accept me?
San Jose, California
A. The stress of trying to bond with in-laws who treat you like an outlaw can make family get-togethers painfully miserable. If you or your husband find it difficult to mesh with the in-laws, you need to ask yourself why. If, for example, you feel like an outsider around his family, ask yourself if there is something you're doing or saying that's holding them back. Then ask yourself what you can do to win them over. Would it help to have some one-on-one time with your husband's mom or dad? Are you doing something that might be perceived as threatening (e.g., breaking an unspoken family rule)? Are your aspirations not what they hoped for? If so, maybe it would help to talk openly and calmly with your in-laws about it. Of course, the trick is not to get defensive if you breach the subject. Work at understanding them rather than being understood by them.
If your best efforts to win them over seem to come up empty, it may be time for your husband to intervene and find out what's bothering your in-laws. If you go this route, however, your spouse must make his loyalty to you known to them. This helps prevent an emotional triangle from being formed. And you certainly don't want that. If your husband feels caught in the middle because he's trying to ride the fence, your marriage will weaken and your frustration will compound. Besides, presenting a united front shows them that you are really in love and that you make their child happy. They may then realize that if their child loves you, perhaps they should, too.
If you have made every effort to win your in-laws over, the issue has been put on the table and opened for discussion. And if your in-laws are still not embracing you, it is time to shift gears. At this point, you need to begin thinking with your partner about how to maintain your own sense of well-being within this relationship. That may require setting some boundaries. For example, you may need to set limits on how often you and your husband get together with the in-laws. While this may be difficult for your husband, he needs to realize that bonding with you may mean risking a more distant relationship with parents.
When you get married, your spouse's family becomes an extension of your own. And pleasing two sets of parents, as well as your mate, can prove difficult for a new bride or groom. The bottom line, however, is that you can only do so much to "make" somebody like you. After you have done your best and given it a little time, it becomes their problem, not yours.
We're Too Intense
Q. I know marriage is serious business, but sometimes we get so intense about our relationship that it almost takes the fun out of it. How can we lighten up and bring more humor into our marriage?
A. Whatever you and your spouse find funny, don't neglect it. Humor can serve as a healing balm to the tough times your marriage encounters. Humor helps us cope—not just with the trivial but even with the tragic. Psychoanalyst Martin Grotjahn, author of Beyond Laughter, notes that "to have a sense of humor is to have an understanding of human suffering." In Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning, he speaks of using humor to survive imprisonment during World War II. Frankl and another inmate would invent at least one amusing story daily to help them cope with their horrors. "If you can find humor in anything," according to Bill Cosby, "you can survive it." Researchers agree. Studies reveal that individuals who have a strong sense of humor are less likely to experience depression and other emotional struggles.
So strengthen your marital bond with a little humor. Look for incongruities that both of you can laugh at. You might also want to relieve a little tension with humor. Sigmund Freud, who described humor as a "rare and precious gift," postulated the tension relief theory. He saw humor as an opportunity to release stress built up in our overly rational and demanding world. At one point during the Cuban missile crisis, Soviet and American negotiators became deadlocked. They sat in silence until one of the Russians told a joke: "What is the difference between capitalism and communism?" The answer? "In capitalism, people exploit people. In communism, it's the other way around." Humor relieves stress. So even when the two of you are uptight, look for some levity.
Recalling times when you laughed together is also a way of bringing more humor to the present. An embarrassing moment or a line from a movie or sitcom that struck you funny can be told again and again. Not long ago, we were stressed out and under pressure to get our home clean for guests. In the midst of the tension, Leslie repeated a line that an exasperated apartment manager said to us long ago in our very first apartment. The statement would mean nothing to anyone else, but it makes us laugh. Recalling times like this can go a long way in bringing levity back to your marriage.
"A person without a sense of humor," according to the American minister Henry Ward Beecher, "is like a wagon without springs—jolted by every pebble in the road." By finding the humor in your partnering predicaments you will make marriage a much smoother ride.
My Husband's Barely Present
Q.I felt close to my husband on our honeymoon, but in the last year he has grown distant. He comes home exhausted from work, and in most of our conversations he is barely present. Why is this happening and what can I do to regain the closeness?
A. Every couple begins their marriage "in love." While they never set out to allow that love to fade, it often does—at least that "loving feeling" fades. The couple may maintain a strong sense of commitment and even enjoy passionate relations, but their connectedness, their soul-mate quality, can easily slip into the background.
One of the most common reasons couples lose their intimacy is because they are running on a personal deficit. It's hard to be intimate, giving, and loving when you are busy, frazzled, and pressured. That's why each of you should spend some time on activities that restore your soul and your body. By giving yourselves some attention first (whether it be rest, exercise, reading, etc.), you store up energy you can use in your relationship.
When a couple experiences a crisis (loss of a job, financial debt, physical illness, loss of a loved one, etc.), it generally has one of two results. It either brings husband and wife closer together or drives farther apart. Couples who face a crisis together, as a team, pool their resources and emerge from their crises stronger and more intimate. Those who allow a crisis to fracture their unity naturally lose their sense of intimacy.
Another reason some couples lose that loving feeling is that they become bored. They get stuck in a rut: Five days of working, coming home, eating the same foods in the same atmosphere, waiting for the weekend that ends up being just like the others. After a while, the comfort that such a routine pattern provides begins to lose its luster and the couple's intimacy does, too. Some couples are so entrenched in their day-in, day-out lives that they ever so gently ease into a dull marriage without intimacy and wake up one morning wondering what happened.
A final reason some couples lose their sense of intimacy sounds so obvious that it is embarrassing to mention: they don't work at it. This reason, however, is worth mentioning because so many couples simply expect intimacy to be a part of their married life. They expect intimacy to be automatic because they are husband and wife. But it doesn't work that way. Intimacy is something that needs to be cultivated, nurtured, and grown. Intimacy, like anything else worth having, requires work. When couples neglect this simple fact, their intimacy plummets.
So if you and your husband are going to regain the closeness you once had (and we definitely believe you can), you are going to need to rejuvenate your own spirits, get out of your rut by trying new things together, and face up to the fact that intimacy requires work. You won't always have a ten out of ten on the intimacy scale. It's not meant to be at full throttle all of the time. But you can maintain a higher level of intimacy than you currently have in your marriage if you accept the fact that it doesn't happen naturally.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates, and Relationships (all published by Zondervan). Visit Les and Leslie at www.RealRelationships.com.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.