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You may have been there before: There’s a family gathering and your parents, along with your in-laws, arrive. They shake hands, exchange greetings and promptly retreat to separate corners of your home. Throughout the day, they barely make small talk with one another, even when you’re around them. Cue awkward silence. What do you do?
Take Turns with Each Party
Be proactive in making your parents and in-laws feel comfortable. Upon their arrival, make sure you entertain your parents first. Get your husband to do the same with his mum and dad. When each side has warmed up, switch roles – now it’s your turn to put your in-laws at ease while your spouse works on your parents.
It’s important that, as a couple, “you work as a team to make each of your parents feel welcome”, says Vijoo George, a counsellor from Reach Counselling, which specialises in marital and family work.
Breaking the Ice
It’s unlikely that communication will happen by chance between the in-laws. You and your husband need to bridge this gap. So be prepared to start conversation topics in order to get them to interact.
“Stick to neutral topics such as the weather, sports, food or the traffic situation,” advises Vijoo. If both sets of parents don’t speak the same language, then you or your husband must be their translator, to keep them in the loop.
You also need to anticipate unforeseen situations, like filling any silence mid-conversation. Keep the comments general – maybe bring up your father’s favourite football team or something your in-laws recently bought. “You and your partner need to think on your feet. It’s important to keep the atmosphere light and easygoing,” adds Vijoo.\
Let’s say both sets of parents rarely meet. Then it’s your duty to educate your parents about your spouse’s personality and his family background and history, prior to any get-togethers. This is to prevent misunderstandings or verbal faux pas that may happen during the rare occasions that they do interact.
“Things can get out hand and the chances of conflict arising between you, your husband and your in-laws will be high if there is a misunderstanding. So it’s important that you and your husband are clear about what your boundaries are, and set boundaries for each set of parents as well.”
Find Common Ground
Include your parents and in-laws in other activities like picnics, zoo visits or even short trips, to give them more time to get to know one another. Being in a relaxed environment may put them in a friendlier mood. Esther Ng, psychotherapist from My Space Pscyhotherapy Services, shares her experience: “My mother and parents-in-law didn’t know each other before they met for my marriage preparation. There were common topics to discuss when I gave birth, followed by the usual well-wishes in their own dialect. But they really got to know each other better when they took short trips together – they now have a lot more to talk about.
“In fact, now that my mum is getting on in age, my mum-in- law helps take care of her when they go on trips. Positive relationships can be nurtured and strengthened when they are built on sincerity, respect and understanding. It takes time, though.”
Know When to Give Up
As much as you want your parents and in-laws to gel with one another, don’t try too hard to make them connect on the same level if they repeatedly can’t, points out Vijoo.
“Each family has a different culture and mindset. Some in-laws may not have anything in common at all and can’t relate to one another, no matter how hard they try.
“For example, if your parents love fishing but your in-laws don’t, they won’t be planning a fishing trip together any time soon. And it’s not your responsibility to make this work. You must come to terms with the fact that both sets of parents are just too different, so don’t lose any sleep over this,” he adds.
This story was first published in Simply Her January 2014.