By Hugh O'Neill
Illustrations by Tomer Hanuka
A few months have passed since the Christmas catch-up and your beloved’s feeling the familial pressure of the informal, (yet not) quarterly visit. For her and her kin, the trip will be full of the high spirits of reunion. But for you, the gaiety of going over the river and through the woods won’t mask the dread of – cue melodramatic da-da-dum! – spending time with the in-laws.
I’m not sure exactly where we went wrong with our wives’ relatives. I understand that the relationship is very deep psychological water. Maybe it’s the word “in-law” itself, which doesn’t exactly convey a sense of opportunity. But I am sure of this: we have set the bar way too low for our link with her family.
I just hate leaving any chips on the table. And in the pursuit of a new year and new beginnings, it seems worth resolving to understand our in-laws (and in-laws-to-be) better. Here’s how:1. RESIST THE CLICHÉ.
It ought to go without saying that Milton Berle isn’t a proper template for how a man should conduct himself. Yet the “annoying in-laws” cliché enshrined by Berle and his stand-up ilk in the Fifties is somehow still flourishing in our gender’s psyche.
Tell a male acquaintance you’re spending the holidays with your in-laws and you’ll get a sympathetic eye roll in reply. The word “in-laws” connotes conflict – more specifically, conflict with idiots who think you’re an idiot.
The eye-roller assumes that just because he’s learnt nothing from – and given even less to – his in-laws, you’re as lacking in culture as he is. Wrong. Your relationship doesn’t have to be a punch line.2. BE AN ANTHROPOLOGIST.
Think of her team as a tribe and of yourself as a student of a foreign culture. You aren’t put off by the oddness of their practises; on the contrary, you’re intrigued.
Every family, including the crew you come from, is inspired or enslaved by a unique set of customs, myths, memories (some false, some true), jokes, superstitions, nicknames, hatreds and affections. To figure out how bizarre your in-laws are is good sport – if you like shooting fish in a barrel. If you prefer to test yourself, try figuring out the source of their power; how they were steward to the woman who lured you into their web.3. NEVER USE THE TERM “ESTATE PLANNING”.
Make sure they don’t suspect you’ve been asking what happens to the beach house, you know . . . after. Other utterances to avoid: “no-fault state”, “monogamy is unnatural”, “living will”, “my cousin says I’ll make 40 grand in a week” and “we can always take out a second mortgage on the house”.4. DECIDE TO BE DEVOTED.
Why use your wit to distance yourself from their dysfunction, when, on your wedding day, it became your dysfunction? Embrace it. No, you don’t have to agree that Italians are, for some reason, the best people on the planet or that all conservatives should be kidnapped and reprogrammed to admire Bob Brown. Team-mates can agree to disagree. And make no mistake: you’re team-mates now.5. LAUGH AT THEIR JOKES.
No male belief is more inhibiting to relationships than our cowboy notion that real men always say what they mean and mean what they say and aren’t we just the most straight-up, deal-with-it gender you’ve ever seen? Yikes!
Building relationships requires insincerity. Particularly in the early in-law days, you have to do some sycophantic spadework, say things you don’t mean as a way of signalling respect, genuflecting to the more mature culture. Don’t worry: you won’t break into a million pieces if you laugh at their dumb family jokes.
Moreover, if you start acting as though you enjoy their humour and cherish their tales, you may actually start enjoying their humour and cherishing their tales. Often, acts of affiliation lead to feelings of affiliation.6. SUBDUE THE YELPING.
Once you leave uni, only the people in the hotel room next to you should ever hear your signature sex howl. Sure, you can have sex in your in-laws’ house. In fact, you have to. But as far as they know, you and their daughter are just good mates.
Take it from me: no lovely, supportive, 75-year-old couple from the Sunshine Coast should ever have to hear their little girl gasping and moaning like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.7. ASK ABOUT THEIR PEOPLE.
No, not “Did you ever consider the possibility that Uncle Dave might have been guilty?”, but more along the lines of “How did the banjo become the family instrument?” Key thought: you’re not sucking up because you’re weak and needy. You’re sucking up because you’re humble and strong, comfortable enough in your skin to exalt the stories of others.8. TAKE THEIR NAMES.
If the kids have your surname, give them first names from your wife’s side of the family. It’s only fair that bits of their culture should be carried down the line as well.
Already blown that? Pretend your son looks like his maternal grandma and pretend to be delighted by the resonance, even if your mother-in-law looks like Dame Edna. If people feel highly regarded, they’re more generous with their regard.9. STUDY MEDICINE.
As time goes by, your in-laws will spend more and more time waiting for the doctor to call them back. Eventually, usually a day later, they’ll get a message from his secretary saying the doctor won’t be back until Thursday.
Consider giving up bond trading, heading to uni and becoming a GP, complete with prescription-writing privileges and enough autonomy to have a loved one admitted to a first-rate hospital. This may not make you a great son-in-law, but it’ll make you a handy one. Short of that, be willing to drive to Canberra at 10 minutes’ notice.10. REMEMBER YOUR GENDER.
Don’t fall for the myth that marriage is gender-free. A good son-in-law doesn’t let his in-laws believe that their daughter ever does any of the following: clean the gutters, pick up the kids, mow the lawn, make the 10pm run for emergency pizza – or make any run for emergency contraception.
She’s perfectly capable of doing all of the above, but it doesn’t matter. Allow your in-laws the fantasy that your physical strength is actually an asset to their daughter, that your presence in her life offers her protection from some of the world’s dangers, including ladders, mower blades and being in parking lots after dark. You’re her husband. Handle that stuff. Or at least pretend to.11. BE THEIR DEFENCE LAWYER.
When she’s critical of her parents, don’t hop on her indictment bandwagon. She’ll shut down out of loyalty. Gently support them instead – even if you agree with her critique.
The fact that somebody in the room is watching out for their interests will set her free to let fly at dear old Mum and Dad. Now, be careful. Don’t mount a vigorous defence, one that disrespects her feelings – just a soft one in the time-honoured “oh-they-mean-well” tradition. She’ll realise that she’s lucky to have escaped those lunatics and hooked up with an understanding sweetheart like you.12. REMEMBER YOUR SPINE.
Amid all this deference and consideration, don’t neglect to have a backbone – especially if your father-in-law is one of those bullies who always knows what’s best for everybody or if your mother-in-law is a master manipulator.
It’s important, now and then, to stand up for the hegemony of you and your wife. Nobody respects a pushover. Down not so deep, they’ll be reassured that the man with whom Princess is allied, actually has some gumption. Feel free to explain your objection if they’re respectful, but don’t feel compelled to if they’re not. If pressed for an explanation, the polite answer is the vague, but final, you’re “just not comfortable doing [fill in the blank]”.13. TELL YOUR STORY.
Make sure they know something about your family as well. After all, you have your own legends, myths and superstitions. The long-term goal is to cull the most enriching parts of each legend and move ahead with a hybrid tale.14. NEVER LET YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW SEE YOU LYING DOWN.
My father was not a big one for advice, but he did offer this nugget shortly before I got married. All right-minded men are workers, you see. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing – cleaning the gutters, shining the wife’s shoes – as long as something productive is being done.
For the first decade of my marriage, I don’t think my in-laws ever saw me horizontal. This wasn’t because I was always cleaning their chimney, but because whenever I’d hear them coming, I’d quickly jump up and act busy, often sweeping past them, car keys a-jangle, as though headed to the hardware store for caulking compound.
Granted, I eventually grew tired of the charade and for the past couple of years,I’m not sure if my in-laws have ever seen me standing up. But, as usual, my father knew what he was talking about. The best a man can do as a son-in-law is give good value: have enthusiasm for the thousand tasks that the yard and the car and the kids require.
But there is another, deeper kind of diligence to which the ambitious son-in-law might aspire: the determination to stay tuned into the woman he loves. Sure, the punch-list stuff is easier. Even if we can’t rewire the house, we can find someone who can. Our challenge is to keep working when there are no directions; when the way forward is unclear.
Sometimes, when emotions fray or dread looms or a couple lose track of each other, we retreat into silence or anger. But that’s when it’s most important to summon our attention, our patience, our energy and to dig in.
The greats don’t lose focus. They’re tough, but tender, soft enough to fully love a woman and trust her with their uncertainty. That’s what I want for my daughter and, if it’s not too late, for my wife: a man who’s courageous even when he’s confused, who stays focused on the ball, even when he’s running back into the pack.But never let your father-in-law see you lying down. Really, that’s all you need to remember.