Q & A with… Dr. Dale V. Atkins

BRIDGEPORT – Roz Fishman and her friends have been learning another side to the in-law relationship. Once daughters-in-law themselves, the Fairfield Hadassah chapter members are becoming mothers-in-law, introducing a new family dynamic, with its own unique challenges.

Dr. Dale V. Adkins

In comparing experiences, the women realized that they had hit upon a salient topic. “Everyone was talking about being a mother-in-law and learning to negotiate those waters with younger people who may have grown up with a different set of perspectives and expectations,” Fishman says. “We decided that it would be interesting to have a trained expert help us explore the idea of how to do it well and keep family relationships strong. It’s a challenging role: I’m nice and my daughter-in-law’s nice, but it’s not so simple. You’re dealing with a son-in-law or daughter-in-law and their parents, and everybody comes with their own expectations.”
Fishman says that a straightforward act like emailing an interesting article may provoke a minefield. “My friends might find the piece beneficial, but my daughter-in-law might think, ‘What is she trying to tell me? What is it that I don’t understand or do right?’”
Fairfield Hadassah and Congregation B’nai Israel Sisterhood will co-sponsor licensed psychologist and relationship expert Dr. Dale V. Atkins on Tuesday, Mar. 15 at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport.
An author of several books, articles, and journals for popular and professional audiences, Atkins is a frequent guest on many national TV shows. A Greenwich resident, she has a private practice in New York City.
“Dr. Dale” spoke with the Ledger about the special challenges of the in-law relationship.

How did you develop an interest in this aspect of family life?
A: I’ve always been interested in familial relationships and I am particularly interested in what contributes to keeping families whole and what contributes to fracturing families.
Very often, when people are brought into a family in the in-law role, they are not welcome. There’s sometimes a rift or jealousy. It’s always fascinated me how far people will go to maintain the harmony in the family. Even though the in-law relationships may be fraught with problems, they want very much to keep the family together, and they overlook behavior and qualities in the in-laws that they would never do with those outside the family. That speaks to how much people want to keep their families whole.
I see many families, both in my practice and in my day-to-day life, where people would never be friends with those who become their in-laws. But their lives have changed because they have not only met these new family members, but they must live with and come to love people who are very different than themselves. As a result, they learn things about their children or siblings or parents that they never would have learned without these new in-laws.
It can be a whole new world to open up to people who are different, if you’re open to getting to know them and willing to embrace them. I think it’s really important to respect a son- or daughter-in-law, and try to get to know them and see through your child’s eyes who they are and why your child loves them, and what they bring out in your child.

Why have mothers-in-law been given such a bad rap in our culture?
A: There are so many jokes about mothers-in-law and they’re a very easy target. Many mothers-in-law think they know their own child better than the spouse and feel they should be heard on all topics. They need to try to understand that the new daughter-in-law needs to have a place in the family as well and needs to be able to be valued for her role in the family. But while the mother-in-law’s role is secure, the daughter-in-law’s is not yet.
How the son handles being in between these two important women in his life is really crucial. He wants to both satisfy his wife and not disappoint his mother.
What’s often hard for the mother-in-law, in practical terms, is to make the shift from being the primary woman in her son’s life to taking a backseat. She may have been his confidante, may have visited whenever she wanted, and some daughters-in-law don’t feel comfortable with that. After marriage, some sons may not want to speak with their mothers about the same topics that they did before they were married.

A lot of the discussion is around mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. What about the men?
A: Generally, it’s the women in the family who are expected to keep the familial connection really solid and to do the inviting and the entertaining.
It’s not always easy with sons-in-law. There are many families who feel that their daughters didn’t marry the kind of person they wanted them to marry. There are communication issues – the family may feel that the son-in-law talks too much or not enough – or personality qualities that they don’t like, or they may question whether the son-in-law is a suitable provider. These issues are usually dealt with through the biological child, and she has to feel that she has a dual loyalty.

How can we navigate this challenging relationship?
A: It’s highly individualized; it depends on personalities, history, the history the mother has with her child, sibling rivalry, and so many other factors. What’s often helpful is to be as respectful of the young woman coming into the family, and to try to see her through your son’s eyes, get to know her without being judgmental.
It’s very difficult for so many mothers-in-law to see the different styles, habits, and ways of doing things that daughters-in-law have, without being critical. These issues tend to become more acute around holidays, food preparation, housekeeping, and how the grandchildren are raised, because sometimes parents have access to their adult children moreso than the parents-in-law.
You really have to be very conscious and mindful of how your role has changed from mother to mother-in-law, and how the most important thing has to be your biological child’s relationship with their spouse.
There are a lot of things that can be challenging, even with wonderful in-law children. The relationship may be challenging to one in-law parent and not the other, which puts one in a potentially awkward situation, to be the mediator or peacemaker to calm the feathers of their spouse.
In our family, our daughters-in-law often ask me for information, but I don’t offer unless I’m asked.

Is there a good example of a successful in-law relationship in the Jewish tradition?
A: Perhaps the greatest model is Ruth, who told her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Whither thou goest, I will go.” This is a wonderful model for the in-law relationship. It shows that there can be fond, respectful, caring relationships between in-laws.

What are some rules of thumb for making the in-law relationship work?
A: Really open your heart and get to know the in-law, and be open and be welcoming.
Respect their privacy and be interested in who they are, without being intrusive.
Try to understand what it is that’s important to them and what their expectations are of you.
Don’t pit your biological child between you and their spouse – it’s a terrible thing to do to your child and is really unfair.
Understand that you don’t have to be right and there’s not one way to do something; being open and gracious are qualities that serve you well.
Everyone has certain expectations that they develop before they know the new in-law. I know a woman who’s been angry at her daughter-in-law for years for not writing a proper thank-you note for the engagement party the in-laws’ parents threw. You have to be able to not keep score, let go of things, and look for the wonderful qualities of this person that make your child happy.
It’s important to get to know your new in-laws and find out about them – their background, what’s important to them, their hobbies – and to do so without judgment, because this person will be in your life for a long time.
Dr. Dale Atkins will speak on “The In-Law Relationship” on Tuesday, Mar. 15, 7:30 p.m. at Congregation B’nai Israel, 2710 Park Ave., Bridgeport. For information call (203) 336-1858

A word about mothers and daughters…in law

Dr. Atkins offers a special message for mothers-in-law to help them build positive relationships with their daughters-in-law.

If you have a daughter in law with whom you want to have a good relationship, get to know her. See her through your child’s eyes and you will be much more likely to be moving in the right direction. Sometimes your relationship with your daughter-in-law may play right into your insecurities, and you are left with countless misunderstandings resulting in a thickness in the air that you can cut with a knife…afraid to say something for fear of saying the wrong thing; you don’t know what to do. The key is to be open and accepting and refrain from offering your opinion or advice unless asked, respect the couple’s privacy, and appreciate that you are not first in line for affection, secrets, etc. anymore.
Pay attention to your part in the drama. Look at you from her point of view. If you, as a mother, are used to being listened to all the time, running the show, never being challenged or confronted because you are used to making all of the decisions for your son, and he was fine with that, then you may perceive your daughter-in-law as a threat, or bossy, or too independent or controlling.
If you never had a daughter, be careful about jumping at the chance to do things together, assuming that your daughter-in-law wants to and is eager to have this relationship in the same way you do. Feel it out first. If you are going to help out, consult her. Be careful about forcing anything on your kids. They are now making their own life together…with their own taste and decisions.
You will need to “mourn” for the loss of your child as well as recognize the gain.  You are no longer the number one person your child turns to for advice or to whom they speak in confidence. Your daughter-in -law is now that person. You may love your daughter-in-law but still feel uncomfortable assuming second place.
You will alienate your child and also end up with an in-law child you don’t like if you let it be known that you don’t like your child’s partner. This makes for a strained relationship at best. If there is a split, your child will likely blame you and you might not have the access to see your grandchildren. It gets messy and it need not.
The most loving gift you can give your adult child is to fully welcome and accept his spouse into your heart as one of your own.

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