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.

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