For those of you who studied philosophy, you may be wondering how German philosopher Martin Buber could possibly relate to in-laws, and for those of you didn’t, stick with me.  It’s more interesting than you might think. But first I want to tell you three little stories. The names are changed but the stories are real.

Story One.  My friend Barbara revealed during a recent conversation that she prefers to keep her son-in-law emotionally at arm’s length.

“While I love my son-in-law, I never want to put my daughter in a position where she feels she could not leave her husband because of my husband’s and my attachment to him. I wouldn’t want her to feel that she is breaking up the entire family, ” she said.

Story Two.  My friend Jeff told me that he wanted to speak to his daughter about his son and his daughter’s brother, Jared.  Jeff is worried  because Jared is becoming attached to a religious sect that he (Jeff) doesn’t approve of. When I suggested that his daughter’s husband might have some insight into the situation, he responded that he was not comfortable with his son-in-law,  the situation did not involve him and that this was “a family matter.”

Story Three.  My friend Marie told me that she and her husband don’t want to get too close to their daughter’s new partner. They loved her former husband and were very hurt when the young couple broke up.  They don’t want to go through the pain of loosing another son-in-law.

While all these positions are understandable, in each case, the daughter or son-in-law is not equally valued and loved as those born into the family. The implication is that they are not fully part of the family and as a result have second class status.

There is no doubt that children-in-law understand exactly their position in the family.  Most of us are very attuned to the pecking order at work and in the family. Knowing that they are less valued and less loved, children-in-law could hold themselves back emotionally, thus creating a widening gap with the parents-in-law that will inevitably lead to poor communication and hurt feelings. When this happens the children-in-law could believe that their parents-in-law value them only for how they further the happiness of their child or contribute to overall family goals, such as a family business or social events or fathering a child or having a baby.  They learn to keep quiet about their own wishes, desires and dreams.

Not too many of us want to spend time with people who we think see us only as a means to an end.

When I was in my twenties, I read a small book called “I and Thou ” by Martin Buber.  I have never forgotten what he wrote. In a nutshell, he said we have two ways of relating to everything in the world, objects, animals and people: we have either an I – It relationship or an I – Thou Relationship.  If we have an I – It relationship, we treat individuals as a means to an end,  and in an I – Thou relationship we treat individuals as an end in themselves.

Probably all of us have felt involved in an I – It relationship, maybe as a child whose parents wanted us to be the person they could brag about, employers who saw us only as a cog in the wheel, or friends who were interested in us only when we could meet their needs. Sadly, we all probably have been involved in a relationship when we treated the other person as an “It”.

Buber claims that modern society leaves us unfulfilled and alienated because it values only one of our modes for engaging in the world, that is, the I – It relationship.  To be truly human, we must use the I – Thou mode, which he calls an authentic encounter. When we enter into a relationship with someone, both the I and the Thou are transformed by the relation between them and the result of this is love. Buber claims that we cannot sustain an I – Thou relationship without the help of God.  I am not so sure about that, but I think what he says about authentic encounters is very important.

And authentic encounters is what I want to have with my sons-in-law.  I want them to know that I see them in their entirety and I care about their wishes and hopes and dreams. They are more than just my daughters’ husbands, they are important in and of themselves and first class members of our family.

So I would tell my friends, that even though as parents-in-law, we might be hurt by and fear the possible loss of a daughter-in-law or son-in-law, or we feel more comfortable with our own children, or we want to make things as easy as possible for our own children in the event of a breakup, that we need at least to try to love our children-in law and hold them as close as those who have been part of our family forever.

If we can love them, they might love us back and we will be richer for the experience.

To read more about relationships with children-in-law, read the Elizabeth Bernstein article in the Wall Street Journal or the blog post by Lin Burress on How to be a Good Mother-in-law.

What advice have you got for being a good parent-in-law? What has your experience been with your children-in-law?  I would love to hear from you. so please don’t hesitate to respond in the Reply Box below.  

Lessons Learned, Theories and Research
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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Hi Trish, When I read your lead I immediately thought – – yikes – – maybe I’ve been using my son-in-law as a means to an end – – he is big and strong and lifts stuff so easily, and he is skilled at so many things, . . . and keeps offering. I did help him with a couple of projects and made sure Christmas gifts etc were awesome so I like to think that he thinks the relationship is balanced.
    I like to think my wife and I love him like a son – – he and his brother seem to love coming here for dinner, and perhaps stay for a movie. I see that as a good thing. I guess time will tell.



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