We hope your in-laws-to-be are warm, welcoming, supportive, and delightful to be with. We sincerely do. But even if you're marrying into the perfect family, it'll be a lot easier for you admit this one simple fact: Your in-laws are strangers. Even if you've dated their son for years and therefore known them for years. Even if they are truly great folks. Here's why: with your family members, you know, for example, exactly what message your Mom's sending you with her sidelong, critical glance. You know exactly what your Dad means with his hesitant, "Um, yes, inviting the entire wedding to the rehearsal dinner too is a great idea, honey." You know you'll be heading back to the racks when your sister says, "Seriously?" to your choice of bridesmaid dress.
Because these are your peeps. You grew up with them. In your bones, you know their likes and dislikes. You know when they're joking or serious. You know what's most important and what's frivolous. And you know where the potential minefields lie — where the wounds and difficult things lie in your family history. You just know them, their likes, dislikes and vulnerabilities, because they were all in the air you breathed your whole life.
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With your in-laws, you're flying blind in these deeper departments. Yes, they're lovely, warm, and friendly. (Lucky you!) But as you become the newest limb on their family tree, it will help you to remember how little you actually know about the deeper emotional family history. About why your father-in-law, who's rich as King Midas, nickles-and-dimes you and your fiancé about everything . About why your MIL rabidly tries to control the seating chart. (What strained family relationships do you not understand yet?) About how your sister-in-law's actually just pulling your leg with her "Seriously?" about the bridesmaid dress. Yes, over the course of a lifetime together, you will learn more about their family history and subtle dynamics. But right now, you're a complete beginner. As you should be.
How to deal with all this not knowing you find yourself in the middle of? Be a cultural anthropologist. Go into their family gatherings with an attitude of observation, of curiosity, of information-gathering. Park all assumptions of what's actually going on at the door. Most importantly, let your fiancé be your guide. He knows his family. He knows exactly the message his Mom's sending with her sidelong, critical glances. He knows the back story, the hurts, and where the mines lie. So let him be your translator in this strange new world of your in-laws.
Allison Moir-Smith, MA, is a bridal counselor, creator of How Brides-To-Be REALLY Feel videos, and author of Emotionally Engaged: A Bride's Guide to Surviving the "Happiest" Time of Her Life.