Q: Three of my children are married to spouses who were brought up in other religions. My expectation was that when my children married, their in-laws, and by that I mean the parents and siblings of their spouse, would be part of my family and share all our holidays and milestones.
Instead of becoming part of the fabric of each other’s lives I am finding that cultural and religious differences prevent this from happening. I have tried reaching out in many ways, including inviting them to all our life cycle events and to celebrate the holidays with us. They always refuse. I am about to give up even trying. I feel there is no reciprocity here. What should I do?
A: It is easy to blame family differences on intermarriage. The fact is, there is no prescription for the relationship between the two or many more sets of parental in-laws. It is always disappointing when our expectations are not met. But it is unrealistic to assume that any two families have the exact same needs for closeness.
Some in-laws expect to become family, like you do. Others assume the in-law relationship is one for the married couple and not their families. Religion may not be the most salient factor here. Even when all the in-laws are of the same religion, different families have different notions of familial obligation. Upbringing, geographical distance, expense, as well as personality affinities or lack thereof influence the closeness of in-laws.
Their reasons for not attending your events can be complex. For instance, life cycle events can be expensive for those attending. Travel expenses, even if it’s just gas, can add up. Invitees may feel obligated to purchase a gift, or feel required to buy appropriate clothing. Refusing the invitation can obviate these difficulties.
Moreover, all relationships are not reciprocal. Keeping a ledger on individuals does not facilitate closeness. We each have friends to whom we listen more than others, and friends who help us more than we help them. Giving what we have to offer and accepting whatever limited gifts others give solidifies bonds.
Trying to build a relationship on the most contentious issues, such as religious holidays, may not be the best strategy. Try inviting these in-laws to enjoy a day in nature, a musical event, or a non-specific get together. You may find that you do better when religious issues are taken out of the equation. Your gracious invitations to join your celebrations may feel like pressure to convert to them or may be offensive to their religious beliefs. For example, those who feel that a Christian baptism is necessary for salvation, would find a Brit Mila (Jewish ritual circumcision) lacking in the requisite rituals.
You could continue to reach out by acknowledging their holidays with a card, gift, email or phone call. It never hurts to be polite. It takes years to make strangers into family. The goal is to keep cordial relationships so that if you can support your mutual children and each other if the need should ever arise.
Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University
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