In-Lawfully Wedded Life

A wedding is about two families joining together—for better or for worse

As the wedding planning process has no doubt taught you, a wedding is about more than just the love of two people. It’s about two families joining together. It’s a beautiful thing, really—ancestral roots growing deeper as familial branches from two trees intertwine. Or it will be a beautiful thing, if you can ever get past the debacle of deciding how many of these people with whom you will share a metaphorical tree should be added to the guest list. And I’m willing to bet—just a guess here—that it’s not you and your future spouse who are in disagreement over whether to draw the line at first cousins. It’s the folks who are one branch up from you on the dear old family oak.

Planning a wedding can be a particularly concentrated introduction to what life with in-laws is going to be like, but it’s not an entirely inaccurate one. Navigating family traditions, uncovering hidden agendas, and fighting to carve out your own identity as a couple are recurring challenges that don’t end once you’ve walked down the aisle (of the nondenominational church you chose to placate your devoutly Catholic mother-in-law, who insisted that unless it’s in a church, it doesn’t count). Luckily for you, there are those of us who have already forged a path, Lewis-and-Clark-style, through this treacherous landscape, and we’re here to help you anticipate and prepare for the tricky terrain that lies ahead.

First things first: How is your poker face? Can you lie and smile at the same time? Excellent. As a child-in-law, that’s a skill that will prove invaluable during these first few years. You see, although you may not realize it, you are more than just a new member of the family; you’re a fresh set of ears. Old childhood stories that everyone else has tired of, corny jokes that everyone else stopped laughing at decades ago, wacked-out government-conspiracy stories that everyone else has long since learned to ignore—you’re a one-person captive audience for all of them. It can actually be sort of entertaining, for a while. But soon, you’ll have heard them all too. Many, many times. And unless someone else in the family gets married and ush- ers in a new audience member, you will forever remain the newbie who they assume has never heard the story about that time it snowed a lot really fast (if either set of in-laws is from the South, this is a story that warrants more retellings than you can possibly imagine). What’s worse, there is no way you can get away with snarking at them like their own children do. The best you can do is smile, nod, and keep an eye out for a sympathetic waitress.

Now, how’s your vision? Those Warby Parkers are adorable, but that’s not what I am talking about. What you need is the ability to see things that aren’t actually perceptible to the human eye. Let’s practice right now. Look for the implied expectations written between the lines of this birthday-card message: “Wishing you a wonderful end to a memorable year! Hope to spend more of the next one together.” Can you see it? You’ll also need to be able to spot imperceptible land mines buried underneath the sur- face of everyday conversation. “Which do you think is stronger, the ACC or the SEC?” “Don’t you think she’d look prettier without bangs?” “Can I get you something else to eat?” Some are duds. Others will ignite like a Roman candle on the Fourth of July. If think you’ve spotted one, the safest thing you can do is retreat from the area (“Let me think about that. I’ll be right back.”). If it’s too late to run and the fuse is already lit, just reach for the nearest hose (“Can you tell me that story about the day it snowed a whole lot really fast?”).

Speaking of the Fourth of July, we need to talk about holidays. Formerly known as occasions of glad tidings, joy, and general merriment, these red-letter dates on your calendar are about to become more contentious than a federal budget in a congressional election year. “We’re way ahead of you,” you say. “We’ve already decided we’ll switch off holidays every other year.” I know that seems like a logical solution, but there is nothing logical about the way anyone’s parents feel about the holidays. Even if you literally eat two Thanksgiving dinners, stuffing yourselves with each family for an equivalent amount of time, someone’s mother is still going to be irreparably wounded because you didn’t stay for a second slice of her world-famous pumpkin pie like you always used to.

Think that’s crazy? Try this: The first year my husband and I started trading off holidays, we spent Thanksgiving with his family, Christmas with mine, and New Year’s Eve back with his. We arrived at his parents’ house on December 29 to discover that his (aforementioned, devoutly Catholic) mother had put a hold on Christmas. They literally hadn’t opened a single present. Not even with his younger brother who lived in the same town. How do you prepare for that? Seriously, how? I’m five years in and the best I’ve come up with is this: Get on the same page as your partner, and stay there. You’ll still inevitably disappoint everyone, but at least you’ll be disappointing them in a consistent manner, which makes it far easier to plan and adapt accordingly.

In fact, it’s that last bit of advice I hope you’ll take to heart. Because the only real way to guarantee a strong, successful bond between you and your new family is to grab onto the branch you married and never let go.