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Getting hitched? Tips to handle the in-laws

As you know, we're planning another “Today” show wedding with bride and groom-to-be Sarah Raley and Mark Dale. After selecting the rings, we thought it would be a good idea to discuss another important topic: dealing with the in-laws. Dr. Dale Atkins, author of “Wedding Sanity Savers,” gives advice on how to handle the stress.

Planning a wedding can be stressful, and often the first major interactions couples have with their future in-laws is related to decisions about the wedding. Wedding planning can bring out the best and the worst in people, and understanding what is important and why it is important to each member of the family is essential. In the beginning, there can be a lot of walking on eggshells as you try to find out who these people are, what they expect of you, what you expect of them, how much of your life you are going to share with them, and how to handle situations without putting your fiancé in the middle.

You are becoming part of a new family
The new family you are becoming a part of is one that you may or may not know something about. Hopefully you will embrace them, they will embrace you and you will have a lifetime of caring and sharing. Even when this happens, it takes time and effort. Whether it is cultural, religious, geographic, social, whatever, you have a lot to learn about your future in-law family, and they about you and yours.

Listen and learn
Be open to finding out who these people are and what is important to them. Share who you are with them so you can develop your own relationship with them, separate from the one your fiancé has with them.

Have a welcoming attitude
Reach out to your in-laws. Be respectful even if you do not like them at the beginning. Engage them, and help to forge a meaningful relationship. This helps build respect. Remember, you are not just getting through the wedding, you are building a foundation for a relationship. The wedding is one day. They will be your in-laws for your life. It is in your best interest to take the high road and realize that you cannot change them. Remember to keep judgments to a minimum. Be sensitive and respectful.

Prepare the basic plan with your fiancé first
The bride and groom need to talk about wedding plans and make a basic plan so both are on the same page before discussing it with future in-laws. Find some topics to ask the parents for input. Some parents will want to be highly involved, others may not. There may be differences in the two sets of parents, so the couple needs to make a list of what each one is best at, what areas to avoid, and then figure out a way to make it look fair.

Once a basic plan is formed but before plans are finalized, sit down with your in-laws as a couple. Find out what is really important to them, and see if you can comfortably incorporate their wishes into your wedding — honoring someone who has died, having two officiates in an interfaith ceremony, etc. Find out what their expectations are. Ask them for input on things they'd like to do and give them lots of praise and thank yous.

Conflicting loyalties
"My fiancé seems to side with his parents with some of the wedding planning decisions, and it seems that he's more their son than my future husband."

Couples need to become unified and be open to suggestions from family members without pitting one against the other. Don't put your fiancé between you and his parents. Try to deal with everyone in your family as a couple.

Define yourselves as a couple early on. He needs to find the balance between being a son and being a future husband. He has been a son for longer, and it takes time to transition into the new role. Be careful about complaining about his family. You can be empathic if he complains. You may even be able to offer suggestions (if he wants them), but only he has the right to complain. You don't because they are not your parents and he will likely take it personally.

Standing up for yourself
"I've just met my fiancé’s parents, and already they are telling me how to plan my wedding. How can I be polite but firm in telling them it's my wedding and I want it my way?"

Of course you need to have spoken about this with your fiancé beforehand. Hopefully, your wedding will be mostly the way you want it. You need to be clear with your fiancé about what are the most important aspects of your wedding, and then be open to other suggestions in areas that may not be as important. Yes, this is your wedding. However, others will be contributing to it in many ways. If you feel you are being swallowed up before you even begin, you can tell your fiancé’s parents that you have a vision of how you would like  your wedding to be, and that you look forward to talking about it with them. Let your in-laws know that you love talking to them about these issues and that you will ask them for advice about specific issues. Your future mother- or father-in-law may be a person who is used to giving his or her opinion whether or not they are asked. It may just be their style. Don't take everything personally. For sure, they'll want to be appreciated and involved in some way.

Establish your footing in the family
"My future in-laws ignore me and fawn over my fiancé. They treat me as if I am not there. What should I do?"

Families often have their own way of relating, and accepting a new person can be difficult. They have their own language, reference points and histories. It is invaluable for you to say, "That sounds as if it was a fun trip. Tell me about it because, remember, I wasn't there!" Engage each of the people in the family individually and see where it gets you. If you keep trying and nothing happens, let it go for awhile and try to minimize your resentment.

Don't take it personally if you are an "out-law." The most important element is to work on the bond between you and your husband. As you proceed with your fiancé to develop your own life together, his parents will see that you are here to stay. These relationships can change as we go through life and we mature.

Taking sides
"His parents always take his side."

They are his parents, and at the beginning (hopefully till they get to know you) you may be perceived as an interloper, someone who is going to take away their son and bring all kinds of different habits and attitudes into his life. This one takes a lot of time, and getting to know and respect one another is essential.  If your opinion is different, try not to be confrontational when everyone else disagrees.

Establish a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship, and set boundaries
"My future mother-in-law is trying to run the wedding."

Establish your own relationship with your future mother-in-law, apart from your fiancé. Make it a point to talk about things other than the wedding. Find out more about your in-laws, and appreciate that they are different from you. Take her to lunch alone; try to have some alone time with her, with a project or purpose to break the ice. Inform her of how the wedding planning is going so she does not feel left out. If she becomes too pushy or intrusive, talk with her. Tell her you appreciate her input and that you plan to use some of her suggestions, though perhaps not all. Be careful about venting to your fiancé about her because this puts him in the middle and he will feel he needs to choose between the two of you. Establish direct communication if you can (by e-mail or phone) because you cannot rely on your fiancé to be the messenger (information may or may not be communicated at all, or in the way you want it to be.

Remember, the wedding is one day, but your in-laws are here for your lifetime.

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