Negotiating the murky waters of in-law relationships

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"Do you know what it's like to be trapped on a hot bus with 50 Jews?" my non-Jewish father-in-law asked. He was telling me his tale of woe of a broken-down bus, a trip to Reno and a group of seniors from the Jewish Community Center. "Everyone was complaining and whining."

There it was, my first big, fat shoal in the murky waters of the interfaith marriage I was committed to negotiating. I expected issues between my husband and me, but I hadn't factored his parents into the equation.

How to respond? I didn't want to let the comment pass but I also didn't want to start World War III and I suspected my father-in-law had no comprehension of what he said or its effect on me.

"Sounds like old home week," I said. "I used to ride the temple bus to religious school every Tuesday afternoon and Saturday morning."

We laughed but the point was made.

In-laws can become a significant factor in interfaith marriages — particularly since families have expectations around holidays, when conflicts can be intensified. Even if a non-Jewish partner converts, his or her parents remain non-Jews.

Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland's Temple Sinai says the question he's most frequently asked by these couples is, what do I do about parents and Christmas?

Chester suggests striking a balance.

"When you're going to their home, you don't have to observe the holidays they're observing, but they are still your parents," says Chester. "If you're going to be there at Christmastime, you'll probably sit down for a holiday meal with them, but that doesn't mean you have to go to church."

As far as gift exchanges go — since that unfortunately is the major thrust of Chanukah and Christmas — ideally each family should honor the other's holiday with gifts at the appropriate time, Chester suggests.

But it is also important for the non-Jewish partner not to deny his or her heritage.

"Everything you are you bring to the marriage," says Dawn Kepler, a Jew-by-choice and former chair of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations outreach committee. "When you share who you are, you will naturally share who your parents are. You can't blind your children to half of their heritage."

Each couple has to find its own comfort level.

"You can celebrate with someone else what they're celebrating and not make it your holiday," says Kepler, who lives in Oakland, where she is a member of Temple Sinai. "If you want to go to a church, Buddhist temple or Native American spiritual gathering and you're comfortable, then it's OK. Just because you go to someone's birthday party doesn't make it your birthday."

Fran Dayan, a Berkeley therapist who does relationship counseling, says it is important for the couple to work things out between themselves before confronting the in-laws.

"Do the partners know how they feel about it? Is there agreement between the couple?" Dayan says, adding that it shouldn't always be the Jewish spouse who deals with issues of religion with the non-Jewish in-laws. "If your husband has a good relationship with his parents, let him do the interpreting."

One way to make non-Jewish in-laws a part of the nuclear family is to educate them about Judaism and its traditions. It can avoid awkward situations like having a ham brought to a family gathering or Easter baskets to a seder.

Even in families that share a religion, conflicts can arise over where and how to celebrate holidays. Sometimes it's best for a couple to create their own tradition or protocol like hosting a seder one night and going to one or the other family on alternate years, Dayan says.

"It's important not to put the family of origin over the nuclear family," says Dayan. "Sometimes if you think about [a potential conflict] beforehand, you can figure out a strategy for not making it a problem. [It's an opportunity for] the marital unit to be able to come together about how they're going to be with the extended family."

Agreeing in advance that in-laws will stay at a hotel rather than the house or that each spouse will get "time off" every day can greatly reduce the stress of an in-law visit.

But how a couple deals with problems with each other's family is a reflection of their overall problem-solving abilities, Dayan says.

"There's a Buddhist expression that says: Show up, tell your truth, listen to the other person's truth without anger and blame, and don't have an emotional investment in it coming out a certain way." Being a good listener is one of the hardest parts of problem solving, she says. Compromise and renegotiation are crucial to a healthy marriage. "You can either be right or have a good relationship."

In her practice, Dayan likes to get couples to remember why they got married so they don't just focus on the problem at hand. Reconnecting with the strengths of their relationship can help open up lines of communications and options for solutions.

"Sometimes you have to see a therapist," says Dayan. "People get polarized so quickly. Therapy slows things down. Everyone gets a chance to talk."

But, Dayan cautions, it has to be the right therapist.

"It is crucially important that the therapist has hope," says Dayan. "[He or she should believe] that a solution is possible and that change is possible."