When Your In-Laws Are Outlaws

Marriage has a peculiar byproduct. It makes family of strangers, or at the very least, of people you hardly know. You chose your partner but had no say in the hangers on. At my daughter's wedding, her sisters toasted their new brother-in-law with, "The great thing about John is he understands if you marry one of us, you marry all three."

But what if those in-laws are just not your cup of tea? My advice: Add some sugar or honey, make the tea palatable to you in some way, and hold your nose when you have to drink.

Or you could be me.

My in-laws were outlaws -- actual outlaws in one case, metaphorical outlaws in the rest. Either way it ended poorly. The actual outlaw, my brother-in-law, was a convicted fraud felon. He bilked people by selling them a "business opportunity" that didn't exist. But, like family members do, my husband and I supported him as best we could after his arrest and conviction. That's the right thing to do for family. You provide them with unconditional love so even when they screw up, you stand by them.

But when he attempted to perpetrate a fraud against my mother-in-law by tricking her into revoking Power of Attorney from the person she chose and making him her Power of Attorney so he could control her money, we could no longer love him unconditionally or otherwise. We had to sever ties. We even had to take legal action to undo the harm he had done to his mother.

The metaphoric outlaw in-laws were guilty of more common offenses like jealousy and greed. My sister-in-law simply didn't like me. I lost her at "Hello" it seemed, many years ago when we first met. Our values were quite different. I was at the time a freewheeling hippie while she was a young stay-at-home mom. She aspired to have lovelier and better things and wanted the same for me. She planned to throw a bridal shower for me and I balked because I thought it was a materialistic extravaganza running counter to everything I believed. Okay, I was 22 and idealistic. In retrospect maybe I should've let her throw the party but it seemed important at the time to live my values. Over the years our opposing values got more pronounced. When her marriage broke up she became entrenched in struggles for power and money with her ex and with her parents and with my husband and me. Ultimately she pushed her parents to choose between my husband and her, often blaming me for some of her dissatisfaction with my husband. Their parents sided with her and treated us like outlaws.

It's a real shame people have to create drama and foster problems where none should be. Aren't there enough real challenges to life already? Marriage is hard to get right. In-law difficulties are one of the major reasons marriages break up.

So, how does one survive bad in-laws? They say living well is the best revenge. For a long time I wanted to hurt the people who hurt my husband, my children and me. But I evolved and no longer needed revenge; I just wanted to live well. I can now, but getting here wasn't easy.

Step one was making sure my husband and I agreed about how to handle the family problems. We couldn't let those issues become a wedge between us. Step two was getting over the anger. When the people who are supposed to love and support you, your spouse, and your kids do anything but, it's only human to react in anger. When your holiday tables are seriously lacking in attendees because your extended family has shut your family out, it's hard not to be angry. When you see loving, generous relationships between your friends and their siblings, it's hard not to be angry and envious. Anger takes a toll; it made me physically ill so I had to deal with it and move on.

We focused on raising our daughters and teaching them the true meaning of family, unconditional love, acceptance, and support. We were honest about the family situation, being mindful along the way of their ages and abilities to understand the nuances of the interactions with our in-laws. We didn't want our children to be bitter. We wanted them to remain amenable to reconciliation.

Getting rid of the anger was the greater challenge. I am a writer so I processed what I felt by getting it all down on paper. I published the memoir, Tales From The Family Crypt http://amzn.com/B00TWMKAIOafter definitively determining I was no longer motivated by anger or a desire for retribution. I had heard so many stories from people about infighting among adult siblings, I knew there were people who could be helped by reading about how we survived it.

We created relationships with friends that felt like family. My children's godparents are friends, but they're friends who function as family. We maintain close ties with lifelong friends we trust and love. We give and receive unconditional love.

If you're dealing with difficult in-laws, I urge you to try to effect change. Open and honest communication with our family members might have mitigated what happened. But over the years my in-laws communicated through secrets and lies. We felt powerless to change their ways. We let a lot of things go to avoid conflict, only to realize later sublimating conflict just compounds the difficulty. Also, being right is sometimes wrong. We dug in our heels on occasion because we believed we were morally right. Things might have turned out better if from time to time we would have chosen peace over being right.

But, if you can't find a way to get along with your outlaws, let them go. It's possible it's not you, it's them. They may just be unfeasible to have in your life or toxic to your wellbeing. In that case, give up and go on to live well. You can have a familial love through deep and abiding friendships with people you chose because you love them and you enrich each other's lives.