All in the Family

by Sam H. Lane, Ph.D.

In working with large families, I s o m e t i m e s encounter puzzling and undiscussed conflict between in-laws and the families into which they marry. This conflict is usually expressed as an in-law not feeling he or she is “one of the family.” In working with families over the past number of years, I have discovered part of the reason for this (besides the usual problems associated with a person coming into the family upon marriage) is the operation of a conflicting set of norms between the in-law’s family of origin and the family into which he or she has married. Because each of us generally assumes the rest of the world is the way we are, one never stops to think about these differences.

The most important feature of these norms is that they define who is “family.” You are a member of the family if you operate according to these norms; if you do not, you are not one of the family. Typically, an in-law is unsure as to their acceptance by the family because there are many sources of natural conflict. What it means to be “one of the family” is ambiguous at best. Thus, when one of these norms is violated with the resulting perceived rejection, it can have a powerful impact upon that person. These norms may exist in greater degrees of strength. Different profiles may exist between the two families and further accelerate differences that may exist.

I have identified four such norms in my work but I’m sure there are probably more:

  1. Sharing Information –Some families are very open about the happenings relative to other members of the family. It is “okay” for children and spouses to know that another of their number is having difficulty in his or her marriage or has suffered some personal embarrassment. Other families are very secretive and very little information is shared. An interesting pattern in the secretive families is the role the parents play as a “clearing house” of information or as an arbiter of what information is shared and what is not. In secretive families, the flow of information is around a “hub” with parents at the center and the children at the spokes. The flow of information is from the children through the parents to other children. In such a family, the in-law spouse only finds out about events long after they are common knowledge to other family members and experiences a sense of “being out of the loop.” If the in-law spouse comes from an open information sharing family, then the message is clear: “If you are part of the family, you are part of the information loop; you are not in the loop, thus you are not a bona fide member of the family.”
  2. Handling Conflict – This is perhaps the most straight forward norm of the four. Families range tremendously on the norm regarding the degree to which open conflict is tolerated and how it is handled. It ranges from a family where conflict is never expressed openly to a family where “everyone yells at everyone else.” A person coming from a closed conflict family typically has very under-developed conflict coping skills and tends to withdraw from any argument or discussion of sensitive subjects. When strong conflict erupts, they are terrified. By the same token, a person from an open conflict family feels that members of a closed conflict family never express their true feelings and you can never get a straight answer.
  3. Expression of Emotion –Some families (and individuals within families) are expressively warm, caring and loving. Other families are more shy, reserved and less forthcoming with expressions of caring for one another. Hugging, kissing, and telling another family member you love them are simply a normal part of the emotional transaction in the first family, but never done in the case of the second family. People from caring, expressive families experience more reserved families as “cold fish.” This difference shows up a good deal across ethnic or cultural lines. For example, sometimes a person from a Hispanic or Italian family “feels funny” when they marry into a more Germanic or English tradition family. It is interesting to listen to people from expressive, caring families characterize their closed family in-laws. They almost feel as though something is psychologically wrong with these people. They don’t understand why a family would be so reserved with their feelings for other family members.
  4. Conspicuous Consumption –This norm can be seen to operate most clearly when a son comes from a conservative family of origin and marries a woman who comes from a family where the open enjoyment of money is practiced. The norm of the first family is to live very conservatively and never, but never, engage in any form of conspicuous consumption. An interesting exception in these families is education. It’s okay to spend substantial amounts of money on expensive private schools and camps. Other possible exceptions are lavish trips. But money is not spent on big houses, fancy cars, or extravagant clothes. The exact opposite is true in all these aspects in the other kind of family. It is not that the other family is being ostentatious or showing off their money; it is simply their cultural norm. Some interesting geographical patterns exist in this norm. For example, in the North and Northeast, the more conservative pattern is the norm, whereas in the Southwest conspicuous consumption is more accepted.

In the example mentioned above, if the daughter-in-law is from a more liberal, conspicuous consumption family, she will receive a lot of negative feedback in various forms (probably not openly) as the conservative parents feel she is frivolously spending the family money. This norm gains some extra strength from the parents’ floating emotional fear or anxiety that if one is not careful, you could lose everything. Her spending becomes an everyday, in-your-face, blatant example of what not to do.

These norms all have the same operative characteristics:

  • They define who is and who is not “family.”
  • Because they are never openly discussed, they tend to fester and energy tends to build up around them.
  • They tend to cause problems in the larger family systems as well as the couple family system.
  • The dynamics become transferred to the couple family’s children.
  • They persist for years unabated.

Recognizing these norms and how they operate can help families understand puzzling conflict. Openly addressing these issues is the next step toward minimizing their negative impact.

This article appeared in the Aspen Family Business Group’s Fall 2000 Newsletter.