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. More…