The In-Laws

Last weekend my husband’s parents came to visit. We love them. We love their visits. And I started thinking about the relational stages of in-laws. I wrote this post as a laughing tribute to both the Incredible Man and his family (hereinafter referred to as the Smiths), who love me as their own and who have put up with me in all my stages. The illustrations given below are purely fictional.*

I think also of the men and women who married into my side of the family, and had a Smith culture of their own to adapt to. They’ve been brave. And it’s been rich.

In short, I love everybody. It’s all good. And no way am I willing to hang for writing this.


How We Feel About In-Laws

Stage One—In which we are dating/ engaged/ possibly newlywed

Here we are just getting acquainted with the Smiths, the lords and ladies of creation who produced the incredible man now pursuing us. We are slightly overcome by the fact that the Smiths like us; it’s so generous and noble of them. They accept us unconditionally, they reserve the spare bedroom, they roll out the red carpet. They prepare to freely offer us the priceless boon of becoming a part of the Smith legacy and culture. We blush and we smile and we don’t know what to do with our hands.

Stage Two—Perhaps one year into the real thing

[It is, as T. H. White points out, impossible to explain how these things happen…]

Here we have rubbed shoulders considerably more. We see the incredible man is really a step ahead of the Smiths in every way. He’s the cream of the crop and no mistake. We are so glad he doesn’t hold forth on politics like Uncle Henry or pick his nose like Cousin James. And that’s not even touching the way the Smith men treat their ladies. Considering his family, it is really amazing that he turned out so well!

Stage Three—Some time later

Here our eyes have been opened rather farther: the famous Smith legacy and culture is about to choke us. As far as we can see, all the issues in the incredible man’s life are his by direct lineage. He holds forth on politics exactly like Uncle Henry and was taught nose picking by the nose picking master, James himself.* And you know he treats women the way he does because it’s in the blood of those Smith men.

The only solution, so far as we can see, is to … well… that is… you know, at this stage of the in-law game there doesn’t seem to be any solution but gritting the teeth and hanging on.

Stage Four—We pray by the mercy of God it comes soon

At some point, quite unexpectedly, we realize that we have caught hold. We’ve found a handle—the fact that we and the Smiths all like camping together; the fact that our mother-in-law once struggled with doubt (back in the 1950’s); the fact that we adore our sisters-in-law. We find the outstretched hand and catch hold, and suddenly we are dancing. We find our place in the Smith line, waltzing in and out among the complex relationships rather more peacefully than not, smiling at Cousin James there in the corner. His back is turned and we know exactly what he’s doing but—oh well. He is a dear. And we’re all going camping tomorrow.


As far as I can see, life from here on out will be a continuous cycle of Stages Two through Four. The Lord may in His mercy grant us a brief return to Stage One, but I’m not pinning any hopes on that.

Perhaps there will be a Stage Five down the road, in which their faults and ours have so mingled that we have forgotten we were ever non-Smith ourselves. We will be both forgiving and blind. Perhaps.

People are like onions: layers within layers. As we move down into relationship, we get to a skin after a while through which we think we cannot penetrate. Call it misunderstanding, call it irritation, call it natural resistance; it seems the bottom of the well. But we push through it, somehow, down to a whole new level of sweetness and flavor… and on to the next skin, where we rest for a while… and then on to the next depth…

And all is well.

In any case, we married into the Smiths. How much better can it get?


Posted with the permission of my lovely mother-in-law.

*He doesn’t actually pick his nose, although he does occasionally hold forth on politics.

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10 years ago

Wow you hit the nail on the head! I’m definitely rotating between Stages 2-4 (mostly 2), right now. I long to break through that layer and find the sweet flavor underneath. But then again, am I letting the layers around myself fall open and reveal who I really am, what I truly care about? I think so often we complain about the layers around someone else, but don’t know how to disarm them or ourselves. I wish for all of us to know each other for real.
And Shari– I do believe the Zook’s are dancing together (as well as we Mennonites can dance 🙂 ), and you’ve helped in that journey!

10 years ago

This amused me. I see myself in stages 2-4 while my stage one was different. I would enjoy a guest entry on the stages of having a daughter in law.:)

10 years ago

Funny! Have you read anything by Jamie Langston Turner? She is an excellent writer with a very unique style; I think you might like her? Something about your onion description reminded me of how she uses an onion to describe something in one of her books…I can’t recall what right now…but yeah.

10 years ago
Reply to  Renee Shafer

Another lover of Turner’s books! Yeah! I have her last book on my shelf right now and I’m dreading reading it – because then I will have no more of her books left to read. Until she writes another book.

10 years ago

By year 17 it’s so amazing. The aunts and uncles on both sides all run together and you try to remember who’s are who’s. 🙂 Not quite, but almost.

10 years ago

You do have some pretty special in-laws! 🙂

10 years ago

this is great!:)

10 years ago

I love the description of stages 2-4! Mm-hmm, it is familiar. But it is so amazing to catch hold and dance as part of another blood family.

10 years ago

I read this with my husband, and we laughed about it. After six years of marriage, we can relate to this!

10 years ago

snorting. chuckling. laughing. Love it!

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