The second step to navigating the role of an in-law in the family business environment is to seek to understand the family’s unwritten laws –  if you don’t know them, you will not know whether you are about to break them.  Knowing the laws allows you to discover how to best live within them, and potentially even have a positive influence on those laws over time. However, you must understand as an in-law that no one has asked you to come in and be the rescuer and change all of the dysfunctional dynamics that occur in your spouse’s family.

Because of the potential flare-ups that could occur just because you opened your mouth and offered your opinion, in-laws should be entitled to “hazard pay.” It is not a role for the weak in spirit. I once observed a young daughter-in-law voice to the patriarch of the family business that she did not need his over-controlling business ways applied to his relationship with her or his grandkids. “I am the mom,” she said, “and I will not have you telling me when to bring them to visit and where we should go on vacation” among other things.  Uh-oh!

From my perspective, this was an entirely appropriate thing for her to say as she attempted to set a strong relationship boundary and remind the patriarch that he was not “the Almighty.”  However, her timing and methodology was volcanic.  She violated several family laws – “don’t challenge dad, especially not directly and in front of the rest of the family” and “don’t attempt to be your own person.” 

These laws, by the way, certainly are indicative of the family’s dysfunction, and are certainly issues that need to be dealt with. But violating these laws directly, as an in-law, is not the way to change them. As an in-law, don’t expect to create change in your spouse’s family by breaking the family’s unwritten laws. These laws must be understood. Even though your spouse may love you beyond the realm of imagination, he or she is still likely to follow the family instincts ingrained in them long before ever having met you.  Trying to force change in the family will create unmerited frustration and may cause marital discord. 

You are in a position to either promote or undermine family harmony. Everything you say, your attitude, your innuendos are all important to family harmony.  Everything you do behind the scenes counts, and your contributions should mostly be indirect. Your challenge is to understand your position and control the expression of your emotions and opinions to fulfill your role as an indirect team player.  In doing so, you may avoid achieving out-law status.

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