By: Shannon Ralph
Reason # 19: The in-laws.
When Ruanita and I stood before our family and friends and declared our commitment to one another, two families became one. We committed ourselves not only to loving each other for life, but also to tolerating our in-laws for better or for worse. Through the last 15 years, we have definitely experienced the better and the worse with the in-laws. Had we initiated a worldwide search, we could not have possibly merged two families that were more diametrically opposed.
Ruanita comes from an extremely small family. When we first met, Ruanita’s family consisted of her mother (who is certifiably insane), her brother (who is a “born-again” Christian and, therefore, has chosen not to have a relationship with sinners like Ruanita and me), and her estranged father (who had divorced her mother when she was pregnant with Ruanita and had never really been a part of her life). She did not have aunts, uncles, or cousins with whom she was close. Growing up, her grandparents were her primary caretakers and the loves of her life. Once they were gone, “family” took on a different meaning for her.
My family, on the other hand, is extremely large. Loud. Obnoxious. Enmeshed. Up in each other’s business. I have two sisters and a brother who are my very best friends. I have 11 aunts and uncles whom I adore. I have 20-plus first cousins who I don’t see often enough, but immensely enjoy when we do get together. Needless to say, my family was a bit of a cultural shock for Ruanita.
Navigating the in-laws has been a struggle at times throughout the years. In my family, we are extremely close, as I said. That closeness can at times be claustrophobia-inducing—particularly for someone not accustomed to people who freely give unsolicited advice, are in possession of extremely loose tongues, have no sense of privacy, and share all secrets small and large.
In addition, I was raised with a strong sense of duty when it comes to family. If someone in my family needs something, I give it to them. I don’t question it. I haven’t always considered whether it might be the best thing for my own household. I haven’t always considered Ruanita’s feelings or needs or desires. I admit this has caused tension in our marriage at times throughout the years.
In the same way that Ruanita struggles at times with my family that is so very different from her own, I struggle with her family. Her mother is mentally ill. She has spent the last 48 years slowly sucking the life out of Ruanita. I know that sounds harsh, but I am sure Ruanita would not argue with that description. In many ways, Ruanita never had a mother/daughter relationship with her mother. She was always more of a caretaker to her mother than the other way around. Try as I may, I can’t hate her mother. I know she is ill. Plus, her illness helped make Ruanita the person she is today. The person I am completely mad about and the person to whom I chose to bind my life. So I can’t hate her. At the same time, however, she’s an incredibly hard person to love.
I won’t say much about Ruanita’s brother. I have met him. I have little time or energy to devote to a man who did not acknowledge the birth of any of his sister’s children and still thinks he is heaven-bound because he espouses to be a “Christian.” Yea….good luck with that one on Judgment Day, buddy.
Despite the occasional struggle, family has also been an immense source of joy in our marriage. Before she passed away, my grandma–an old devoutly Catholic woman who had lived in conservative Kentucky her entire life–accepted Ruanita with open arms. She adored Ruanita and worshipped the ground our firstborn son walked on. She would never let Ruanita walk out her door without first giving her a big sloppy granny hug and kiss. In many ways, she reminded Ruanita of her own grandmother, and I think her love and acceptance was one of the greatest gifts in our early marriage.
My family has also given our children the aunts, uncles, and cousins to grow up with that are lacking on Ruanita’s side of the family. They have given our children a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Bigger than our little house on Columbus Avenue. Despite their flaws–and I do not deny that they do have their flaws–my family has welcomed Ruanita and our children with no reservations. No sideways glances. No hesitation whatsoever. The kids play with their “Kentucky cousins” when we visit home. And they know that they have a large network of adults who love them and will always “have their backs.” One day they may wish that all those adults would just get the hell out of their business, but hey…that’s family, right?
Ruanita also recently reconnected with her father. He’s made some regretable mistakes in his life, but he is an incredibly likable man. Funny. Irreverent. Kind. And deeply committed to repairing the broken relationship with his daughter. I see so much of him in Ruanita. And in my Lucas. Lucas and Nicholas instantly adored him, and he even managed to win over skeptical Sophie a bit. Just yesterday, I got an incredibly sweet belated birthday card in the mail from him. After fifteen years with Ruanita, I have the joy of adding a whole new set of wonderful in-laws to my family–Ruanita’s dad, his wife, his other daughter, her children. In-laws who are easy to like. Even easy to love.
In-laws will always be in-laws—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Learning to navigate the in-laws and survive “family” is one more way that my marriage is just like your marriage.