Harry Truman's Crazy In-laws

THE POOR FARM BOY FROM HAD MARRIED THE RICH GIRL FROM TOWN, and now he had to endure her disapproving mother. The woman didn’t think any man was good enough for her daughter—especially not a plain-spoken youth from the sticks—and made no attempt to hide her feelings. But the young couple couldn’t afford a home of their own, so they moved in with the bride’s mother—(first mistake) and they stayed together for the next 33 years!

Even when the couple moved from Independence, Mo., to Kansas City, and later to the White House, Harry Truman’s mother-in-law, Madge Gates Wallace, was still there, ruling the dinner table. “It was very hard on my father,” Truman’s daughter, Margaret, said years later. “But he made it his business to get along because he loved my mother.”

Winston Churchill’s “darling Clementine” also learned early that she had married not just her husband but his strong-willed mother as well. When she and Winston returned from their honeymoon, the young bride discovered that Lady Randolph Churchill had completely redecorated the couple’s new home in a style far fancier than Clementine had planned.

Neither the Trumans nor the Churchills, however, suffered the in-law wars that beset President Ulysses S. Grant and First Lady Julia Dent Grant. Julia’s father, Frederick Dent, a very wealthy planter who often stayed with the Grants in the White House, had made no secret of what he thought of Ulysses when the young lieutenant married Julia. The President’s father, Jesse, who also often stayed at the White House, didn’t like Dent. When the two fathers-in-law conversed, it was usually to exchange insults.

Today fewer than one in five families dwell with their in-laws. But even when the generations don’t live together, daily phone calls and frequent visits often make it seem that way. Experts agree that three-quarters (75%) of all married couples have problems with their in-laws, which can make the relationship a major source of unhappiness.

Here are some of the most common in-law problems and ways to handle them:


When John Larson, a teacher near Albany, N.Y., and his wife, Winona, were first married, her parents not only meddled in the young couple’s affairs but seemed to ignore John when the four were together. “I feel like an outsider,” John told Winona one day, just before a visit. “I need to know that I have your support.”

That was a turning point in their marriage. Winona made sure thereafter that John was included in all family conversations and activities. When Winona’s family began pressuring the couple to have a baby, John and Winona explained that they weren’t ready for such a big responsibility. Gradually, Winona’s parents began to accept their son-in-law and respect the couple’s right to make their own decisions.


 Georgia Creegan, a talented amateur singer in northern Utah, worked in an office to put her husband, Michael, through college. Her parents gave her $1,000 for vocal lessons because, as her mother said, “we want you to develop your ability to the fullest.” But before she could start her lessons, Michael’s tuition came due. Since the couple had agreed their top priority was for him to finish college, Georgia used the gift to pay the tuition instead.

Soon Georgia’s parents avoided visiting when Michael was home. If he answered the telephone, they brusquely asked to speak to her. Worse yet, they began express-ing doubts about him as a husband. Concerned, Georgia asked her parents why they were acting that way. “We liked Michael at first,” her mother explained. “But he isn’t helping you to develop your talents. Look at the way he pressured you into spending our money on his tuition instead of your voice lessons. That money was a gift, Georgia thought, surprised and slightly annoyed. Why couldn’t we spend it any way we wanted? To keep peace, she explained to her mother that she had paid the tuition willingly and promised to start saving for singing lessons. But she vowed to think twice before accepting money from her parents again.


Over the years, Winona Larson became annoyed by her mother-in-law’s constant criticisms every time she and John made a significant purchase. “You really splurg-ed when you bought that new car,” her mother-in-law wrote after one visit to the couple’s home. Winona fumed as she read the letter. But instead of responding in kind, she realized that at least they shared a liking for letter writing. Perhaps this could strengthen our relationship she thought. So she began writing a chatty letter to her mother-in-law nearly every week about the family’s activities. Soon her mother -in-law was responding with detailed descriptions of her charity work and com-ments on current news. “I grew to admire my mother-in-law’s concern for the less fortunate and was surprised that we shared an interest in foreign affairs,” says Winona. “Since I’ve learned to focus on what we have in common, we even become much closer—and she rarely criticizes our spending habits.”


Julie and Jeff Watkins of suburban Philadelphia had been married for 12 years when Jeff became seriously ill. Julie turned to her parents for help in paying the bills and in caring for their two young children. Her parents pitched in for almost a year and stayed involved even after Jeff recovered and returned to work. When Jeff protested to Julie, she defended her parents. “We can’t just push them away,” she said. “They were there for us, and I can’t hurt their feelings now. Then one even-ing, as Jeff and Julie were preparing dinner, her father suddenly appeared in the kitchen. “Nobody answered the door so I just let myself in,” he said. “‘What’s to eat?”

This was too much for Jeff. “Your father wants to run our family,” he fumed to Julie. “We’ve got to set limits.” Julie finally agreed to talk with her parents. “Mom and Dad, we love you and appreciate all you did for us last year,” she said. “But we need to have our privacy back so that we can rebuild our family life.” Hurt at first, Julie’s parents soon realized that they didn’t have to worry about their daughter’s family anymore and could resume their own activities.

The experiences of these families illustrate four keys to a successful relationship with your own in-laws:


 “By presenting a united front, you may actually ease your in-laws’ concerns, says Glen Jenson, a family and human-development expert at Utah State University in Logan. “If you show that you and your spouse really love each other, you’re letting them know that their child makes you happy. Then they may realize that if their child loves you, perhaps they should, too.”


 “If you want to get along with your in-laws, unhook yourself financially,” says Jen-

son. “Also, beware of relying on Mom and Dad for regular child care. It may be convenient and cheap, but it sets the stage for disputes over child-rearing.” Penny Bilofsky, a family therapist in Cherry Hill, N.J., agrees. “Getting connected in financial or child-rearing matters can damage the adult- to-adult relationship you have with your parents,” she says. “You may revert to a parent-child relationship, which can put you at odds with your spouse.


The first step in forging friendships is deciding how to address your in-laws. “This is critical,” says Jenson. “In the early years of marriage, many couples avoid calling their in-laws by name, and this can create tension.” Before the wedding, settle on names acceptable to all—whether first names, “Mom and Dad” or “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”—and use them often. Spend time with your in-laws and take an interest in their work, hobbies, ideas and experiences. Knowing them better will make for fewer misunderstandings.


“If your in-laws’ behavior conflicts with your values or beliefs,” says Bilofsky, “speak up. Keep your comments to the issues at hand, rather than recounting past irritations. “Be polite but assertive, says Maria M. Mancusi, a family therapist in Fairfax County, Virginia. “Instead of trying to offer explanations, simply state your case and stick to your decision. Janet Pus, a secretary, had bowed for years to her husband’s domineering mother on where the family would spend holidays. Then one year, her mother-in-law insisted that everyone come to her home for Thanks-giving dinner—everyone, that is, except for Janet and John’s eldest son, Tom, and his fiancée. “I can’t stand that girl,” she explained.

Janet discussed the problem with her husband, won his reluctant agreement and then confronted her mother-in-law. “We are not spending Thanksgiving without Tom,” she said firmly. “He and his fiancée will be here with us. You are welcome

to join us if you wish.” Janet heard nothing until two days before Thanksgiving, when her mother-in-law announced that she was coming to Janet’s gathering. “My resentment eased after that,” Janet said. “I had taken a stand at last, and it paid off for everyone. We all ended up enjoying a happy Thanksgiving together.”



Pleasantville, N. Y. 10570, Vol. 144. No. 866.

Copyright @ June 1994. (Pgs. 165-170)

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