Virtual Book Tour with Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

We welcome to our blog today Ruth Nemzoff, the author of Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family and a popular speaker on the topic of parenting adult children and family dynamics. Ruth is a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center and you can find her on the web at

Ruth is also the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. Whether you’re a mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, or out-law, her books will help you gain a new perspective and learn about her insightful strategies for improving relationships with your new family members.

Mentors: Why did you write this new book, Don’t Roll Your Eyes?

Ruth: I wrote the book because on my book tour for Don’t Bite Your Tongue when I visited over 300 venues in 5 countries around the world, I found that the most common question about parents and adult children was about in-law children. Usually, the question was about a daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship— i.e. a mother-in-law feeling pushed aside or a daughter-in-law feeling criticized. Questions about sons-in-law tended to be about issues with the SIL not earning enough of a living or failing to do jobs around the house. What these questions said to me was that our society has not caught up on changing gender roles. The expectation still seems to be that the husband will be the earner, if he’s not, it is suspect to the older generation (his in-laws).

Mentors: Why are in-law relationships historically so troublesome?

For one thing, in the past, marriages were very much a business deal. They were a way to secure a family fortune, or if you were having trouble feeding your child, you might ship them off to another family to be fed…and married. In these cases, a daughter-in-law was really just a servant of her new family, and a baby-making machine.

All of the jokes and parodies about the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law and son-in-law/father-in-law relationships set the foundation for difficult relationships. Many such jokes exist, but some examples include:

Two men were in a pub. One says to his mate, “My mother-in law is an angel.” His friend replies, “You’re lucky. Mine is still alive.”

 Question: What is the definition of mixed feelings?

Answer: When your Maserati goes over a cliff with your mother-in-law in it.

Fathers-in-law are depicted as ridiculously bereft at losing their daughters:

   Question: Why would you rather deal with a vicious dog than your father-in-law?

   Answer: A vicious dog eventually lets go!!

Mentors: Did you write this because you’ve had problems with your in-laws, in-law children, or their parents?

Quite the opposite, I have found my in-law children, parents, and siblings have added texture and richness to my life, so I know it’s possible to achieve. They have taught me a great deal.

Mentors: From a cultural point of view, why do we make in-laws into outlaws?

In-laws are related by neither blood nor choice, but rather by someone else’s choice. Sometimes tensions can arise when people have to live with decisions made by others.

In-laws are also increasingly turned into outlaws because most young people now are marrying partners who don’t come from the same community. Unfamiliar modes of interacting and differences in communication can make it difficult to connect to in-laws from different places or cultures. For example, in some societies it is assumed that the generations are tied when a couple marries, whereas in other sub-groups that type of tight-knight relationship is not taken for granted. Certainly in regards to the extended in-law family, different societies have disparate notions of who is actually a relative.

Additionally, these days people are not always marrying but rather just coupling long-term, which leads in-laws to wonder if they are legally connected to this new person in their child’s life and if that matters for developing a relationship with them.

When expectations for an in-law relationship are subverted—the SIL refuses to help fix the front door or the MIL doesn’t want to babysit—in-laws can become outlaws.

Mentors: Can you provide a few hints on how to foster better relationships with your in-laws?

I give a comprehensive list of tips in Chapter 11 of Don’t Roll Your Eyes, and here are few of the highlights:

  • Try to put yourself in your in-laws shoes.
  • Don’t make a big deal out of everything—we all make mistakes, and we need forgive each other for slights.
  • Reframe things with a positive view. For example, if your kids don’t call you, don’t complain that they never want to talk but rather consider that it’s nice that they’re good parents who who are spending time with their own children
  • Forget fantasy, deal with reality. As mother-in-law, you may be frustrated that your daughter-in-law isn’t very physically affectionate towards you, but you should be pleased at least that she’s very polite—enjoy what you’ve got!
  • Don’t hold on to grudges.
  • Be curious about your in-laws’ culture, beliefs, traditions, lives. Try to understand why people think they way that they do—don’t discount and dismiss their ideas out of hand.
  • Remember that we’re all new to this game and trying to figure out how to make it work.

Mentors: Thank you, Ruth, for joining us today, sharing your wisdom and giving us a peek into some of the valuable tips you present in Don’t Roll Your Eyes. Whether you’re the parent, adult child, sibling or the “other” in-laws, you’ll find Ruth’s book has scenarios that resonate for you. And with your new perspective you’ll come away with practical methods you can use to create more harmony and lasting bonds with your new and extended family.

Now, readers, it’s your turn to ask Ruth questions that have been on your mind. Use the “Leave a Reply” box below to make a comment or ask a question.


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17 Responses to Virtual Book Tour with Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

  1. Rebecca says:

    My son has been married for 9 years now and I find that the drama earlier in my relationship with his wife has subsided. Not sure whether it ran it’s course or we’ve both grown over the years. If this is this a typical progression, what do you attribute it to?

    • Ruth Nemzoff says:

      Yes, progressions in relationships are normal. Think back onto all your friendships, they have periods of closeness and periods of distance. It takes time to build relationships and it takes time to smooth out the rough edges. With in-laws, because we are called family, we expect to be close right away. But actually, it takes a while to get to know each other. And, as you say, we all continue to grow. Good that both you and your daughter-in-law can forgive the past and expand on your relationship into the future.

  2. Carole says:

    I don’t like to admit it, but I sometimes feel jealous about the relationship our son and daughter-in-law have with her family. They seem to feel closer to them than us. Now that we have grandkids, I try to tell myself that the more love the children get, the better it is for them – but I still find myself resenting the time they spend with ‘the other grandparents.’ Do you have any suggestions for me?

    • Ruth Nemzoff says:

      Jealousy is quite common. You are wise to keep reminding yourself that grandchildren benefit from lots of love from different people. Just because we have feelings of jealousy doesn’t mean we have to act on them. Enjoy your own time with your grandchildren and, when your children are with the other grandparents, treasure the time to do the activities you most enjoy.

      It might be worthwhile to figure out why your children feel closer to the other in-laws. That way, you may be able to modify your behavior so that being with you is just as enjoyable. Alternatively, it might be that we as parents you place more significance on the relationship with the other in-laws than the kids actually feel. In either case, reflect, change what you can, and if there’s nothing you can change, then enjoy what you have and stop comparing. Good luck!

  3. Barb says:

    Our children had been close growing up but they chose very different people to marry. Now none of the spouses really like each other and it’s driven our kids apart. It hurts us to see them so distant and we try to plan events to bring them together, at least for a short time. But we worry that once we’re gone, our family won’t stick together, or even know each other that well. Do you have any ideas about how we can make our family whole again?

    • Ruth Nemzoff says:

      We can’t predict the future. Sometimes, alienated sibs come back together when a parent dies because they are confronted with the reminder of their nuclear family. Other times, lack of love among siblings-in-law can break up families. You are wise to try to create, as you are doing, mutually enjoyable events or times to be together, but you can’t force people to like each other. As families start out, they make many lifestyle choices that preclude other lifestyle choices (classy vs casual, country vs city, schedulers vs go-with-the-flow, rules vs mayhem). As time goes on, families morph and find both the upsides and the downsides of other peoples’ life choices. Sharing holidays, nice walks, unemotionally loaded activities together can allow closeness without the pressures of feeling like forced family. You might want to ask your children how they feel about losing their closeness as siblings in order to bring up the topic. They may have ideas for activities that would facilitate family peace, if not closeness. At any rate, talking about your concerns with your children may give you some peace of mind. It takes years and many ups and downs to create bonds with people to whom you are not related by blood or upbringing.

  4. Kathy says:

    I feel like mothers-in-law have gotten a bad rap for so many years. I try really hard with my daughter-in-law and son-in-law to be the kind of mother-in-law that they want but I don’t feel like they really do their part. It seems like I’m always the one being the grown-up. Should I expect them to do more to make our relationships better or just accept that this is the way it is?

    • Ruth Nemzoff says:

      In Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family, I have a whole chapter on why mothers-in-law get a bad rap. In brief, history plays a big role. Marriage used to be about protecting family assets and getting a young worker and baby-maker for the family…Not a good basis on which to build a relationship! Remnants of these attitudes play a role in our relationships. Just google mother-in-law jokes and you will see we are set up to dislike each other.

      At this point in your life, your relationship with your children is far more important to you than it may be to them. This may change over the life course. When a couple marries, their task is to become a supportive unit. The parents’ task is to enlarge their unit to include the newcomers. The focus is different for each generation. At first, new couples need to bond with each other. Think back to the early days of your marriage: I suspect you were more focused on your husband than your in-laws. As time and circumstances change, relationships change. Right now, you have the time and energy to reach out. In the future, you may find they are the ones reaching out to you as they see the benefits of expanding the circle of support.

      For now, think about your friendships. Some of your friends reach out more than others at different times. Relationships falter when they are tit for tat. They thrive when we stop judging each others’ input and enjoy what each other have to give.

  5. paulina says:

    My child’s in-laws seem uncomfortable with my being Jewish, secular and nonobservant as I am. Problems have ranged from antisemitic remarks to jokes that aren’t funny to an awkward preoccupation with holidays that I don’t celebrate. I ignore the remarks but, honestly, they bug me. And make me like them less. Which probably shows. What advice do you have?

    • Ruth Nemzoff says:

      Many young people are marrying outside of their religion, ethnic group or race. We now live in a world where our children have the opportunity to meet many wonderful people from different backgrounds. The parents of these couples may sometimes feel uncomfortable with these unexpected mates. They may worry that their own child will be tarred by the prejudices against the group that he/she is marrying into. The parents may also feel that their own customs and values are being rejected. It is not uncommon for people to use jokes to cover up these tensions. Both sides benefit from learning about each other. During the learning process, people often make comments that can be interpreted as being thoughtless. Awareness of the underlying feelings can help you understand the angst of the other family. Sometimes talking with your adult child about your concerns and feelings can give him the opportunity to put it in a new perspective. Perhaps he might mention your own discomfort to his in-laws.
      Alternatively, passage of time may make everyone more comfortable with each other.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I love this Virtual Book Tour – the topic is so right-on for me, a baby boomer who is supposed to let go of what seems like so much at once – my youth, my kids. But Ruth Nemzoff, you are a wise woman and have given me insight into myself and this stage of life. It’s not about me and in that, I hope, I can find some relief.

  7. ruth Nemzoff says:

    Parents are familiar with gaining by losing. We give up our totally dependent newborn as they become adventurous toddlers. We replace the snuggles with the joys of seeing our children explore and develop.
    As our children leave the nest, we can revel in their success and our new freedoms. When our children marry, owe are no longer the center of our lives, but this is our opportunity to realize the dreams we may have put off.

  8. Mary says:

    My best friend’s son is 44, never married, and dating a 35 y/o woman who also has never married. They appear to be perfect for each other, have dated for 2 years, and the woman seems to be ready to marry. They travel together, and are together most of the time. My friend’s son has been asked by his mom if he is going to ask her to marry him etc, with no definitive answer given. Both are well-educated and employed, live in Chicago, maintaining their own residences. Do you have any advice for my friend, or should she totally stay out of it, and ask no further questions? It seems this could come under the heading, “none of your/my business.” Should my GF advise her son to see a therapist to see why he can’t seem to commit? He has had long-term girlfriends through the years, but no engagements and as I mentioned has never married. Thank-you.

    • ruth nemzoff says:

      Both generations are coupling and not marrying for all kinds of reasons. Fear of commitment is only one, economics is another, the other reasons are as varied as the number of couples. While the mother can complain and nag and pester, it is unlikely that it will have any effect . So she might as well enjoy the comfort her son is having from this relationship and leave it to the young woman to push marriage if that’s what she wants..

  9. Suzy says:

    Our daughter-in-law is very polite to us and usually says the ‘right’ thing but she’s not at all warm to us. We don’t think she feels like we’re family. Should we say something or just leave well-enough alone? We certainly don’t want to make the situation worse.

    • ruth nemzoff says:

      When one marries a person they are not necessarily in love with their spouse’s family. It takes years to build trust and affection. (Think back to your own initial relationship with your spouses’ parents.Like most relationships it probably changed over the years.) Enjoy the kindness and respect she shows.

      People show affection in many ways. Some hug and kiss and others demonstrate their affection through acts of kindness. Sometimes we view another’s reserve as coldness.

  10. rosemary says:

    Thank you, Ruth, for sharing your time and insights with us so graciously. We’ve all gained new perspectives on our extended families from your answers our questions and those of our readers. Certainly everyone who has tasted a bit of your book today will enjoy reading more of your wisdom in “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family,” available at

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