Daughters-In-Law: Navigating in Troubled Waters
Pity the daughter-in-law. Her life is bound up with the family business, but she is not part of it. She feels all of the upheavals and tensions, and is often called on to bandage the psychic wounds of the participants, but may have little or no say about how to change matters.
Consider Judy and Florence, for instance, who have married into a powerful business family. Work is always discussed at family gatherings after dinner, when the men in the company go off into a separate room, leaving their wives to make small talk. This is particularly galling to Judy, a lawyer who is accustomed to discussing important issues with her colleagues every day.
Unlike her sister-in-law, Florence is not sophisticated about business. Though she asks questions about the company at family gatherings, and sometimes offers her opinions, Florence tries very hard not to show her anger. She feels her husband works too hard, spending long hours at the plant needlessly because of his father's old-fashioned ideas about the work ethic. The brief time he spends with the children is taken up with constant complaints about business problems.
The frustrations experienced by Judy and Florence are the most frequent I've encountered in my consulting practice. Another common one occurs when two brothers are rivals for the father's approval in the business. That struggle inevitably sweeps the spouses into the family drama and may even alienate them from each other. If each wife takes her husband's side the conflict may be further aggravated by egging him on to realize his ambitions, even if it means sinking the company.
Soured relationships are a real challenge to reverse. One basic mechanism that has proved useful is some kind of family forum that permits spouses outside the business to express their point of view openly (see "Calling the Family to Order," FB, February 1990). But daughters-in-law can also help themselves by thinking about their own attitudes. Here's a distillation of the advice I frequently give:
- You may feel like an outsider because in some respects you always will be. Be prepared to accept that role.
- Consciously or unconsciously, your husband's family will try to capture your loyalty away from your own family. Try to balance your loyalty between families.
- Unless you have real skills to contribute, don't expect to be offered a job in the business just because you are a daughter-in-law. If you do go to work in the family business, other employees may be nice to you just because you are family. Don't count on making real friends among them.
- It is possible that some family members will always suspect you of having married for money and you must come to terms with that.
- Relate to your husband's family outside the business. Avoid getting embroiled in business disputes if you can, and don't try to mediate them. Be a friend to other members of the family, but try not to take sides.
- Avoid fighting your husband's battles. Try not to let his anger become your anger.
- Don't restrict family access to your children just because there is a dispute about the business. Caution your husband about airing his complaints in front of the children, so they will not become alienated from other members of the family.
- Make rules about when business may be discussed at home. Make business discussion strictly taboo for certain occasions.
- The community will identify you with your husband's family and their business. The community will assume you know detailed information about the business and that you approve of what the business does and what it stands for. Be aware that you are in the public eye.
- The longer your husband stays in the business, the fewer alternatives he will have for other careers. Be prepared to deal with his "mid-life crisis" as he feels his options slipping away.
- Remember that family trust and family loyalty make family businesses formidable competitors. These attributes set them above and apart from other enterprises. Large helpings of trust and loyalty also make great families.
And if you are a son-in-law, most of this also applies to you.
Gerald Le Van is an attorney, lecturer, and president of the Family Business Foundation, a consulting firm in Baton Rouge.