Daughters-in-law: navigating in troubled waters


By Gerald Le Van

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:

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.