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Coping with In-Laws from Hell

Jill Hamburg Coplan I spoke recently with a new entrepreneur about his consulting business' rookie year. His take-home income already almost equaled his old salary. He spent less time at work. Three years into a second marriage, he and his wife were talking seriously about children. I wondered: Too good to be true?

Then he got to his in-laws.

They were opinionated people who didn't let the facts stand in their way, he said. They constantly criticized him for quitting a "perfectly good job" and putting their daughter's well-being in jeopardy. In their view, he would never be able to give her the things she deserved. It was a growing source of tension, one that had begun to really bother him.

According to several business-and-family counselors I consulted, this is a very common problem. "Doubting and disparaging family members -- with their worries, bitterness, and perhaps jealousy, as well -- are frequently challenges for business owners," says Scott Friedman, a Buffalo (N.Y.) lawyer, author of The Successful Family Business, and a member of the Canyon Ranch Family Business Group.

"DEVELOPMENTAL TASKS." If your wife has allowed these attacks in her presence, it may be that they resonate with her own insecurity, says Joe Astrachan, the Wachovia Chair of Family Business at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and a principle in the Family Business Consulting Group.

Psychologist Joan D. Atwood, the director of Hofstra University's graduate program in Marriage & Family Therapy in Hempstead, N.Y., agrees. "She may be unconsciously conveying these thoughts to her family, because if she was completely aghast at these comments, she would put an end to them very clearly, and they would stop," Atwood says. She may not have completely separated from her family of origin, "one of the major developmental tasks of a married couple," Atwood says.

There are several good ways the husband might counterattack.

Self-Assurance. "He needs to be very confident," Astrachan says. "He should tell his wife not to believe her parents. He should introduce her to successful entrepreneurs and their families."

Laughter. It may be that these in-laws have a very cutting sense of humor. If this is their idea of amusing banter, he might ease the tension by laughing loudly and teasing them back with something like, "Be careful -- when I'm rich, I might not recognize you," Astrachan suggests.

Openness. Certainly, the couple must talk it over. "They need a common plan," says Brian M. Kane, a professor of theological ethics who heads the Marriage & Family Studies program at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa. The wife may provide useful insights. Perhaps her parents aren't afraid of failure, but that he'll succeed all too well and take her further away from them emotionally -- a common insecurity.

Keep On Keeping On. He shouldn't let the issue dominate his life or his marriage, Friedman says. "He should make a conscious effort to talk about other subjects," and treat his wife even better than usual. And since success is the best revenge, he ought to work harder than ever on his business to prove his in-laws wrong. Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan

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