Saturday 29 April 2017

Shadowing the in-laws

Before her own big day, Sarah Kiely spends some quality alone time with her fiancé's parents to find out what really makes her future husband tick

Family values: Sarah Kiely's visits her future mother in law Pauline and father in law Michael Lavelle. Photo: Tony Gavin
Family values: Sarah Kiely's visits her future mother in law Pauline and father in law Michael Lavelle. Photo: Tony Gavin
Michael Lavelle and Sarah Kiely
Happy together: Pauline and Michael
Zak Powers

How well do you know your in-laws? I'm lucky that I started dating my fiancé 12 years ago at the tender age of 18. In those early years, we spent so much time in our parents' homes that I quickly got to know my future husband's parents and felt like a genuine part of their family.

But perhaps I took for granted how well I knew Mike's folks - now that we're engaged and officially planning our life together, I wondered if the differences in how he was raised influenced his expectations for our marriage, and his idea of what even makes a happy marriage in today's throwaway culture.

A new TV series from the creators of Gogglebox has these questions at its heart. Premiering tonight on BBC2, Alone with the In-Laws sends engaged couples to shadow their prospective in-laws for a few days and get some insight into what makes their spouse-to-be tick.

In my fiancé's case, his parents Pauline and Michael Lavelle have been married 49 years, raised four children, two dogs and one malefic cat - so maybe some one-on-one time with them could teach me a thing or two about what it takes to go the distance.

Zak Powers
Zak Powers

As I glance around the kitchen in Templeogue where we're having a light lunch and a cuppa, I can't help but notice everything has a place. Pauline is house proud and very organised, the type of woman who irons her socks and bed covers because that's just the way she grew up. She is assertive but very warm. I often find myself declaring between bites, "You're dead right, Pauline'' - she has that rallying effect over most people she meets.

Mike and I have endured gentle jesting from friends over the years about how we've "rushed into things''; we were just shy of 11 years together before he proposed. When I discovered it was actually Pauline who suggested getting married to Michael back in 1966, after a seven-year courtship, I was impressed by her directness for the era they lived in.

On reflection, Pauline says if she could do it all over again she would perhaps opt for a smaller wedding ''somewhere like Paris or Rome''. Their reception was attended by well over 100 people in the south Dublin suburb of Rathgar, in May 1968. My future mother-in-law is an incredibly sociable woman, so I'm surprised by her answer.

Having almost accepted I would have a hard time keeping numbers down when it comes to us tying the knot, I couldn't have had it more wrong. I've so many friends who've upped their numbers to please the in-laws, so I felt very relieved our want of a small bash should be easily achieved, leaving me feeling warmed at the genuine want of just her son and I to be happy - pomp or not.

What struck me throughout our day together was the teamwork between my future folks. At no point in their marriage did either think of walking away.

''You're allowed to have disagreements, and take your time with them too. When you allow each other to be individuals the rest works out over time," Michael explains. Simply put: your own interests are important too.

Happy together: Pauline and Michael
Happy together: Pauline and Michael

They are two very different personalities: Michael is artistic and private, always the one who wants to leave the party early. Pauline, on the other hand, is very extroverted and first and last up dancing while Michael looks for every opportunity for peace and quiet. She loves Corrie and Dancing With The Stars, yet Michael laments the popularity of Ant and Dec when the subject of TV comes up. They are opposites, but it's worked for this long and yields an entertaining dynamic that can leave you trying to referee both points through stifled giddiness.

They have sweet routines like eating out on a Sunday night or getting fish and chips in Bray with a pier stroll. Pauline loves a 99, weather permitting, and Michael is happy to drive her out to get one.

After 49 years, I think it's very encouraging.

When Pauline became a mother, work was out of the question. In those days, she says, "you had to give it up, we all did''. I think I now understand her love and need to keep her part-time job, even as she approaches 75. It's a formidable attitude to have for her age and one that makes me feel better about putting business before babies for the time being - and grateful for the option too.

Building a home and children can help to keep a focus I'm told, but most importantly compromising daily, as unromantic as it sounds, is a practical approach to a happy life.

It's clear both like to be in control - Pauline won't let Michael interfere with her own tasks and prefers to plough ahead with an independence I get the sense she got a taste for later in life.

Their sensible approach towards being financially responsible has definitely aided tensions and worry throughout the years. They didn't borrow for their wedding and stress the importance of avoiding large debt early in life if possible. This is something I took away from our time together, and helped Mike and I secure our convictions of buying our own home first, through saving as best we can, as tough and mountainous a task as it is.

I know I can be forceful in my excitement and vision for our big day, so I feel more grounded as I get a better understanding of my partner's aversion to overspending.

Hearing how Pauline made her wedding dress herself and walked down the aisle with just a full heart was a fabulous dose of fresh air. While I'll always be a label lover, I won't be a slave to it. As, she assures me, "in that moment, it really doesn't matter, once you feel beautiful".

My afternoon with the in-laws gave me a new perspective on tying the knot - before, I worried about pleasing everybody, but now I get that both sets of parents really just want us to be happy. Neither care we won't be married in a church and I don't need to feel like an alien for not logging every detail on Pinterest or indulging in dismissive conversations about gormless grooms, because mine isn't.

From spending time with the Lavelles, the consensus is to get married your way, how and when you want to. If you're reading this, Mike, the only caveat from the in-laws? Not to leave it another 12 years.

Tips for engaged couples

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Psychotherapist Zak Powers (pictured) offers his top tips for making your marriage a success.

1. Staying connected with your partner requires you to stay connected to yourself. Make sure to prioritise your own needs. This is one of the kindest things you can do for your partner - the knock-on effect is great.

2. Forgive each other a lot.

3. If you focus your efforts on your own self-worth and treat yourself with self-respect, this will inspire your partner to treat you with equal respect.

4. Most people only learned about being in a relationship by watching their parents. The problem is they most likely had less instructions and insight about relationships than we do today. Actively learning as you go is very important, and you can educate yourself with self-help books, talk therapy and online tutorials.

5. You cannot control or change your partner. You can try but ultimately you cannot tell them what to do. You can motivate and inspire your husband or wife with your own efforts to change and grow. So get married and grow.

Irish Independent

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