Chris O'Meara  /  AP file
Bob and Mary Schindler, parents of Terri Schiavo, attend an emergency hearing at the Pinellas County Courthouse in Clearwater, Fla. in a Feb. 23 file photo. The conflict between the parents and Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael, brought the case to national attention.
updated 3/22/2005 7:37:51 PM ET 2005-03-23T00:37:51

Incompatible in-laws have long been a staple for gag writers, but the Terri Schiavo case is a reminder that such friction often has wrenchingly unfunny consequences — bitter estrangement, all-out legal battles, even violence.

Indeed, it is the conflict between Terri Schiavo’s husband, Michael, and her parents that brought the case to national attention. If the parents agreed with his efforts to remove the brain-damaged woman’s feeding tube, it is unlikely that right-to-life activists and politicians would have mobilized regardless of other circumstances.

“There have been similar cases where people have been disconnected, but because they didn’t reach the same level of in-law tensions, they didn’t evoke such strong feelings,” said Steven Mintz, a University of Houston professor specializing in the history of families.

“The subtext of the case is intergenerational tension,” Mintz said. “Parents are more invested than ever in their children, even when they’re grown.”

Normally, U.S. law is clear-cut — however distressed in-laws may be over developments within their child’s marriage, they have no special right to intervene.

“This area of law has been long established,” said Phyllis Bossin, a Cincinnati attorney who formerly chaired the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section. “Once you get married, your spouse gets a whole lot of legal rights, including the right to make medical decisions for you.”

‘Where would you draw the line?’
Atlanta divorce lawyer John Mayoue noted that in-laws might disagree passionately with decisions affecting their married children or even their grandchildren — should a teenage granddaughter have breast-augmentation surgery? Should a Jewish grandson have a bar mitzvah?

“But would we want them to be able to go to court or petition Congress to get their way?” Mayoue asked. “Where would you draw the line?”

Mayoue said he found it ironic that conservative activists who promote the sanctity of marriage when opposing same-sex unions have — in the Schiavo case — sided with in-laws seeking to intervene in what is legally a spouse’s prerogative.

“The conservatives are getting involved in tearing down the foundation of something they say needs protection,” Mayoue said.

Conservative leaders, however, contend that Michael Schiavo undermined the sanctity of his marriage by cohabiting and raising children with another woman, while refusing to divorce Terri and place her in the guardianship of her parents.

“We support the nuclear family — that’s the paramount family,” said Carrie Gordon Earll, a bioethics analyst for Focus on the Family.

“That doesn’t mean parents should not be paying attention to what’s happening to their children, even if they’re married, adult children,” Earll added. “This is a case where the parents feel they have evidence of abuse. People are wondering, ‘Who is Terri’s family here?”’

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said his normal inclination to oppose any infringement on the husband-wife relationship was altered in this case by Michael Schiavo’s cohabitation and the absence of a living will written by Terri Schiavo.

“I’m not usually in favor of government intrusion,” Perkins said. “But ultimately the government does have a right to protect people.”

Grappling with suspicions
Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, says parents are right to be wary if their married daughter inexplicably becomes more distant. An abusive husband, she said, typically tries to isolate his wife from her parents.

“Some parents are afraid to meddle,” Lieberman said. “They need to set boundaries as to intruding into a marriage. ... But if they have suspicions of abuse, they should do whatever their instinct tells them to do.”

Some of the thorniest in-law disputes involve grandparent visitation rights. Lawsuits abound, usually filed by grandparents against an estranged son- or daughter-in-law who has custody of grandchildren after a death or divorce.

Some relationships end violently. A South Dakota man killed his two young children and himself this month after a fight with his mother-in-law. A Pensacola, Fla., attorney was shot dead by his father-in-law in January; a Vancouver, Wash., woman was convicted in 2003 of killing her mother-in-law with fireplace tongs.

Tip to parents: ‘Get a life’
Claudia Arp, who along with her husband and another couple wrote a book called “Loving Your Relatives,” said most people dismayed by their in-laws can minimize tensions through restraint and civility.

“One important tip to parents: Get a life and work on your own marriage,” Arp said. “We see so many problems when kids grow up and leave home, and parents don’t let go and cross boundaries they shouldn’t.”

Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., who has studied marriage, said in-laws prior to the 20th century often had economic stakes in their children’s marriages and participated in the younger couples’ decision-making.

“Now, the couple has to decide things for themselves,” she said. “That’s liberating, but it also raises the potential for everything-goes battles.”

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