A couple’s extended family can either support the marriage, be a neutral force, or they can add stress to the relationship. It’s important to learn that although you can’t control their behaviors, you can control how you respond to them. It is possible to have a happy and healthy marriage even if you have difficult parents or in-laws.
Problems with extended and family can include a variety of problems. Common complaints often include invasions of privacy, frequent criticisms, and unsolicited advice. Learning how to respond to these sorts of problems before it causes a strain on your marriage is important.
You don’t have to be a victim of your family’s invasions of your privacy. Set some clear boundaries. Clearly explain the boundaries to your family and point out any violations in a calm and consistent manner. This is important to ensure that you can keep your family a unit without feeling like extended family is intruding on your territory.
Loretta’s mother-in-law came over to her house frequently. She would stay late and sometimes interfere when Loretta was trying to get the children ready for bed. Loretta understood her mother-in-law’s intentions were good in trying to help out since her husband worked late, however, Loretta found that this interfered with her time with the children. Loretta decided to talk with her mother-in-law about the importance of the children being able to wind down before bed without having company present. She requested that her mother-in-law leave by 7:00 each day. Loretta found that after making this change, her mother-in-law agreed, and Loretta found herself in a better mood and more patient.
When there’s a conflict between two people, it can be tempting to draw in a third person. People often want to share the conflict with someone else to get someone else on their side. A conflict between two people becomes muddled when a third person is brought in, creating triangulation. It can be more helpful to talk directly to the person you have a conflict with in order to solve the problem. Complaining and venting to someone else might temporarily relieve your stress, but it isn’t likely to change the situation.
Paula’s mother-in-law drove her crazy. She often gave her advice on how to cook, clean, and parent the children. Paula often held in her feelings until after her mother-in-law left. Then she complained to her husband about how annoying his mother is. This only lead to conflicts between Paula and her husband and he felt like he was being put in the middle. A better solution to the problem would have been for Paula to talk directly to her mother-in-law about her concerns.
Although it can feel uncomfortable to confront the issues directly, it is important to stick to the facts. Discuss your concerns about the behaviors and share how the behaviors are impacting you and your family. Then directly share what you want and need. For example, “I feel bad when you tell me how to parent my children. The children also get confused when they overhear you say these things and it undermines my parenting. Please don’t interfere or second guess what I’m doing when I’m disciplining my children.”
Interrupt the Pattern
Families often get stuck in the same routine and the same patterns. If these patterns aren’t working, it’s important to interrupt them to create some change. If it isn’t working, don’t keep doing the same thing over and over!
Carl disliked having to spend Christmas at his in-law’s house every year. He felt that now that they had children of their own, they should stay in their own home for the holidays. Yet for a few years after having children, he continued to spend the night at his in-law’s house on Christmas Eve. He felt angry and resentful toward his in-laws as he felt they were ruining Christmas and taking away from his family’s ability to create their own memories. He also felt guilty that they hadn’t created new traditions for their own children.
Carlos could have talked to his wife about developing a new plan for the holidays. Perhaps they decide to visit his in-laws on Christmas Eve and then return home the same evening. Or maybe they could find another alternative solution. Continuing to do the same thing over and over despite building up anger and resentment is not healthy and is likely to lead to marital discord.
Protect Your Marriage
Making your marriage a priority is important in protecting your marriage. This may require you to take steps that may cause extended family to become upset or angry with you at times. Learning to tolerate and accept that they may not be happy with your decision is part of separating from your family and building a healthy marriage. Although it can be difficult to directly confront well-meaning extended family, it is important to do so for the sake of your relationship.