I Married You, Not Your Whole Family

I Married You, Not Your Whole Family – When you made a lifelong commitment to your spouse, you might not have realized that, to some degree, you also made a lifelong commitment to his or her family. Your spouse also made a commitment to your family. Some of us are blessed with parents- in-law and siblings-in-law that we adore. But some of us need to work harder at get- ting along with our new extended family. In this chapter, we will help you identify conflicts you might have with your family and ways to deal with them. Instead of the extended family being an interference, you’ll learn how to bring out the best in them and let them be one of your biggest assets!

➤ Common family conflicts
➤ Breaking destructive cycles
➤ The importance of creating clear boundaries ➤ Emphasizing good qualities

When you made a lifelong commitment to your spouse, you might not have realized that, to some degree, you also made a lifelong commitment to his or her family. Your spouse also made a commitment to your family. Some of us are blessed with parents- in-law and siblings-in-law that we adore. But some of us need to work harder at get- ting along with our new extended family. In this chapter, we will help you identify conflicts you might have with your family and ways to deal with them. Instead of the extended family being an interference, you’ll learn how to bring out the best in them and let them be one of your biggest assets!

Your Mother Is Driving Me Crazy!

According to popular myth, mothers-in-law are meddling, overbearing, and impossi- ble creatures out to wreck an otherwise wonderful marriage. They think they are al- ways right and that it’s their job to always tell you the right way to do things (their way!). If this describes how you view your mother or mother-in-law, you probably feel she is interfering with your life rather than being helpful. However, if you would like your relationship with her to be different, read on.

What Is Really Going On?

First of all, it will help tremendously to understand what is happening underneath the stereotyping. It’s no accident that mothers are the subjects of in-law jokes. The relation- ship with your mother, and your spouse’s relationship with his or her mother, change more than any other when you get married. Think about it. Mothers nurture us from the moment we are born. Through our childhood they are the ones most involved in our day-to-day life. They know the names of our friends and what our favorite flavors of ice cream are. (We are not excluding fathers from this level of intimacy. However, the fact that there are no father-in-law jokes out there probably reflects a less emotionally complicated relationship.) As we get older, our relationships with our mothers change, but they still are one of the most profound influences on our lives.

Until we are married, our mothers have had the most intense, intimate relationship with us of almost anybody. Friendships and other relationships somehow do not seem to threaten a mother’s special role with her child. But when we marry, things are differ- ent. We have made a public commitment to a life partner who will share our deepest concerns, our day-to-day life, and our future together.

As it should be, we make our spouse the number one most important person in our lives. Hopefully, our mother is incredibly proud and happy for us. But she also might feel insecure and not know where she stands in her relationship with us anymore. A vi- cious cycle can start in which the more insecure and left out our mother feels, the more she tries to overinvolve herself. And, the more she overinvolves herself with our lives, the more we are inclined to back away.

Mother/Mother-in-Law Quiz

  1. Describe your relationship with your own mother. __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
  2. Does your mother feel secure? Yes or No
  3. How does this affect your relationship with her? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
  4. How does your mother influence your relationship with your spouse? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
  1. Describe your relationship with your mother-in-law. __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
  2. Does your mother-in-law feel secure? Yes or No
  3. How does this affect your relationship with her? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
  4. How does your mother-in-law influence your relationship with your spouse? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________________________

Breaking the Cycle

Stephanie’s mother stopped by several times a week, often while Robert and Stephanie were eating dinner. It really interfered with their time together and made Robert uptight. Generally Robert was a polite person, but he really considered this rude and tended to show it. He wasn’t mean to his mother-in-law, but he wasn’t a gracious host either. After she left, he felt frustrated and also guilty that he had not treated her nicely. Stephanie often became angry that Robert had not treated her mother well. She also wished her mother would come by less often, but she didn’t know how to improve the situation.

Stephanie and Robert finally sat down and talked about the problem. They realized that what bothered them the most was the lack of privacy caused by an unannounced visit. Stephanie suggested they set up a regular night that her mother would come for dinner. Robert agreed.

Stephanie called her mother and discussed the idea with her. She told her mother that they loved seeing her, but it was difficult for them when it wasn’t planned. She needed time alone with Robert. She told her mother that Robert and she would like to invite her for dinner every Thursday evening. Then they would really be able to give her their undivided attention. She emphasized to her mother that she was wel- come in their home at other times, but they would appreciate it if she would call first.

At first Stephanie’s mother felt she was being shut out of their lives. Stephanie almost caved in, but somehow found the courage to be firm. She told her mother that she was always a part of their lives, but that they just needed a set schedule to make their lives more manageable. Her mother didn’t seem happy at first, but it ended up to be a very workable solution for everybody. Robert was much more gracious and polite to his mother-in-law then he had previously been. He took a genuine interest in her life and became much closer to her than before. Everyone looked forward to their evenings together.

Marriage Q & A’s

Q: Now that I’m married, my mother is telephoning me twice a day. I don’t want to upset her, but I don’t want her to call so often. What can I do?

A: Perhaps if you telephoned her on a regular basis, she would feel more secure. When you finish a conversation with her, tell her when you will next call her. Make a point of calling her back when you said you would. If she can count on you to contact her, she might telephone you less often. If that doesn’t work, you should talk openly and kindly with her about your needs.

When you are in the middle of a difficult situation, it can be hard to be objective. If you feel your mother or mother-in-law is smothering you, you probably want to push her out of your life. But that will not work, and you will only hurt her feelings and feel guilty for having done so.

You need to make your mother or mother-in-law feel secure. Let her know when you appreciate something she has done for you or some advice she has given you. You don’t need to argue with her if you disagree with her suggestions. Just listen and thank her. Ideally, you will come up with ways to include her in your lives. You might ask her advice about certain things if she might be helpful. Make a point of inviting her over for a regularly scheduled time (even if it’s infrequent). Having a time that she can count on might calm her down, making her less likely to be over- involved in your lives.

Loving Hearts

All relationships evolve over time, including the ones with our family. If they did not, we would be missing an opportunity for tremendous growth. When we get married, the thing that makes it tough on some members of our families is that on some level they feel the spouse is replacing them. While it’s true that our relationship with our family will probably change, it does not mean we will love them less. But sometimes our families feel we cannot possibly love them as much as we used to and also love our spouse. They assume we have a finite amount of love and that their share is smaller than before.

Fortunately, this is not true. Our hearts have the wonderful ability to expand to include everyone in our lives. It’s sort of like the way most of us can always eat dessert, even when we are absolutely full. But some people do not see it like this. The result can be an unnecessary competition between family and spouse, which is miserable for everyone involved. Instead, tell your family that you love them on a regular basis. Always make sure they are aware of how important they are to you.

It’s not necessary to shut your family out of your life when you are married. Having a healthy rela- tionship with both of your families will enhance your relationship with each other.

Common Conflicts

It’s much better to decide what you cannot tolerate from family members and take the time and effort to tell them about it ahead of time, than to blow up when it hap- pens. First, try to figure out what is bothering you. This is not always easy. Common conflicts with family members include:

➤ Visiting too often
➤ Staying too long
➤ Calling on the phone too often or too little ➤ Meddling in your business
➤ Trying to tell you how to live your life

If a family member is really annoying you, take the time and effort to determine what specific behaviors you are bothered by. Many times, resolving a particular conflict can improve your relationship with him or her. It might be that only one behavior is an- noying, but many things bother you because of that one thing. If you are having some trouble identifying what exactly is bothering you, it might be helpful to refer to Chapter 7, “What’s Bugging You?” on identifying conflicts and apply that information to your family.

Jason found his wife’s sister really annoying. Sara, his wife, was very close to her sister. They talked several times a week on the phone, and she came over almost every Sunday afternoon. Sara knew that Jason was annoyed by her sister, but could never figure out why. Jason became irritable whenever she came over and always left the room. Sara and he would often have a fight Sunday evenings after her sister had left.

One Sunday, Sara’s sister stayed for dinner, and Jason was clearly upset. He kept his emotions to himself until she went home, but then he yelled at Sara.

 

Out-of-Town Visits

Stephanie and Robert had a problem with Robert’s parents. They lived out of town and wanted to visit twice a year for a week. While Stephanie and Robert didn’t have day-to-day conflicts with them, they always felt like the upcoming visit was looming over their heads. When Robert’s parents came for an entire week, it threw their schedules off. They came on relatively short notice, and it was difficult to host them for such long visits.

Stephanie and Robert dealt with their problem by not talking about it. Then every six months or so, Robert’s parents would call and announce they were coming the next week. They would tell Stephanie and Robert the flight number and time and expect them to drop everything. Both Stephanie and Robert liked his par- ents, but they found these visits badly timed and ex- hausting, even though they looked forward to seeing his parents.

Stephanie and Robert needed to take control of the situation. Instead of waiting for Robert’s parents to call, they should have called up his parents and given them a choice of two times several months away that would have been good for them to visit. They should have also suggested a five-day visit, rather than a one- week stay. Stephanie and Robert would have enjoyed the visits if they were better timed and shorter.

Here is a list of things that will help you establish better out-of-town family visits:

  1. Determine the date of arrival early enough in advance, to everyone’s agreement.
  2. Establish plans of what you and your relatives would like to do when they visit.
  3. Decide ahead of time how long you want your relatives to stay and let them know.
  4. If you will have other obligations during their visit, let them know ahead of time to prevent disappointment.

Keep Your Problems to Yourselves

You might think that talking about problems you are having with your spouse might help you become closer to your mother-in-law. Don’t do it! Asking advice about a re- cent argument with your spouse is a severe breach of trust. Never, ever, talk about negative things in your relationship with anyone except your spouse (or a therapist). It’s extremely destructive. Even if you do not mean any harm, you are undermining the trust that the two of you have. You will not only alter other people’s perception of your spouse, but whatever you discuss will be remembered by the other person long after you and your spouse have resolved the issue.

Marriage Q & A’s

Q: Is it wrong to talk with my friends about my marital problems?

A: When you discuss problems you are having with your spouse with another family mem- ber or friend, you are undermining the trust in your marriage. If you compliment your spouse to others instead, you will be strengthening your marital bond!

Accentuate the Positive

Sometimes a conflict with a family member does not have a workable solution. The only thing left to do is to focus on the person’s good qualities. It’s easier to tolerate some things that bother you about your father-in-law if you try to think about the things you do like about him. Every member of your family is going to be part of your lives in one way or another. You will only benefit if you think about them in positive ways.

Family Profile

Make a list of any member of your family with whom you have a less than perfect relationship. Do the same for your spouse’s family. Write down something that bothers you about each of them. Then, next to your annoyance, write down a posi- tive quality that the person has. Use the following tables.

Her Family

Mother Father
Sister
Brother
Aunt
Uncle Grandmother Grandfather Cousin

His Family

Mother Father
Sister
Brother
Aunt
Uncle Grandmother Grandfather Cousin

Annoyance

________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________

Annoyance

________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________

Positive Quality

________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________

Positive Quality

________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________
________________

Once you have your list, figure out ways to ties. For instance, if your mother-in-law (who is controlling and overbearing) is a great cook, have her cook for you. She might bring unwanted cooking advice along with the casserole, but you will get a delicious, homemade meal out of it. Or maybe your uncle is difficult to be around because he is always saying negative things about everything. But deep down he is a very caring, generous person. Ask him to help you fix something around the house or go on an errand for you. He might grumble while

he does it, but he will feel helpful and you will feel better about the relationship. The bottom line: Remember to accentuate the positive.

Sometimes You Need to Grin and Bear It

Unfortunately, there may be some members of your family who are completely aggra- vating even after you have discussed your concerns with them, made suggestions, and tried to focus on their good qualities. Unfortunately, you are stuck to some degree. There is no solution that will make everyone happy. Keep your marriage strong by making sure you deal with the difficulties together.

If one of you is having trouble with a family mem- ber, do your best to make the family member feel welcome, while at the same time respecting your privacy and your limits. Always keep in mind that your goal is to have as good a relationship with every family member as possible.

Your Family Can Be Your Biggest Asset

It’s easy to forget how important and wonderful your family can be. There are some things that only a relative can provide, like a memory of you when you were young. And whether they show it or not, everyone in your family loves you and wants the best for you.

When it comes down to it, most families will be there for you during the difficult times. Ideally, they will be there for you during the good times as well. By recog- nizing how special your relatives are to you, you will have taken the important first step to being closer to them.

Bring Everyone Together

Some families have drifted apart over the years and all they need is for someone to bring them together. Why don’t you and your spouse step in to make it happen? You could start a monthly Sunday brunch, or have an annual party during the holiday season. It’s a great way to reconnect with everyone, and your effort will be appreciated. You can even start a family newsletter to keep everyone informed of family happenings.

The Least You Need to Know

  • ➤  Sometimes a family member who interferes is insecure about his or her role in your lives. Don’t push this person away. That will only make matters worse.
  • ➤  You have enough love for your spouse and everyone in your family. You don’t need to skimp.
  • ➤  It’s important to know your limits and create clear boundaries with your families. Otherwise, you will be frustrated, which will interfere with your relationship.
  • ➤  Don’t share your marital difficulties with your family. It will be destructive in the long run.
  • ➤  Bring out the best in members of your family. Remember that your family can be a big asset.
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