In-laws and extended family can provide wonderful
plusses and interesting challenges to our marriages. If you
both feel imposed upon by a wider family, at least you
can support each other and face it together; it is much more of a
problem when you disagree with your spouse about where to draw
your boundaries with the wider family.
Our partner’s attitude to their family of origin is part of who
they are, part of the package that we have chosen to commit
ourselves to. Their attitude to their family is like their religion, their
political views, their culture and their aesthetic tastes: we may
not agree with them but marriage does not entitle us to pressure
them to change any of those things. Compatibility does not mean
conformity: it takes energy and grace to cope with differences
between couples but they can usually be coped with and even
enjoyed. It is best to honour their attitude to their family, it would
be unfair and churlish of us to be jealous of their affection and
respect for their parents and other family members.
However, I think a marriage creates a new family; primary loyalties
are to each other. Links back to our families of origin are not broken
but they are redefined. Respecting our partner's attitude toward
his or her family does not require us to automatically give in when
we believe it will negatively impact us or our family. The way we
react is very important as they will often be acting out of their best
instincts, out of love and loyalty. One must account for significant
cultural variations, too: some cultures have dominating family
hierarchies and big expectations around resource sharing.
I think this where defining your own family culture can be great. A
lot of friction can be avoided by binding yourself with a simple rule:
“Because our first loyalty is to each other, before we agree to any
wider family request or commitment, we will always consult with
each other first.” If we get into the habit of responding to our families
with the line, “That should be fine but I just want to check with
[partner’s name] first”, then it starts to give them the message that
there is a boundary there that they should not seek to cross.
One final thing to bear in mind is that many of our culture’s
attitudes to family are derived from the Bible, which has two
important but slightly different rules: “Children, obey your
parents”, and also “Honour your parents”. All of us should ‘honour’
our parents but only children are told to ‘obey’ them. As adults,
we love and respect our parents, but we should make our own
decisions with our own maturity and wisdom.
We all know the basic factors critical to a successful marriage,
such as trust, honesty and romance. A British poll of 2,000 couples
reveals some other key elements that could make a big difference
to marital success which you may not have thought of. It seems
it’s the simple things that matter, such as having two televisions
(to avoid conflict over what to watch), two cars and… two toilets!
Partners should also have no qualms about sharing passwords
for social media and email sites. Just being aware of how much
time we spend engaging with technology (tablets, phones and
computers) could make a genuine difference in our marriages
too. The poll was taken to mark the launch of a new book by
Andy Gibney. The author says: “It should be obvious that it is
communication that keeps people together, whether that’s verbal
or non-verbal, but life has a way of getting in the way. The research,
and the message in the book is keep talking, keep laughing,
keep doing the things that made you happy at the start of your
relationship and never lose it. Keep the respect, keep the intimacy
and, above all, remember why you fell in love in the first place.”
My in-laws are lovely people, truly they are, I just wish we
didn’t have to see quite so much of them. If feels as though
my mother-in-law only has to click her fingers and my
husband snaps to attention. I find myself constantly saying.
‘What about me?’ How do we put some boundaries in place?