Marriage Includes His Family
It’s true. When we get married, we are marrying the family of our spouse. No, we don’t take vows promising to be faithful to our spouse’s family. We’re not asked by the minister if we promise to “take his family”, but it’s still true. There’s no getting around it even though many young folks will declare, “I’m marrying him (or her), not his (or her) family!”
The Conflict of Difference
Marriage is a blend of two different families, two different upbringings, two different cultures, two different communities and churches. Granted, if you grow up in the same community and church, there’s not as much blending to do. Yet, the fact remains that each person brings his own way of thinking about and doing things, largely influenced by his own childhood and upbringing.
For starters, consider this. Find where you fall in this spectrum, and then compare how you and your spouse are alike or different because of the way you were raised:
- holidays are celebrated with fanfare; or holidays are quiet without a lot of show
- everybody participates in birthday celebrations; or most folks don’t even remember to say Happy Birthday on your day
- early-to-bed-early-to-rise; or “the night is yet young” mentality with few bedtime restrictions
- regular visits to the doctor, dentist, eye doctor; or visits to medical people just when considered necessary
- children are never teased or pestered; or to tease a child is a sign of affection
- church attendance when the doors are open; or little to no attendance or just if nothing else is on tap
- all-new clothing; or mostly hand-me-downs
- boisterous family times and vacations; or quiet and serene family times and vacations
- family secrets are just that: a secret; or hardly anything is confidential or private
- healthy eating is important; or a meal is not a meal without dessert
- children should be seen and not heard; or children are the future, so let them ask anything they want to know
- finances are determined by a pre-planned budget; or money flies by the seat of one’s pants
- a soup has to be thin enough to be able to add crackers; or the soup is only good if it’s thick enough not to need crackers
- disagreements are discussed with candor and care; or disagreements are either stuffed or shared with anger
- belching and burping in front of others is acceptable; or a person excuses himself if he needs to burp, sneeze, cough, or expel flatus
- feeling and being close is a normal way of life; or being close makes one feel hemmed in, stifled, and uncomfortable.
- if you’re not there at least 10 minutes early, you are late or it’s perfectly fine to be fashionably late
The Blending of Difference
No matter how identical our backgrounds, families, or communities are, we’re still different. The sooner we recognize this and work through our differences, the easier life will be. It should be fun to take the best of both families and combine it to make it yours!
Each of us brings our own baggage with us into marriage. That baggage includes our past, which includes our family or lack of family. Baggage isn’t all wrong or bad; for travel, we need that luggage and the items in it.
Yet as we traverse married waters, we find that we are affected by the influence of that family – you know, the one that we never intended to marry. Whether it’s a parent or a sibling, the influence is there.
We can laugh all we want about mother-in-law or father-in-law jokes, but sometimes they’re a little too true for comfort. Sometimes. It doesn’t need to be this way if we are willing to accept our differences and work at connecting the dots that bring misalignment.
If your spouse rejects your family, it will cause problems down the road. If you reject your spouse’s family, it will also cause problems down the road. I’m amazed at the women who think their husbands should accept their families, but are not willing to work at being accepting of his.
It’s okay to realize that his family is different than yours. You can even like the way your family did something better than the way his family did. What’s not okay is to pit your spouse against his family in defense of you.
This means you don’t make him choose between a pre-planned event with his family and you. It means we find a way to decide how we’ll handle conflicts together when we have to choose which event to attend when events happen on the same day. It means you don’t pout and make others miserable when you need to participate with something in his family. This also means that you show up at his family events just as he shows up at yours.
At the same time, a couple needs to recognize that they are a family unit now. Extended family is not first place anymore. Sometimes couples need to help their families understand this; they need to be unified in their desire to be a unit apart from their families. Sometimes this means a spouse will stand up for his wife to his own mother and vice versa. A couple can still be a separate unit and continue to blend with both their families if they are willing to make the effort it takes.
Combining Brings Strength
I have some ideas on connecting with each other when families are so different:
- Recognize that the differences are there and admit it. Many times the differences are simply in how things are done, and neither way is right or wrong. Sure, we might have a preference; but that preference can go if we are willing to take one for the team. When we insist that our way is the best, we sabotage our relationship with our spouse’s family. Get that idea out of your head.
- Talk about the things that “bug” you about his family and then listen to him tell you what bugs him about yours without becoming defensive. Hear things from his perspective and don’t assume your way is always better.
- Decide together how you want your couple/family to be like yours and different than how you were raised – on both sides!
- Do the right thing. Participate in his family’s events even if you don’t want to do so. While you’re there, act like you should and not like you might feel like acting. Ask the same of your spouse. Prepare yourself ahead of time and figure out ways you can handle conflicts before they happen.
- Keep a hedge around your relationship. The purpose of the hedge is to protect your relationship and family unit, and not to drive others away. Remember that. It will make a difference in how you cultivate your hedge.
The End Zone
Be realistic. Don’t expect a perfect relationship at all times with “the family you married.” There will be conflict, just as you experience with your family. At the same time, if you want a marriage that is the best it can be, you need to reckon with the fact that relationships are important on both sides. At the end of your life, what do you hope your “family you married” will feel and say about you? Do you want them to be glad you’re a part of their family, or wish otherwise? When the game has ended, what will matter most: that things were always done your way, or that you played as a team with your spouse and his family?