Creating a Boundary Between You and the In-Laws

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Creating a Boundary Between You and the In-Laws
By Dr. Andrew D. Atwood

My spouse's parents are in our lives way too much. They have way too much influence over my spouse and intrude into our life as a couple. We want our own family. How do we draw a tighter boundary between them and us?

Yes, this is a question of boundaries.

The first thing I would do is rent the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That will give you a big fat laugh! You can see the whole drama played out in front of you. Absolutely hilarious.

Keeping some humor around this issue will do you some good. In fact, it will do everyone some good.

There is a rule of thumb working here, which means most of the time it is true. I picked this up years ago from Frank Pitman, one of the most innovative Marriage and Family Therapists around. Frank said something like this: If a couple is struggling to emancipate a child, look to the marriage.

Look to the marriage.

Your mother and father in-law may not want to be alone with each other. Maybe they both have too much of their identity wrapped up in being a parent, instead of a husband or wife. They are different roles, and if one or the other, or both, can't handle the marriage, they might triangle in with one or more of the kids in order to buffer their marriage.

Is this a new thought for you, or have you already considered this?

If your in-laws are unwilling to be with each other, any effort on your part to disentangle the triangle will result in some repercussions for them. One move I've seen, is where the husband and wife shift their attention to another member of the extended family, say another child or even a grandchild. They will put energy into everyone but themselves.

In such situations, you will have to handle your own anxiety as you watch your in-laws deal with each other. And, even more importantly, your spouse will have to handle the anxiety of watching his or her parents heat up a little as they deal with each other. That can be very challenging.

Your job is to support your spouse in his or her effort to build tighter boundaries. The boundaries have been too permeable, and maybe too flexible, and they need to be firmed up. That usually means having to say "no" to people you love, and who will exhibit some pain when they hear the word "no". Hold your own hand, hold your lover's hand, and ride it out.

Think about your partner. How he or she will respond will depend to some degree on which type of person they are.

If your spouse is a Ready Adventurer, well, he or she might just go ahead and have at it. The adventure of challenging parents doesn't threaten as much. The Ready Adventurer is comfortable with less stability and might very well say "no" with some ease. If not, look to the presence of shame and guilt.

On the other hand, the Loyal Caretaker will have a terrible time with this. After all, it is very easy to get the Loyal Caretaker triangled into his or her parent's marriage in order to unconsciously take care of his or her parents' marriage. Strange as it may seem, that happens a great deal.

As an anecdote, there is a historic home in the neighborhood where our office is located. Like our office, it is a large "Heritage Hill Home." But, the Voigt House has been perfectly preserved. It looks exactly as it did in the 1890's. How did that happen? The oldest daughter never married and stayed at home with her parents and nothing, not one thing, was ever modernized. Makes a great museum today, but it was an enmeshed family that never emancipated their daughter.

The Authentic Idealist, if trapped in a triangle with his or her parents, has likely been hooked by some emotion, such as guilt or shame. In fact, as I think about this right now, I would bet that is the case here as well. If a tighter boundary is drawn the parents will somehow create some guilt or shame for their child for having done so. Insidious that stuff is. Watch out for the role of guilt and shame.

The Careful Thinker is vulnerable to being empowered. They like the feeling of power, and while it is usually the power attached to words and ideas, they might just as well be hooked by the power given by a very grateful mom and dad. That is a possibility. Some examination of the issues might help the Careful Thinker to think more carefully about how to encourage growth in both your marriage, as well as the parents'.

What to do?

Gently, but firmly, determine to tighten up the boundaries over the course of a year or so. Eighteen months might be a good time frame. To do it all at once would traumatize everyone. You and your spouse sit down and figure out a step-by-step plan for tightening up the boundaries. Look at all the occasions where mom and dad intrude. How often do they call? How often do you visit there? How often do they visit here? How often do we get together and for what occasions? Then determine to wean yourselves free, little bit by little bit. Make a plan, and work your plan.

If your spouse is struggling to tighten up the boundary, I would recommend three steps.

1. Get a cognitive understanding of what the issues are. See it for what it is. Your in-laws have to deal with each other and your spouse needs to tighten up the boundary so they can face their marriage.

2. Get to work on the shame and guilt issue. John Bradshaw's book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, is a terrific guide. I identified with the first half of the book so much, it was incredible. Then, in the second half, John outlines a number of techniques for freeing yourself, most of which I use regularly in Therapy. I highly recommended John's book.

3. Get into some supportive therapy. When you tighten up the boundaries, you will be dumped on by your in-laws, and maybe by everyone else in the family system, and that is a lot of pressure to take. I have a family that I have worked with for some time and the husband is enmeshed with his own family of origin. 82 people in the extended family and finally, one sister moved more than 10 miles from home. She has been put under tremendous heat, and that heat has served to inform everyone else in the family that they had better not do what Jill has done.

Well, there you have it, some advice from me to you around a fairly common problem. And don't forget: go rent My Big Fat Greek Wedding!

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