While sex and money problems are typically about power (see the last two posts), problems that involve the extended family are usually about influence. When a couple is unaware of the importance of intentionally establishing themselves as a primary unit together, they are particularly susceptible to problems.
Who’s More Influential?
These problems usually play themselves out in one of three ways. First, problems occur when the extended families vie for influence over the couple. When one partner feels that the in-laws take precedence over one’s own extended family—or even over him or her—resentment builds.
The Cocoon Phenomenon
To resolve this kind of issue, couples sometimes establish substantial distance between themselves and one or both extended families, which only creates a different kind of problem—one in which at least one partner can feel particularly lonely, as if he or she belongs to no one. Creating a cocoon of mutual refuge from anticipated extended family influence eventually collapses under the weight of unrealistic expectations of each other.
In-laws Are Out-laws
Finally, problems eventually crop up when one partner flees his or her extended family to join the family of his or her partner. When issues occur between the couple, the partner who’s been adopted into the new family is still somewhat on the outside. It is rare that in-laws completely escape the out-law position. This is another way in which a partner can come to feel he or she belongs to no one.
With most in-law problems, two operating principles can help separate the in-law issues from the underlying problems, which they may conceal:
- Each partner takes responsibility for the relationship with his or her own family, working toward functional connection with them
- Neither partner cuts off his or her own family to join the family of his or her partner
These principles can help a couple make the internal emotional shift from the position of child in one’s family of origin to the position of adult in one’s nuclear family. This stance significantly diminishes the triangulation that can disastrously divide a couple along family lines.
The most common triangles between couples that involve extended family members include: the wedding gift triangle, the loyalty alignment triangle, and the dominant father-in-law triangle.
The Wedding Gift Triangle
In the wedding gift triangle, a son avoids the pressure of a relationship with his mother by handing her over to his wife, giving her the responsibility of keeping in touch with her, keeping her involved as a grandmother when children come along, remembering her birthday, etc. The wife can either 1) take on the task of over-functioning for her husband in his relationship with his mother; 2) join an alliance with her mother-in-law against the son and husband; or 3) triangulate with a child, object or activity.
The Loyalty Alignment Triangle
In the loyalty alignment triangle, one partner is in an overly close relationship with his or her family of origin, with the other partner in the outside position. When a conflict arises, the family of origin is given primacy of influence in making decisions about the issues.
The Dominant Father-in-Law Triangle
In the dominant father-in-law triangle, the wife unites with her idealized father in implicit criticism of the husband. This can occur even if the wife’s father is dead when he still lives on as the primary influence in her life.
As couples work themselves out of any in-law triangles they may have formed, the idea is to increase the primacy of the partnership bond, without damaging the relationships in the extended family. The job of each partner is to develop the ability to arrive at his or her own positions, even when it means making a choice that could upset someone in the extended family (usually a parent). In doing so, couples can identify potentially unresolved issues with members of the family of origin, so that they can be addressed and resolved in the relationship with the problem, rather than trying to get the problem to go away by getting one’s partner to change, when the partner isn’t the problem.
Try This at Home…and/or Seek Professional Help
As you discuss sticky in-law issues, be sure to employ all the competencies that we’ve addressed in the last week. Tread lightly. Emotions run especially high around these issues, because family rules and expectations learned in childhood are difficult to identify and replace with new rules that you and your partner establish.
Give it time, but be conscious and reflective in establishing yourself as your own adult in your relationship, no matter your age. Be intentional and purposeful about establishing yourselves as your own unit together, too, separate from your families of origin, but still connected to them. As you both do so, your solidity will bring stability to the new unit you establish together.
If you’ve been married for a while, but haven’t done this work, it may explain a great deal of your conflicts. It’s never too late, though; in fact, better late than never. Few things in life are more important than safeguarding than your intimate relationship.
If you need help, don’t hesitate to seek it out with an unbiased third party, potentially a family systems counselor. Priceless.
And just in time for the holidays.