Dealing with a partner’s family can often suck. We feel you.
In our NYC couples therapy practice, there are a handful of issues that commonly come up of the “how could you possibly see it that way” variety and the values and expectations around one another’s families are among the most frequent. There’s an illusion that once you are a couple, you automatically both inherit and know your partner’s family. It’s easy to take for granted how hard it can be to get to know each other’s families. And because of this, it’s an issue partners easily throw up their hands and give up on because they don’t realize the work involved.
In-laws Can Present An Opportunity To Experience Family In A New Way
We often talk about the stress of in-laws, but, of course, many people can have great relationships with their partner’s parents. There’s something nice about being a part of two families. An extended family can be an opportunity to experience closeness and family in a new way.
Our own parents’ relationship defines so much of our experience of relationships. And similarly, seeing relationships done differently can be powerful. It reminds us that our partnership can look many different ways.
Being A Couple Means Merging Two Family Cultures
As we’ve said before in reference to couples therapy, a couple’s task is to merge two cultures to create their own. To be clear, we don’t just mean merging South Asian and Western European cultures, though that is certainly important. We also mean the merging of the Smith’s way of doing things with the Jenkins’s way of doing things. We often make assumptions about how things should be done. But, merging two families and two different cultures often means tangling with different expectations about openness, family visits, money, taking care of older parents, etc. In fact, different people have quite literally different understandings of how family is defined.
It should also be noted that in a society where traditional gender roles are less proscribed, there are more challenges. If in a given culture, everyone assumes that a wife will care for her husband’s parents or that the husband will make the financial decisions, there are fewer decisions to make. When couples decide they don’t want to subscribe to these rules, they need to make up their own rules and culture. This is exciting, yes, but also much harder.
Be Curious About Your Partner and Their Family
Nearly all couples therapy has some elements of a moral philosophy class. We have to examine first principles, so to speak–what are your values, how do you define what family is, what sorts of obligations do you have to one another’s families, who gets to make decisions, etc. It’s easiest to see this with families from very different backgrounds, but it doesn’t necessarily take such clear cultural differences for extreme differences in values to be present.
It is important to be curious in your relationship and about your partner’s family and expectations. We are big believers in couples asking one another questions even if they think they already know the answer. “See if you surprise yourself,” I’ll plead when a patient says, “I already know what he or she thinks about….”
Issues of Privacy With Families
One of the big questions that comes up around each other’s families is privacy. What sorts of issues are “personal” to the relationship and therefore, not to be shared? In much of Western culture, privacy is considered the norm–when a couple fights, for example, there’s often a sense that this shouldn’t be shared.
So privacy is particularly loaded because we assume our view of things to be an inalienable right. “Of course, I thought you wouldn’t tell your sister about our fight” exists right alongside “How could you think ‘don’t tell anyone’ meant I wouldn’t tell my sister.” Both may seem crazy, in a tough moment, to a respective partner, and both touch up against feelings of safety and trust.
In couples therapy, we look at why privacy is important and what parameters can be set on it, but also look at its costs like keeping the relationship insulated and unable to make use of outside help. One another’s parents, siblings or other family members can be a great resource. It’s remarkable how much can shift upon recognizing that a partner’s ideas about privacy, for example, aren’t crazy or malicious, but rather, an expression of different values. You’re still left to navigate the differences, but the tenor of the conversation can change.
Couples Therapy Helps By Including Another Person In The Relationship
When dealing with troubles around one another’s family expectations and values, it can help to include another independent person in the relationship–the couples therapist. What the two of you can’t do, the three of us can. Our objective is to get the couple to where they are less alone and can have someone in the conversation who doesn’t have the same stakes as the other players (like family members). The three of us can figure out how to create new ways of being in the relationship itself and in your relationship with one another’s family that can help you get unstuck.