Protecting Your Spouse From Your Family

By Adam Clement, LCMFT

Developing intimacy in a romantic relationship is a challenging, albeit fulfilling, lifelong endeavor.  This is before even considering the context we grow our relationships within.  When you marry, your roles change.  While your family “gains” a new child in your spouse, they also lose time with you.  This creates endless opportunities to establish your new priorities.  Family and friends influence our understanding of relational boundaries.  Everyone has their own subculture that informs how we behave and sets expectations for others behaviors without our conscious awareness.  As we navigate through life, relationships shift and change and force us to continually reconsider the boundaries.  There are few choices in life that affect our boundaries as much as getting married, and that is just the beginning.

Even in the best of circumstances, there are challenges in integrating a spouse into your family of origin.  Customs, traditions, and communication styles that you have grown up with as second nature provides what are called unsolvable issues to work on with your spouse.  It also provides potential for misunderstandings and hurt expectations.  Even if you rarely see your family, aspects of your formation still affect your behaviors and expectations of intimacy with your spouse.  In this way, we either work to regularly reorient to each other or risk building resentment towards things we do not like about our relationship.  As we enter into adulthood, even the term “family” is subject to change to include those we hold dear that may or may not include biological relations.  We get to choose who we are close to and this is no more evident than the stranger that becomes your primary family member. Your spouse.

Value is life is measured through a lens of scarcity.  What we are willing to give up for something informs how much we value it.  In developing intimacy, it takes little to give up time and energy for things that we do not hold in high esteem.  Therefore, in order to prioritize your spouse, you must place them above other relationships including your family.  “A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his spouse”.  I have known people to comment that they did not like their life until they met a significant other.  This would seem like a complement at first, until you consider the implication that the person they are with is simply a better option than boredom.  A true compliment to a romantic interest would be to state how great life is and that they are a person you are happy to make time for in your busy and fulfilled life.

It is not uncommon for spouses to struggle with how to prioritize their spouse over their family of origin, but this is a good problem to have.  The implication being that adversity and opportunity are what create virtue and strength more than the lack of it.  For any dating experience there is a threshold to be broken from when we tell our support system about the person that we are interested in to the point where we feel closer to our partner and confide in them even about our support system.  Intimacy is something to be earned through meaningful, and often, uncomfortable conversation with the intention of fostering a deeper sense of closeness.

Protecting your spouse from your family is simple in theory.  If there’s a disagreement between your spouse and a family member, you are ultimately involved whether you would like to be or not.  You are the connecting tissue between your family and any reconciliation cannot be complete without your involvement.  After all, the relationship of in laws does not exist if not for the person in the middle.  The short term solution is to side with your spouse in public, while making the time to coordinate together the best approach to the situation.  It is less a question of who is right than you will be sharing your bed.  It is the family’s job to continue to present opportunities to come back into the fold and the couples job to decide which opportunities to take and how they want to engage with them.  Sometimes this takes the shape of setting a time to leave events or which family members feel safer to associate with than others.  Other times it can require a precise and pointed assertion of the “we have decided” referring to your marriage rather than the condescending rejection of intimacy confirmed with, “it isn’t up to me” or “my husband/wife said no”.

A few years ago, I had a friend reply to a group message, including several friends, that he would not be able to attend an event last minute because of his wife.  Much to my surprise and delight, several of my friends weighed in before me that he is more than within his right to state that he is choosing to put his family before his friends, but that he should not have thrown his wife under the bus to make his reputation look better.  Unfortunately, blaming your spouse has the opposite effect.  It is essentially informing people of the lack of credibility in how you value what you claim is important.  It is hard not to disappoint friends and family in some way when you reintroduce who you are as a consequence of your choice to honor your spouse above all others.  It is harder still to convince your spouse that they matter if you are unwilling to prioritize them when it matters most.

The other way to interpret protecting your spouse from your family is in regards to children.  Children are willful creatures whose job is to test the boundaries and resolve of their caregivers to verify lessons and understand the world.  They are looking for parents to be genuinely on the same page even if it is in the short run against what they would want.  After taking care of yourself, the second most important thing you can give to a child is showing them how to treat your spouse with respect and preference.  While certainly challenging and a longer process, the same is even true as an aim for blended families.  If your spouse is not your favorite person, not the best person but the person you favor most, children struggle to develop a healthy vision of peer relationships.

Coordinating with your spouse before family events and struggles and then processing through how everything went afterwards, is a great way to continually grow in how you want the family you created together to thrive.  Protecting your spouse from your family is not about literal altercations, hopefully.  It is about proving to your spouse and yourself, in one of the most emotionally challenging settings, that the vows you undertook were true.  If you assume your family cares about you, the greatest reassurance you can provide to them, even if it momentarily to their chagrin, is to assert that your marriage is the most important thing.

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