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Families are Great… But they can be Tough

friends gathering at dinner in night garden and chatting

I love family, I think most people do. But managing family is a delicate balancing act that many couples struggle with. I’m not talking about raising your pre-adult children (those can certainly be a challenge as well, but that’s a topic for another post). I’m really talking about extended family – parents, grandparents, in-laws and the like. Often times couples come into a marriage having not dealt with the expectations their respective families may have. Dealing with your own family can be trying, but now add in the complexity of a brand new family as well.

Things may seem fine early on in the marriage; problems often appear when major events arise, like holidays. If you have two sets of extended family both expecting you to be at their home on Thanksgiving, or on Christmas morning you are set up for conflict. If you are fortunate enough that both families live relatively (nice play on words there…) close together, it may be possible to seek a compromise. However, if they live in different cities or even different states, it becomes much tougher. It may seem as if one family “wins” and the other is forced to compromise.

Even when families live close, conflict will arise. You may be expected to attend every one of little Johnny’s T-Ball games, or Suzy’s dance recitals. God forbid you might miss cousin Gertie’s birthday party. Here you are in a stage of life where you are trying to create your own family with its own practices and traditions, but you feel as if you are being sucked in to another families expectations.

When we work with young couples, we strongly encourage them to establish boundaries early. Decide as a couple how you will manage each family, establish boundaries and communicate them clearly. We also note that it is easier to set strict boundaries early on and “lighten up” over time than it is to do the opposite. There may be some hurt feelings or expressed disappointments as you do this, but lovingly communicate that you are prioritizing your own marriage and your own family as God has instructed you to do.

As an example of a solution. Our oldest son, once married, decided that would not spend Christmas day with either of their families. Instead, they set that day aside as a time for them to celebrate. They did this first as a couple, and now with their own four children. They still enjoy a Christmas with both families, but not on Christmas day. As parents, that took some adjustment but it has to work out fine over time.

Boundaries are not Just for Newlyweds

You would think that once these boundaries are established, that you are set for life. The reality is, it is important to continue to establish new boundaries over time. I have seen grandparents essentially abandon their marriage relationship for the sake of their grandkids. Watching the kids occasionally is a blessing. Becoming a full-time caretaker is another thing. I’m not talking about catastrophic situations like death or abandonment, I’m talking about it’s easier and cheaper to have Grandma watch the kids full time while I work than to pay for a pre-school or childcare. I’ve seen situations where a young working couple have a grandparent watch the kids all week, then ask them to watch again on the weekend so they can get away and spend time together as a couple. The assumption here seems to be that while it is important to invest in a marriage early on, once you hit a certain age it is no longer necessary. To this I scream – NONSENSE!

Boundaries are important throughout your marriage. The intent is to make sure that you allow sufficient time to invest time and attention to your spouse. Don’t let others dictate your life. Be kind, be generous. But keep putting your own marriage first. This is just as true at five years of marriage as it is at fifty. Doing so will allow you to have the type of blessed marriage that God intends you to have – until death do you part.

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