We love to hear from our readers, recently we received an email from a reader was asking for help with meddling parents. After answering her email I asked if I could share her letter and the answer with all of you.
Dear Kate and Brad, I have a question for you on families and how they can affect partnerships. I have been married once and was in a long term relationship previous to my marriage. I am now in a loving relationship with an amazing guy who after several years together has not yet met my parents. A common theme of my two previous relationships, was that my parents would not provide space. Their lives revolve around me as an only child – they adore me. But I am never able to set that boundary with them, that I am now part of something new with someone else that is separate to my ‘family’, the workings of which are between the two of us not my parents and us. My parents have poor boundaries in this regard and I have felt powerless to change that. An example is when I was married my parents would call me all the time. They seemed to have a sense of when my husband and I were intimate and call at that time. I told them I’d prefer them not to call so much and especially not in the evening, because that was my time with my husband and they were hampering any chance of a grandchild. They didn’t change their behaviour and would jokingly ask if they had interrupted ‘anything’ when they called.
As I enter into a more serious time in my new relationship I want to ensure the same mistakes do not happen, but I can already see them starting. Without ‘divorcing’ one’s parents, do you have any advice on establishing boundaries so that a one flesh marriage and the creation of a new family has the space needed to grow and survive. Thanks for listening and keep up the wonderful work you do.
What an awesome question. Every married couple has to figure out how they transition from being part of the family of their parents and create a new family together. This transition is a journey that often runs into issues! As I am sure you have discovered is no easy answer on how to make this transition happen. Every family is different, but here are four things to consider as you address this issue with your parents.
1) Cut Out the Cut-Off
It sounds as if you have chosen to cut off your parents rather than adjusting the relationship, but as I’m sure your realized this didn’t solve the problem. Cutting your parents out of your life, or even from your married life seldom helps the situation. There are times that this becomes the only option, but it should be a very last resort. There are times that space is necessary for a time, and since this has already happened in your case you might be able to use this difficult reality as an advantage now that time has passed. With some preparation, planning, and prayer it could be possible for you to meet with your parents and explain to them exactly why you felt you had to make this decision.
What caused you to seek space from them? What would you like to do different now that you are willing to try again? Calmly explain to the problems that you were having, then stop and listen.
2) Listen with Clean Ears
I encourage you to listen to your parents with fresh ears. I have to imagine that your parents’, or any parent’s goal is not to make your life miserable. They (most likely) didn’t want your marriage to fail, and the separation is probably difficult for them too. It is not unusual for a couple to have a hard time making the transition from a life focused on their children to one that is just the two of them. It is a grieving process for every couple, but some have more difficulty then others letting go.
After you tell them why you have felt forced to cut them out of your life (or a portion of it) listen to what they have to say about their reasons for their intrusions on your life. Try to remove your frustration at their actions for a moment and really listen. Listen for the care they have for you, listen for the motivation they have for the frequent telephone calls, and the frequent intrusions.
3) Draw the Boundaries
Come prepared with some ideas of the boundaries you will be setting in your relationship. Notice I didn’t say boundaries you expect them to keep, but boundaries you are setting. This is an important distinction. Of course you would like them to change, that would make life easy, but you cannot plan on changing their behavior. You must instead decide how to set boundaries for yourself.
For example, in the phone calling issue you mentioned has a very simple solution. Tell your parents that you will not be answering their phone calls in the evening, they are free to leave a message, and you will return the call when it is not “husband time”.
This is a different way of thinking about boundaries, but in my experience it is the only way that works. In order to understand this type of boundary setting I would encourage you to read Boundaries, by Cloud and Townsend. I think this will help you set boundaries with them that you can keep, and not rely on your parents obeying in order to make them work.
4) Come Together Right Now
Keep praying and talking to your spouse. Challenges only become a relationship problem when the create space between you. The same challenge can pushing you together or pull you apart the difference is in how you communicate. If you find that after a visit, or a phone call that an issue has come in-between you start talking. With communication you can use this challenge to bring the two of you together rather than pull you apart. It is only in silence, that opposition grows, sides are taken, and the challenge can become a relationship killer.
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