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Relationship Guide
December 2004:
You and Your New Family
by Claire Hatch
Claire Hatch, MSW is a licensed social worker and mediator who specializes in working with couples. From her Seattle area office, she counsels people by phone and in person.

Claire will be happy to answer your relationship questions in this column. Please send them to claire@clairehatch.com or call her at 425.823.2273.
Want more relationship help? Then The Bridal Sanity Workbook is for you. Claire shares wisdom from her pre-wedding counseling experience and her work with troubled marriages.

What’s wrong with this picture? Pam and Roy are engaged to be married next summer. This Christmas, Pam will be spending the holidays at her family’s home and Roy will be with his family. They spent Thanksgiving the same way.

They’re not acting like a couple; that’s what’s wrong. They certainly don’t want to have separate holidays once they’re married, but they haven’t figured out how they’re going to get from here to there. Like many engaged couples, they have come face to face with the conflicts over time spent with parents and in-laws. They are going to have to solve this when they’re married.

The problem is how Roy feels about Pam’s father. He thinks he makes comments that could be taken as racist. Roy feels uncomfortable when this happens and he’s even more uncomfortable with the fact it doesn’t seem to bother Pam.

“Where are your principles?” he asks. “If your friends said the things he does, you never would let them slide.”

“I know why Roy gets upset,” says Pam. “But he should just ignore him. My dad is old school. It’s not that he’s really mean-spirited or would be nasty to someone he met personally. He talks the way he was brought up. I choose to look past that to the person inside. He’s 55 years old, and he’s not going to change now.”

When you marry, you’re not just marrying an individual—you’re joining a family. The holiday season has a way of driving that message home. And the initiation process doesn’t always go smoothly. Most families have a few emotional landmines. Your fiancé’s way of coping with them may not be your way. How you handle these early conflicts can set the tone for your family relationships for years to come. For the record, Roy’s approach—taking a high moral stand and demanding big changes in the way Pam relates to her own family--is a great big DON’T.

Here are some ideas on solving these family dilemmas and getting along without giving in.

Start with Compassion
If you’re the one with a grievance, the first thing you need to do is show that you care how your fiancé feels just as much as you care about your own concerns. Put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. If you’re longing to give your mother-in-law a piece of your mind, take a moment and picture how it would feel if your fiancé did the same to your father. If you intend to avoid the problems completely by skipping a holiday visit, imagine what it would be like if your fiancé said he didn’t want to see your parents.

Hold the Criticism
When we counsel divorced parents, we caution them not to speak ill of the other parent. Why? Because for children, their parents are a part of them. Criticism toward their parents feels just like criticism directed toward them. This dynamic doesn’t really change much as we grow up. However much we may criticize our parents ourselves, it’s painful when others do the same thing.

Look to the Future
If you drive a wedge between your fiancé and his family, you’re going to have a lot of repair work to do down the road. Your partner is sure to resent you for it, even if he’s not showing it much yet. And the resentment will surface at every holiday or family celebration. Couples who have been married a long time will tell you that it’s very difficult to have a happy marriage if one or both of you feels “caught in the middle.”

Find the Meaning of the Problem
If one of you is reacting strongly to the other’s parents, chances are there’s more going on than just a difference of opinion. You both need to stop and think: What is it exactly that’s pushing those buttons?

Does one of you have a spouse improvement agenda in mind? All too often people head into a new relationship thinking, “She’d be just perfect if only she’d change this one little thing.” And they carry that agenda over into their partner’s family. Some brides and grooms-to-be need a reality check. This is your partner’s family. This is the way they are. They are not here to live up to your expectations. And for that matter, neither is your partner!

On the flip side, lots of people have the opposite reaction. They are on guard against being changed by marriage. Especially as the wedding draws near, the fear of losing independence can make people play, “Don’t change me.” They become unusually rigid about their positions and cling to symbols of their identity. Any compromise can feel like a threat.

Sometimes, couples have concerns about how their children will be raised, even this early in the game. For example, Roy does not want his children exposed to the things Pam’s father says.

Understanding the underlying issues better frees you up emotionally, so you can stop reacting and start planning a solution.

Take Small Steps
Whether it’s you or your fiancé having in-law trouble, you need to address it by starting out slowly. Agreeing on some small changes that you both can live with will give you a sense of moving forward without anyone feeling too threatened.

It was hard for Pam and Roy to decide what those steps would be, with emotions running high on both sides. Finally, Pam agreed to have a talk with her dad about how Roy felt, without being judgmental or making any demands that he change. The point was just to get the topic out on the table. For his part, Roy agreed that he would not require Pam’s dad to have a complete political makeover before he would spend any time with him.

“This doesn’t mean all our problems are solved,” said Pam. “But we’ve broken out of the gridlock. We’ve faced the fact that separate holidays are no solution at all. And most importantly, we have the feeling that we’re working on this together, as a couple.”
 

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