How Can Extended Family Influences any Couple Relationship?

1. How much time should we spend with our extended families (parents, siblings, etc.)?

Sometimes extended family can create tension and frustration with a couple. One of you might want to spend more time with your parents or siblings than the other. One partner might feel unhappy with family members dropping by uninvited or with a practice of spending time with extended family every week. Discuss with each other how you envision the ideal amount of time to spend with extended family (both sets), and any underlying feelings that might create tension around this situation.

2. What holidays or traditions do you feel strongly we spend with your extended family?

Both of you might have holiday traditions with your family of origin that are meaningful and important to you. Or one of you might feel strongly that you build new traditions with your own family that don’t always involve your parents or siblings. Discuss with each other what is important to you related to holidays and traditions and why it’s so important. How can you each honor the other’s wishes and reach a compromise?

3. How should we communicate to the extended family about our new family traditions and create our family boundaries?

Sometimes your extended family has expectations about how you spend your holidays or create family traditions. They might assume you will spend every holiday together or want you to travel to their home exclusively for holidays. It’s difficult to communicate your boundaries and differing desires when you know your family might not receive it well. How can you support each other when communicating this to your family? Should one or both of you participate in the conversation?

4. How can we work it out, if we disagree about the amount of time spent with our extended family?

Before you encounter another difficult situation related to time spent with your extended family, discuss a plan in advance for working through future disagreements. Is it acceptable for one of you to spend time with extended family without the other? Can you reach a middle ground without resentment? Write down a plan so you have a guide when you are in the heat of a decision about a specific situation in the future.

5. How do we handle behavior, expectations, or demands that we don’t like from our extended family?

Your mom might indulge your children more than you wish. You dad might insert himself in your financial decisions. Maybe one of your siblings asks you to babysit too often. Inevitably something will arise with an extended family member that causes tension. It’s especially difficult to address if the family member is an in-law. If one or both of you is more passive in dealing with conflict, it can cause simmering resentment with your spouse. What are some of the situations you don’t want to occur with extended family? Discuss how you would like to resolve these and who will lead the conversation with them.

6. How can we make sure we put our relationship before our extended families?

Conflict and differences related to extended family and in-laws can cause real problems in your relationship. When you have split loyalties, it becomes even more difficult to resolve these problems, as you feel ambivalent about the best course of action. However, if you both agree the health of your relationship comes first, then you can always find a way out of the difficulty. During any given situation, ask yourselves, “What outcome is best for the good of our relationship?” If you can’t figure this out together, work with a counselor to help you. Don’t allow conflict or resentment to simmer.

7. Is there anything I do that makes you feel I don’t put you ahead of my extended family?

This is a good time to discuss any underlying resentments either of you might have about how your partner relates to extended family. Listen openly and compassionately to each other about any negative feelings, even if you feel defensive or hurt. Allow your partner to fully express his or her feelings and acknowledge those feelings without judgment. Sometimes simply listening and acknowledging is all that’s needed to heal an issue. But discuss any specific changes or actions your partner might request from you and consider what you are willing to change.

8. How would you like me to handle it, if someone in my family says or does something to offend you, in person or behind your back?

In some families, one or more members might be passively or openly rude or hostile to your spouse or partner. They might complain about your spouse to other family members or make snide remarks in your presence or your partner’s presence. If this occurs, ask your spouse how he or she wants to handle the situation. Does she want you to speak up, or does she want to handle it? How can you both prevent the situation from occurring again or getting worse? What is the bottom line for both of you, and what will you do if the situation doesn’t improve?

9. Who in our family would best serve as guardians for our children?

It’s difficult to think about needing guardians for your children, but you want your children cared for in a loving environment should the worst happen. Optimally, it would be best if your children went to a family member with whom they are close and feel happy and comfortable. But the family member needs to be willing and able to raise your children. Is there anyone in either of your extended families who would best serve as guardians for your children? Discuss together what you both consider to be the ideal guardian situation, and who in your family (or friends, if necessary) would come closest to fitting that scenario.

10. What is your rule as a couple about discussing marital problems with extended family?

If you are close with your parents or siblings, they might be the first people you call when you and your partner are having problems. This can cause divisiveness between your spouse and your family, even after you and your spouse resolve the conflict. Discuss together what you feel is acceptable when it comes to talking about your marriage or your partner’s behaviors with your extended family members.

Follow-up: Are there any behavior adjustments you’d like to request from your partner related to extended family and spending time with extended family? What specific action steps will you both take to improve your understanding of each other and yourselves related to your families and how you interact with them? Write these down and determine how and when you will initiate these changes or actions.

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