From the beginning of our marriage my husband and I set clear boundaries with our families. In fact, how we were going to set boundaries with our families was one of the first conversations we had together. We had conversations about parental favoritism, which holidays we would spend with which family, how we would manage family vacations, how long relatives were allowed to stay with us when visiting the city, what topics (if any) were off-limits for discussion, and what we considered intrusive behavior. Some of the conversations were…intense…but they were worth it.
It has helped us prioritize our own marriage above everything else because we didn’t have to have talks every time something up came up with one of our families.
Some of the boundaries we have set are:
It’s normal for our parents to have a closer relationship with us rather than our spouses. I mean, they raised us so obviously, right? It’s just really crummy when our parents show favoritism toward us over our spouses when it comes to birthdays, holidays, or visits. It sometimes creeps up in the smallest of ways – parents show more interest in our activities or careers or the gifts they give to us are a bit more expensive or lavish. If left unchecked those behaviors can make your spouse feel left out or like their in-laws don’t value them as a member of the family.
How to Handle It – Have a clear conversation with your family members about perception and how those behaviors can be perceived by your spouse. Set spending limits on gifts and encourage conversation between your parents and your spouse.
The first year that we were married we lived in the same town as my in-laws so we spent the holidays with my husband’s family. The second and third year we were married we lived in the same town as my parents so we spent the holidays with my family. More recently we moved to Atlanta, where my husband’s extended family lives, but 4 – 8 hours away from either of our immediate families. That is when the conversation really started to get serious unfortunately we have had a falling out with his side of the family so the topic became a moot point. We now spend the holidays either visiting my family or here in Atlanta on our own. If you’re in a situation that does require compromise over the holidays then read on for how to handle it.
How to Handle It – Before launching in to the conversation sit down and really evaluate how each family celebrates the holidays and which traditions are the most important. For example, my parent’s moved back home to West Virginia and my hometown has an enormous 4th of July celebration. In fact, it’s one of the largest in the nation and we celebrate it big every year. My parents also own a hunting farm and deer hunting season opens during Thanksgiving so Thanksgiving is a much bigger holiday than Christmas because extended family travels in to go hunting. If your family also has traditions that favor one holiday over another then use that for compromise. You can also evaluate a rotational schedule (his family this year, her family next year, and so on) but don’t default to that automatically. If you see one family more than another during the year then that family should give a little on the holidays.
When I was growing up we lived in Florida and spent almost every family vacation visiting my Dad’s parents in West Virginia. As a kid I didn’t really notice and I loved it because it meant seeing my grandparents, playing on the farm, building bonfires, making smores, and basically just having a grand old time. As I grew in to my teen years I remember the occasional moment when my mom would say she wished we could take at least one family vacation that didn’t involve WV. She wanted to travel more but we never did, we always went to WV. It was a compromise because we saw that family so rarely and both of my parents wanted us to have memories with my Dad’s side of the family. Now that I’m grown and married, my parents moved back to West Virginia from Florida and it’s like the cycle has started all over again.
Before we were married Brandon and I spoke about traveling and vacations we wanted to take together. We both have destinations within the US and abroad on our bucket lists. I didn’t want us to spend every vacation with either my family or his and fortunately, he agreed. We try to take at least a short vacation a minimum of 3 times per year and one of those is with family. The other two are for us so we have our time away from it all.
How to Handle It – We started this conversation by each sharing 3 places on our own travel bucket list. Fortunately, we found that we had a few places in common so we ended up only have 4 places on our list. We then sat down and made a travel calendar indicating when we wanted to visit each place. That helped us visualize how much family time we could really squeeze in to our vacations. I’d recommend that you try the same thing. What is your dream vacation and is it reasonable to expect that to become a trip with extended family? Also, remember that this is separate from holidays.
When Relatives Visit
This came up again just the other day. I called my mom while I was on my way to the grocery store just to check in and she dropped a bomb on me saying that she was thinking of road tripping down to Atlanta with a friend of hers and visiting. When I asked her when and how long she said, “Oh, I don’t know, by the end of the summer and maybe a week? Maybe a month?” My very first response was, “Let me check with Brandon.” I knew he would say that he loves my mom and she could stay for as long as she wanted but I would never offer up my home to any visitor without checking with him first (and the same goes for him). He said exactly that but we both know that doesn’t apply for most visitors. On average we’ve agreed to a 3-5 day rule with the opportunity for exceptions.
How to Handle It – This requires a very frank discussion between the two of you but three days is a good general rule of thumb. Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “Fish and visitors smell after three days.” basically implying that three days is long enough for a standard visit. A lot of has to do with distance though because my parents have an 8 – 10 hour drive so 3 days seems a bit unreasonable for a visit. We have also set boundaries regarding how much of the visit must be spent doing activities together versus how much time we are granted as “alone” time and what other expectations we have for one another.
This is a much bigger deal to me than it is my husband because although I’m an open book on most things (after all…I do have this blog) there are other things that I keep pretty close to the chest and I consider them “off-limits” topics for discussion. When the subject was raised my husband actually admitted he had a few too. Naturally, I can’t discuss specifics here but I will say that money details is a big one of mine as is keeping details about fights or arguments private. His are very specific so I can’t mention them at all but just know that everyone likely has one or two things they’d rather you not discuss with others.
How to Handle It – This takes a lot of respect and compromise because it’s entirely likely that you won’t agree on topics. This is not the time to argue or push your point. If your spouse isn’t comfortable with a topic being discussed with family then respect their decision and preferences. I don’t like discussing specific monetary figures with family (like exactly what we paid for our car, how much we have in investments, or how much we donate to charity). It’s the same reason I have decided not to do income reports on my blog. If a topic makes your spouse uncomfortable, don’t share it with family. Remember, you can always revisit topics again later.
Hmmm, what is “intrusive behavior”? Again, this is something you have to decide on between the two of you because what is intrusive to one person may not be intrusive to another. I remember when I was little my grandmother used to come over and, when she did, she would always clean. It drove my mom crazy and it was such a running joke in our family. (Think of Marie on Everybody Loves Raymond, lol). Is that intrusive? It depends on who you ask. What about disciplining your kids? Offering cooking advice? Telling you how to manage your money? Providing decorating tips? Giving “constructive criticism” on anything you do in life? Stopping by unannounced? Changing plans that have already been made? Talk it over because this is a big one.
How to Handle It – This goes right along with off limit topics because you have to respect and submit to your spouse in this situation. If someone feels as though behavior is intrusive, then that behavior is intrusive. No two ways about it. No one should be forced to live in a situation that is uncomfortable and your spouse is your partner so be on the same team. It’s not hard to say, “Mom, I know you feel like your helping when you clean but it makes me uncomfortable. Would you like a cup of tea or coffee instead so we can just visit?” In other cases, it requires standing up for yourself but you’re not a child anymore and it’s ok to tell your parents that they have to respect your boundaries.
***Special Note*** – None of the above mentioned tips or suggestions should be followed in the case of an abusive or controlling relationship. Relationships and marriages are two-way streets and they require people working together toward a common goal. If your voice is not being heard, if your opinions are not being respected, and if your boundaries are not being acknowledged I encourage you to think twice about your relationship and seek help if needed.
Looking for more on this topic?
- Setting Boundaries with Difficult People: Six Steps to SANITY for Challenging Relationships
- When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You: Finding God’s Patterns for Healthy Relationships
Have you ever struggled to set boundaries with your parents or your in-laws? Any other tips or topics to share?