“Could you please step out of the picture? We just want a photo of our family.”
This is how my client’s recent holiday visit to her in-laws began. Her in-laws awkwardly requested that she step out of the family photo they were preparing to take. They just wanted a picture of their family. My client, feeling hurt and confused by all of their behavior, watched as her husband of 5 years nestled between his sister and brother, giggling like he was 3 years old again. She thought she was part of her husband’s family when they married 5 years ago. Now, she felt his family had drawn a line in the sand. Even worse, it seemed that her husband didn’t think the exclusive family photo was a big deal.
My New Family?
Most of us hope that when we marry our partner we will be embraced by their family, accepted fully and integrated into it. Clearly, this is not always the case. Some families, conscious intent or not, seem to steadfastly stake boundaries between the family of origin and the new partner. They are unable or unwilling to view the new member as one of their own. Apprehension with the integration of old and new families can cause significant conflict, tension or just complete avoidance behavior.
Here are three main dysfunctional behaviors that block the peaceful blending of families:
Many of us regress when we spend time with our family of origin. Our childhood role is so familiar that we fall back into it like second nature. Our family of origin may also unconsciously enable our childlike behavior. Any attempt in resisting the regression to your 15 year old self could engender more negative behaviors by the family of origin such as childlike taunting (“you used to be so fun”), avoidance behavior or outright conflict.
Tensions between your old and new families can make you feel a little like Jekyll and Hyde. With your family or origin, you play the fun-loving, baby of the family, yet with your new family you are more serious and in charge. The two roles conflict with one another which can be difficult for both sides to accept.
Your family of origin may also monopolize you emotionally and physically, leaving your partner feeling isolated and excluded. One of my clients shared how frustrated he felt when he could not sit near his wife when they spent time with her family. She was constantly surrounded by her sisters leaving little or no space for him. Family of origin members may also dominate emotional space by persistently engaging in exclusive conversations, making it difficult for the partner to participate.
The most egregious and destructive behavior is the deliberate exclusion or ostracism of the new partner by the family of origin. The exclusive family photo is illustrative of deliberate exclusion. Other more passive aggressive examples include subtle comments made by family of origin members such as, “we never get to see you…now,” and “I miss how things used to be.”
How to Manage
Mixing old and new families may be somewhat anxiety provoking, but there are healthy and effective ways for couples and families to manage their visits. Here are 6 ways to manage in-law visits:
1. Schedule breaks.
Take physical breaks from the family of origin to reconnect and reset with your partner. This can be as simple as taking a 10 minute walk or finding a quiet spot.
2. Schedule emotional check-ins.
Pull your partner aside for a few moments to see how they are holding up.
3. Be aware of physical closeness.
If you notice that you are surrounded by your siblings and your partner is on the other side of the room, make a deliberate effort to include them.
4. Communicate as a team.
Use the pronouns we and us, a lot!
5. Always be inclusive even with photos!
Unless you have a hit show like the Kardashians there is no need for posed family of origin photos.
6. Have your partner’s back.
Correct subtle or blatant negative talk about your partner by your family of origin.
The ultimate goal is for you and your partner to establish boundaries with the family of origin and develop healthy coping mechanisms that will promote a more peaceful connection between both families. The more consistently that you and your partner adhere to your boundaries, the more likely both families will adaptively restructure in a way that will allow your relationships to flourish.