A while back I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. We were meant to have a quick coffee and ended up spending a half-day together talking and talking. I learnt that her relationship was not doing so well and that her mother in law was partly responsible for it. I felt sorry about it as my friend was suffering deeply. That conversation reminded me of the damage (often unintentional) that parents can deliver to our relationships, and how frequently this happens. I want to offer a few tips on how to help you find the right balance between your relationship and parents. From now on, when I say parents I mean both our parents and our in-laws. Let’s first explore a few examples of how the situation shows up in our relationships:
Parents dispense unsolicited advice under the guise of being helpful
Parents show up at the door without ever announcing their arrival
Parents continue to do things for us that we explicitly asked them to stop doing
Parents cause frustrating arguments with our partner
Parents take over child rearing activities because they know best
There are many more, but we get the picture. It is true that parents are often responsible for these unfortunate situations, we are equally as responsible. Let’s explore why. As sons and daughters, there is a phase in our growth when we consciously or subconsciously understand that we are separate beings from our parents. It is at this point that we begin to look for independence. This is a difficult period for all involved, not the least because separation, even the healthy type, is a painful process. This kind of separation requires a few ingredients:
We need to accept we are separate from our parents
Our parents need to accept they are separate from us
We must venture into the world and explore ways to be ourselves
Our parents need to relax their supervision and allow us to experiment
A delicate balance in the transition from child to adult must be kept
A delicate balance in the transition from parent to adult must be kept
When the healthy separation takes place, and eventually we grow up, our parents recognise us as separate beings with their lives, dreams and aspirations. They get on with their lives; we get on with ours, connected, but separate. Many families, however, never go through this transition and so, often, we find alternative ways to escape the lack of independence: we get married, we migrate to another country, we leave home, we become rebels and break family or cultural rules, we do anything to feel independent. However, all these activities only provide temporary relief. And somehow, as if by magic, regardless of physical separation and distance, we still feel attached and often suffocated. If your parents are intruding your relationship and you resonate with the examples above, you also can create a healthy balance with your partner by following the suggestions below. BOUNDARIES You need to start by setting boundaries. Easier said, than done, but a necessary step to a healthy relationship with your partner and parents.
Accept that you need to set boundaries to be healthy
Define your boundaries
Assess how they have been crossed and by whom
Openly communicate your boundaries to those around you
Protect your boundaries and yourself
People around you are used to you being a certain way, “operating by a certain script”. The moment you start changing, including your boundaries, they are likely to oppose those changes. It’s their own script recognising that it cannot handle the new you, and trying to preserve the status quo. That is why you need to persist and protect. COLLABORATE Your partner is your ally. You chose to be with your partner and by committing to him or her does not mean you are abandoning or betraying your parents. Communicating openly with your partner to devise strategies to manage your parents is a powerful and intimate exercise. You are building something together and committing to making it yours. This can bring a couple closer and provide a shared sense of purpose. SUPPORT EACH OTHER Often, the partner suffering most overtly is the in-law. If your husband or wife is entangled in a co-dependent relationship with his or her parent, it would be difficult for them to see it. You can help your partner gain perspective and support them on their difficult journey of emotional separation from his or her parent. You can also support your partner to strengthen the identity in the new role as father, mother, husband or wife. Be sensitive and respectful about this journey, as it goes to the core of a person. CONNECT After all this discussion about separation I want you to be clear that we are not talking about severing relationships; quite the contrary. I am talking about growing into a new type of relationship where people recognise themselves for who they are and respect each other. Once you have clarity about your boundaries and strengthened your alliance with your partner, reach out to your parents and purposefully look to build a new type of relationship. It will take time for everyone to get on the journey and learn how to relate to each other, but the results are well worth the effort.
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