Extended Family, Extended Grace

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I know a woman who calls her husband’s mother her “mother-in-love” and in turn she is called “daughter-in-love.” I know another family who describes that relationship as “outlaws.” What’s the difference? Perspective.

One of the biggest challenges surrounding marriage is the merging of extended family members. While you know all of the reasons that you fell in love with your spouse, those same sentiments don’t necessarily extend to your spouse’s family members. In fact, there may be a few family members that you struggle to even like, but interacting with your spouse’s family is all part of the marriage package.

I know someone who is temporarily living with her in-laws while her home is being renovated. While there are certainly challenges for everyone, the compromises are covering for the deficits. And that’s the key to most situations involving families trying to get along—compromise! If nobody steps up to the plate to compromise on an issue, then you might be the one who needs to pinch hit and be the first.

As a couple, you should establish non-negotiable issues when it comes to family. These might involve the number of overnight family members that you agree is a manageable amount along with their expected length of stay. It could include the amount of junk food you allow your children to consume either at home or at the grandparents’ house. Sometimes relatives feel entitled because they are family, so it’s important to establish these boundaries up front. Once those are communicated, the other disputes come down to picking your battles.

Of course, the struggle is not just limited to in-laws, but can also be within our immediate family. Why is it sometimes so hard to embrace family members? One reason is that most of us grew up in what social scientists call a “nuclear family model” comprised of parents and their children. In this model, children are raised to be independent and stay that way. This is in contrast to some other cultures where the “extended family model” is practiced. In this model, individuals rely heavily on an extended network of equal relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s not unusual in this culture for the whole family to continue to live together even after marriage. It’s known as a multigenerational household, where three or more generations live together.

While this may help us to understand the reason behind our struggle, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying to forge stronger bonds, especially during this time of year where peace and giving abound.