It has been said that when we marry, we must “leave” our family of origin and “cleave” to our spouse. Additionally, when two people marry there is an idea of the couple joining to become “one”. Two people join together, bringing all of their life experience, beliefs, and hopes to create a hybrid sense of “oneness”. Ideally, that sounds so sweet and blissful. Yet practically, it can be a challenge. And for many newly wed and not so newly wed couples, it is a huge undertaking. Sometimes, it’s a disaster. I suspect the reason this blissful joining is so challenging for some is because of the relationship with their family of origin.
I would like to propose that one of the biggest challenges of “two” becoming “one” is that “two” really isn’t “two”. “Two” in actuality tends to be “six”.
In the early stages of my clinical training, a very wise clinical supervisor said to me, “Kim, when you are in a room working with a couple there is at least six people in that room”. In my very green and inexperienced way, I looked at him and said, “huh?” “He then responded, “When you do couples therapy, you have the couple and two sets of parents in that room with you”. In my 20 years of experience, I have found that to be quite true.
When we marry and become “one”, we tend to bring our family of origin with us. This is often unspoken and subconscious and is primarily conveyed in our beliefs, values and expectations. In some marriages, one or both partners are still very bonded with the family of origin. In my world, this is called being “enmeshed”. This bonding shows up in the partner’s inability to “leave” and hesitancy to “cleave”.
This can play out in many ways, but often it shows up in marriage in the form of the partner or spouse feeling unsupported, unprotected, or less important than the family in law. Other times, it shows up as conflict between the partner and the in laws. When the issue is shared or expressed to the partner, they often respond with “Oh, you’re being sensitive” or “You know how my family is……” This response is a result of the partner still being in the role of “child” and not having established an adult relationship and healthy boundaries with that family of origin.
When we become adults, we are often faced with having difficult conversations with our family and re-defining the roles and boundaries in those relationships. So often, those conversations don’t happen because they are avoided like Ebola or some families refuse to have such conversations. I have heard it said on more than one occasion, “You may be grown, but you are still my child”. This mindset is one that often discourages an adult child from functioning as an adult, even if married.
So, if you are reading this and saying, “How do I we deal with this? How do I get my partner to understand how I feel about his or her family:” I would first reply by saying, “I understand how challenging this can be and it is a fairly common problem for couples”. It can often cause individuals to second guess their role and value in the eyes of their spouse. This tends, more often than not, to lead to repetitive, non-productive arguments, and if left unaddressed it can create hurt, anger and resentment that over time leave marriages vulnerable and at risk for divorce. My second response is, “It’s likely you may benefit from the assistance of a licensed and professionally trained marriage and family therapist”. The reason I suggest this is because “family” tends to be a highly sensitive subject, and I know many people become very defensive and even angry when comments are made about their “family”. For many of us, our loyalty, love and allegiance to our family is very strong (enmeshment), and our brain is set ablaze by a negative comment about family. So, this makes this a tough conversation for partner’s to navigate. A good therapist can help you and your spouse communicate in ways that are more effective and productive.
If seeking the assistance of a professional is not an option, I encourage you to approach your partner in a very calm, loving, non-confrontational manner and respectfully share your feelings without blame or attack. Be willing to listen and seek understanding. Be especially mindful of tone of voice and language used and convey that you want to work through and resolve this issue because your relationship is so valuable!
Kimberly Gist Miller, M.S, LMFT