Couples Challenges: the Series – In-laws

The old saying, “You’re just not marrying me, you’re marrying my entire family” can be more true than one thinks. On one hand, this could be wonderful; the more the merrier. However, more time than not, this can be dangerous for the couple.

Many cultures embrace the inclusion of the extended family in a powerful role with the couple. Relatives may help with childcare, offer emotional and financial support, and contribute with household tasks and chores to name just a few. All of which can be wonderful.

However, what if one member of the couple feels threatened by the blurred boundaries and seemingly intrusive presence? This typically will become a point of contention between the couple: one fighting to include their family while the other fights to keep them out. This situation typically leaves the one fighting for the inclusion uncomfortably stuck in the middle between their partner and their family or origin.

Many times, struggles with in-laws present at very important, special times. For example, religious events, holidays and birthdays can become hotbeds for the couple to get in a major fights subsequently taking any fun or enjoyment out of the occasions. Plus, splitting your time between in-laws racing around trying to make everyone happy usually makes for a miserable time.

Here are a few helpful tips to avoid the potential conflict created by in-laws.

  1. The relationship comes first: When both partners know that they are the priority and in the number one position, they can tolerate the inclusion of others as assets to the experience rather than threats to the relationship. Verbally tell both of your extended families where your allegiance lie; with your spouse.
  2. Communicate clearly: Try to discuss both of your feelings about including and excluding the extended family. Perhaps utilizing couples counseling or marriage therapy at this time may prove very beneficial. Many times, when one is able to clarify their feelings and needs to their partner and feel their partner actually hears them, they become more flexible about the situation and can tolerate more.
  3. Make an over-riding rule: Perhaps deciding that you and your partner will not attend or include either side of the family in important events but instead spend it alone with just the two of you, makes a powerful statement that no sides are being taken and the relationship comes first.
  4. Divide and concur fairly: Take out a calendar and mark all the important occasions that could potentially include the in-laws. Divide those dates up fairly and send an email to all family members letting them know of your decision. This way they can express their gripes ahead of time and not when the occasion actually occurs.
  5. Weight the cost/benefit: Including extended family into your lives could be a huge benefit; not only financially, but emotionally. Look at how much money you could save by sharing daycare with a family member instead of paying for it out-of-pocket to a stranger. Also, use of the in-laws to take care of the children on occasion could free up valuable time the two of you could spend together nurturing your relationship.
  6. And lastly, maybe it’s not about the in-laws: There is a very good chance that this powerful conflict is not about the in-laws at all. Instead, it’s about the couple itself. The old sayings, “It’s not about the trash” or “What it’s about is not what it’s about” are probably true. Seek out couples counseling to get to the core issues of the conflict and improve your chances of moving on from this issue instead of being stuck fighting about something that isn’t even the problem to begin with.

In-laws can be both wonderful and terrible. Establish, with the help of your partner, a strong commitment to each other first making sure extended family comes second. Through the strength gained by knowing you are the priority to your partner, you may come to the place where the in-laws are no longer seen as a threat, but instead as an asset.

If you would like to learn more about how to strengthen your relationship to handle the various couple’s conflicts that may arise, contact me through my website or blog by clicking on the links provided below.

Mark A. Kaupp. A Psychological Corp.

2525 Camino Del Rio So., Suite 107. San Diego, CA 92108

or at my blog

The Couples Therapist Blog

I Need You: A Story of Attachment

A grandfather had taken his two year old grandson to the beach for the first time. And as he took him to the water’s edge, he held out his index finger for toddler to grab hold of. The little boy reached up and held onto the very tip of his finger as they walked slowly a few steps into the moving water.

The grandfather could see the anxiety and excitement building in the child and noticed the boy consistently looking back and forth between the water and himself; checking to make sure everything was ok. The little boy was using his grandfather to know that everything was going to be ok as they stepped further and further into the water.

As the water approached chest high level for the child, he continued to hold onto the very tip of his grandfather’s finger. It was imperative for him to maintain a connection and the grandfather could see his grandson using him to regulate the anxiety caused by the oncoming waves of water. The child would grip the fingertip tighter as a wave would come and splash against his body and then ease on the grip as the wave passed. This pattern repeated over and over again until the child gained confidence that he could handle the oncoming waves by himself, without the aid of Grandpa’s finger. However, once a larger wave approached, the child reached back up and grasped for the finger again. It was there for the child to hold because Grandpa never took it away.

It was always there for him to use when he needed and the child knew it.

This is a story of Attachment. The child reaching for the Grandfather’s finger is not a learned behavior; it’s an instinctual action, hardwired in our brains by evolution, never to grow out of. When we are faced with fear, we reach to others. And the waves in the story are a perfect metaphor for the waves of life that keep rolling toward us everyday.

It’s a general consensus that in this country that from a very early age we need to be strong, self-sufficient, and able to handle things on our own and not need to turn to others. Turning to others is viewed as weak, a sign of immaturity and co-dependent.

It’s at this point that the question of “Which comes first?” enters the picture. Is it because we are self-sufficient and able to handle life on our own that makes it easier to reach and bring others closer to us? Or, is it because we are able to bring others close to us at times of need that makes us better able to deal with difficult times on our own? It is true that we need to be able to self-soothe when no one is available to share our anxieties and we need to be able to reach to others when life’s waves come rolling toward us. Mental health is a balance. We need to be able to do both; to reach when we are scared and know someone will respond to us and be able to make it through the tough times when we are forced to be alone. This dual process is constantly at work within us all. And, moving to either one extreme or the other gives us the labels of “too clingy or disconnected”. Neither is healthy for us or for our relationships.

Evolution has hardwired in us the need to reach to others when stressful times approach. Relearning or reinforcing this process is the number one key to achieving and maintaining positive mental health and positive successful relationships.

This concept of Attachment is a focus in the work I do when working with couples in therapy. Teaching and reinforcing a couple’s ability to reach to each other for support and nurturing in times of need creates a strong emotional bond of connection, trust and safety. I will be discussing in future writings the importance of Attachment. I will be presenting examples of positive, successful attachment and examples of difficult, trying times when attachment was not utilized. I hope you find this example of the little boy and his grandfather helpful in conceptualizing the power of relationships in dealing with the waves of life that keep rolling at us.

Mark A. Kaupp, Psy.D.,

Marriage, Family Therapist, License #MFC33213.
or at my blog