Relationships: Bringing a loved one into your family
Dear Jeff and Lori,
I grew up with a very close family. My parents are still together and my siblings and I decided to stay in our hometown to be near them and each other. We have a very direct and honest way of being with each other. My wife of two years comes from a small family where everyone is focused on being polite. She recently told me she doesn’t like spending time with my family because, in her experience, they are abrasive and she feels criticized by them. I don’t see it that way. I think they really care and want what’s best for us. How can I get my wife to see that and be able to appreciate my family more?
— Between A Rock And A Hard Place
Jeff and Lori: We commend you for writing in and looking for a solution. There’s truth to the adage: “When you marry someone, you marry their whole family.” In some cases those aren’t matches made in heaven. However, they can provide incredible opportunities for personal growth—for you and for your wife.
Lori: Trying to bond with a spouse’s family can be a little like being the new kid in school. Your family has a long established history of norms, rules, values and language that have been built on a foundation of love and trust. Your wife is coming into the picture without having had the opportunity to establish the same foundation with them. In our work with couples, we explore how trust and emotional safety are crucial in any relationship and developed over time and with care. You’re in a powerful position to be able to facilitate a safe and healthy connection between your wife and your family. Start by acknowledging her feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability. Then instead of telling her how great your family is, work on creating opportunities for her to experience their warmth and caring first hand — talk up her strengths to them at the dining table and encourage them to notice her amazing qualities that you fell in love with. If you want her to appreciate them, you’ll need to help her feel appreciated by them.
Jeff: It’s important to begin the process by seeing things from a non-dualistic perspective. There isn’t a right or wrong here — nor is there a good or bad, a better or worse. You each grew up with different families, different ways in which you connected with and attached to your parents and different paths to becoming the people you are today. These differences created unique perspectives on what works for you and what you are comfortable with. Some of the aspects of your family that you see as caring and supportive might be uncomfortable and threatening to those outside of your family circle, your wife in particular. Even though it all looks good from your perspective, your family’s directness might be perceived as sarcastic and confrontational. It might be helpful to step outside of what you’ve grown familiar with and look at your family dynamic with fresh eyes.
Jeff and Lori: Oftentimes, partners in your situation can feel pulled to choose between aligning with their family or their spouse. But this is not about siding with one party over the other. It’s about choosing to encourage respect and connection over passively hoping your family and spouse will grow to like each other.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
Chris Anthony’s documentary film project chronicles post-war activities of the 10th Mountain Division.