The Early In-Law Challenge


The In-Law Challenge is a early-marriage task that presents itself in many, if not most, new marriages. It may be part of a normal developmental process that takes couples 5 to 10 years to complete.

Of course, to suggest 5 to 10 years is to give a general sense of the typical range. In some marriages this In-Law Challenge may never (or only briefly) be a problem; in others, it is never resolved and frankly can be a significant and not uncommon cause of marital failure, or divorce.

The basic issue here is with a new husband who is still more oriented to his parents, or parent, than to his spouse. In other words, he is still more his parents' son than his wife's husband. It can be the same for a new wife: still more her parent or parents' daughter than her husband's wife.

For the secondary spouse, it feels like the parent-oriented -- let's call it "enmeshed" -- spouse is always "taking the parents' side." For the enmeshed spouse, however, it feels as though he or she is "just keeping the peace" with his or her parents. Parent-enmeshed spouses may not even understand the problem. They are, after all, products of a system that expects them to serve their parents' needs before their own.

A young husband, for example, may have functioned in the role of pleasing and appeasing his parents his whole life and he may have trouble -- without the help of a skilled marital counselor -- even understanding concepts that are quite obvious to uninvolved parties who are merely observing the situation.

If you haven't encountered this, you might find my characterization extreme. Believe me, it is not. And you know couples who have struggled with the Early In-Law Challenge for years, whether you are aware of it or not.

The parents in these cases inevitably contribute greatly -- unconsciously most of the time -- to the problem. For one thing, they consider (generously, in their minds) their son's or daughter's new spouse to be their new child. This is the kind of complex issue that makes families sick. No kidding. On some level, the parents have the feeling that the new spouse should be flattered to be considered another of their kids... but for the new spouse this means functioning in the role of a child -- coming to the parents' home when the parents think they should, for instance. This is the simple, obvious, and most common version. For example, the young couple is "expected" to come to Sunday dinner every week. The husband is sick of this and would like to have a Sunday for himself and his wife, or the two of them and their own children. But the enmeshed spouse doesn't want to "disappoint" her parents, or "piss off" her parents. An even less evolved enmeshed spouse may simply defend the idea that this is just the way things are done in her family, without even an understanding that she is afraid of upsetting her parents.

The situation is especially difficult for the spouse who rightly wants to be considered an adult, and as such be treated as an equal, not an inferior, by other adults. This is the problem when the parents want to consider their daughter and her husband as "the kids." The husband might reasonably like to be treated as an adult, and an equal, not as a person with "child status" in the greater family.

So the task that the enmeshed child faces is to begin to disappoint, anger, or otherwise his or her parents. In other words, to start being more their partner's spouse than their parents' child. There is also likely to be an early-process adaptation that involves destructive splitting -- in this case the daughter, let's say, will be inclined to throw her husband under the bus, so to speak, saying , "James thinks we should eat at home this week," or "You know Billy doesn't like it when we come over to your house too much." The first step of course is using the (till-now) elusive pronoun "we." Really, a more evolved couple recognizes the leverage they gain when parents do not know whose idea it is to skip Sunday dinner since that kind of detail gives the parents intelligence they can use to "reason" unreasonably, and ultimately to further spiit the young couple. And since it can be scary for the enmeshed child to take responsibility in the face of her parents' stern disapproval, saying "we" does, at least, give her some cover without making the problem worse.

The mature step, of course, involves turning down dinner invitations sometimes because "we feel like doing something different this week," or the young couple insisting that it is the parents turn to come to dinner at the young couple's house, which for some parents is an astonishingly difficult "one-down" pill to swallow. A brave young couple might even refuse to go the the parents' home before they themselves have a chance to "return the favor" by having the parents come to them.

Now as I said above, some couples may start out "well-evolved" in this area and quite naturally stand together on family system issues. Other couples may really struggle to take this important developmental step. As the secondary spouse, you want to be patient but persistent on the issue. As the enmeshed spouse, you should be thinking really hard about what it means to be married and about the concept of making your own family.


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Jonathan Sobin, Psy.D



 

 

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