Boundaries 6 — Couples

As adults, boundaries are also an ongoing issue. The first task that a new couple engages in is defining the boundary around them as a couple. They define the extent to which their nuclear families are able to intrude on their relationship. Early in a marriage, loyalty to individuals’ nuclear families can make them a defacto part of the marriage. He thinks his mother is the best cook in the world. She thinks that her father is much more considerate than he is. “My father wouldn’t” and “My mother would never” are often the way arguments about married life begin. Neither partner is willing to yield because that would mean disloyalty to the family from which they came. Carl Whitaker, a ground-breaking family therapist once said that he saw marriage as an arrangement in which two families each send out a representative to do battle with each other.

The very same mother who was so overbearing when he lived at home, now has become the epitome of womanhood. The way that her parents served their family dinners- each person receiving a plate full of food – is the only way it should be done. He extols the superiority of “family style” serving. And that is how the wars continue. The meaning of the war is, “I have to find a way to be married to you and still remain loyal to my family.”

All of this takes place without even the least bit of interference from the parents. Now add in parents who don’t know how to let go….

Suddenly, his mother decides that she must approve all decorating choices. She knows a better store, can get a better price, and after all, green would look hideous with the furniture they have. What could his wife be thinking of! Suddenly her mother tells them that they really should wait an optimum time before they have children. They mustn’t have them “right away,” but they mustn’t wait too long because, she informs them, “Your fertility will decline.”

A couple who is successful at forming a real marriage must draw their boundaries very tightly at first. Since each of them will think that the other’s parents are interfering too much, there should be a clear understanding that some things in the marriage remain between the spouses and ONLY between the spouses. Here are some of them in no particular order:

1. Budgets
2. Choice of residence
3. When and if to have children
4. Arguments that the spouses have
5. Career choices
6. Use of leisure time (hobbies and vacations)

This is not to say that parents can’t be consulted, but their experience and opinions should be weighed and used as additional information and not as a vote in the outcome.

As in other relationships, clear boundaries, consistently applied actually work- not the first time, but over time.

The best way to establish and maintain boundaries is by each spouse dealing with his or her own parents. The other spouse should not be named or blamed in the process. The drawing of the circle around the couple is something that each of them is responsible to do. In no way should that lessen one’s love for their family of origin or in any way fracture that relationship. It should, however, make clear to one and all who is the first priority. For a couple, it needs to be each other!

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