Part I | Part II
Marriage is the bringing together of two families. However, many couples struggle with exactly how to mesh two families together while maintaining their independence as a couple. When a couple gets married, an extended family is created as well as the beginnings of a new family that the couple will create between the two of them. With each family comes its own values, and with every new couple a new, often unique set of traditions and memories will also develop. An initial hurdle that couples are faced with is the role their in-laws will play in their lives. Couples must move from a dependent relationship with parents to an interdependent relationship with their spouse. In order for this shift to happen, couples need to set boundaries and limits with their parents in the early stages of the marriage in order to eliminate interference.
Establishing clear boundaries is not easy and, like marriage, it can require constant attention. Even when boundaries are created, families may not always want to abide by the boundaries, so couples must learn to reinforce the boundaries they want and negotiate new ones. The process of creating a new family is challenging for a new couple, but ultimately it brings the couple closer together and it brings more peace to everyone’s lives. Before marriage, couples need to negotiate the role they envision their in-laws having in their lives. Making assumptions that you have the same vision will only lead to surprises and resentment. Setting boundaries as a couple is a way to protect your marriage early on and the communication it requires will insulate you from outside problems creeping into the marriage. Boundaries that can be set with in-laws include seeking advice, exchanging money, frequency of visits, phone calls, vacations, raising children, and gossip. Boundaries for every couple will be different and they will need to choose what the most pressing matters are that need to be addressed in their family. Couples can resolve any issues that arise by setting new limits or by simply adapting to the expectation.
Couples sometimes unknowingly place their parents in the middle of their relationship by telling them everything or by running to them at the first signs of problems in the marriage. A new couple needs to depend on one another and to make decisions as a team. This requires that couples communicate with one another and if disagreements ensue, they resolve them together rather than bringing in their parents to “referee.” This is especially vital at the beginning of the marriage because it will solidify the unification of the couple and encourage them to problem solve together as they establish their own family. Couples should not share problems with parents because most parents will generally take the side of their child. Couples should clearly communicate with each other what they will share with parents and what is best left between them. They should remain loyal to each other and remember that the marital relationship must come first in each other’s lives as they strive to create their own family.
Each spouse is responsible for protecting their spouse, even toward their respective parents. As the Qur’an describes: “…They are your garments and you are their garments…” (2:187) Like our clothing, spouses must protect each other by not allowing anyone to speak ill of their spouse. This clearly demonstrates to the parents that the couple is a unit that cannot be split. The couple should also make clear to their respective parents that there are no secrets between the couple, so whatever is said to one is free to be shared with the other. Negative comments made about one’s spouse must not be tolerated and parents must get the impression that their child’s spouse will always be respected, even in his or her absence. Even if in the presence of in-laws, the spouse being attacked cannot be left to defend himself or herself. This is the role of the child of those parents. The person with the primary relationship to the parent needs to make clear the boundaries and uphold them. Problems will arise in the marriage if a spouse is pulled to side with their parents against the spouse. The reverse is also true: spouses must never degrade their in-laws to their spouses as this will cause a fracture to develop where a spouse is caught in the middle between parents and spouse. Couples must always remember to be gracious and kind to their parents as they assert their independence as adults.
Newly married couples need space, both physically and emotionally, to nurture their blossoming relationship. Unexpected visits by in-laws may be intrusive to the couple so boundaries of when in-laws will visit must be made clear early on in the marriage. How often couples will visit the in-laws will also need to be discussed by the couple. This would include both how often and for how long so that the couple is not overly burdened and so that all their free time is not spent with in-laws. In cases where in-laws live with the couple in the same home, more specific boundaries will need to be set, such as a particular time and place everyday that will exclusively be for the couple to spend time together. Setting a limit that preserves privacy for the couple also reinforces the importance of time spent alone as a couple and allows intimacy to build between the couple.
Interference from in-laws can come in subtle ways which can threaten the marital relationship. Conflicts over money can arise when in-laws lend money to a new couple with subtle expectations attached, like visiting more often couched with reminders about the help they’ve given. Money could be a subtle way of controlling a couple’s emerging autonomy. Childrearing advice could be well intentioned, but the couple as new parents is most vulnerable to criticism and advice from in-laws. Advice that makes the couple feel incompetent is unproductive and it does not allow the couple to determine how they want to raise their own children or build confidence in their ability to raise a family. These subtle ways of interfering can cause divisions in a marriage if boundaries are not created by the couple and problems are not addressed immediately.
So how does a couple set boundaries with overly intrusive in-laws, especially if one spouse does not think there is a problem? This conflict can only be resolved if the couple works to grow closer to each other in their marriage. One pathway to this is by developing open communication and honesty with regard to the interference of the in-laws. Only after gaining a spouse’s loyalty will the issue become a priority over the interests of parents. This can be very difficult if the parents make their child feel guilty for doing so and often a spouse does not have the courage to be assertive with their own parents. In order to confront parents about destructive behavior, the spouse must first recognize that the interference is not “normal” behavior and can in fact be damaging. If someone has been raised in a family that is controlling and manipulative, manipulative behavior may have become normalized, making it very difficult for the spouse to identify this behavior as destructive. Once a spouse is able to recognize that the interference is a problem and threat to the marriage, the next step is to develop the courage to confront their parents. In some cases, this may only be possible through counseling or education. A lack of assertiveness with parents is a typical struggle most young Muslim men and women encounter and it is even more difficult if the parents are controlling and manipulative. Maintaining respect for problematic in-laws is essential even though it will not be easy. Spouses should not respond to hurtful words and actions in equally hurtful ways. Limiting the influence of in-laws on the marriage and children is vital if the in-laws are destructive to the marriage.
Boundaries are ways of preserving a family and those limits must be decided upon by the couple. A new couple struggles to develop loyalty and a new bond with one another and this can be easily fractured if in-laws interfere aggressively. In-laws who seek to have healthy relationships with their adult children and their children’s spouses will respect boundaries established by the couple and will do everything they can to help the couple be independent. The adult relationship between parents and spouses will always evolve and improve with time if family members are open and honest about their feelings and expectations. Communicating and understanding the roles everyone holds in the new family will bring peace to families and help build the bonds that create new memories.