Over the course of my lifetime, I have become increasingly aware of how growing up as an only child, in a single parent household can present with its own unique strengths and challenges. Everyone has an inimitable background. It’s undeniable that much of the impact couples face is unknowingly or consciously influenced from their family of origin. At one time or another, many of us can relate to having had difficulty navigating our partner’s familial dynamic. Especially when they may differ from our own. Our understanding of relationships, boundaries, and interactions with others all stem from early environmental experiences. How we have learned about such can be derived from the following:
Childhood relationship with primary caregivers. This involves parents, grandparents, extended family members, and similar authority figures who had influence while we were dependent and impressionable. These early relationships frame our later interactions and expectations, we set and seek for in others.
Childhood social environments. This includes school, peers, friends, church, sports teams, etc. These are also important examples of identifying and modeling various social interactions an individual may have.
Information that we’re taught. Our interactions with others provide us with messages. These messages have taught us about what values are important, what is healthy and unhealthy, and guide us with an internal moral compass.
Information that was available. As children, we did not have a thorough frame of reference. In fact, what we experienced was our only understanding of what normative was. As children, we create an internal image of what a family is and were able to compare our information and experiences with others’; for example, through television, public figures, friends etc.
Now with this in mind, we bring suitcases of information (baggage) into our relationships with our partner and in-turn with our in-laws. Most of us can recall an incident (or two) where we experienced difficulties with our in-laws. These suitcases can bring about conflict. Having conflict or challenges will not ruin your relationship with your partner, but handling it poorly and negatively certainly can. When navigating through the terminal with our suitcases, it’s important to learn how to do the heavy lifting while take these into consideration:
- Make an effort.
Recognizing and understanding the importance your partner’s family has in their life can first be acknowledged by accepting differences. Whether it be differing cultures, morals, or parenting styles, remember variances are not bad or wrong, but different.
- Set clear boundaries.
We all have a concept of self, others, and where we are in relation to others. Boundaries allow us to set guidelines in order for us to not lose our sense of self while developing healthy relationships with your partner’s family. Being able to have open conversations with your partner about their needs and create a plan that both of you agree on. For example, your partner is comfortable with their family members arriving to the house unannounced but you are not. You and your partner decide that family members need to call prior to arriving at your doorstep.
- Separate your own relationship with your partner from the relationships with your in-laws.
Varying familial dynamics can bring about complicated and difficult interactions. It’s important to be kind to your partner and acknowledge the significant role these members of the family have had in making them who they are. Uh-oh your partner’s mother arrives to your house unexpectedly while you are walking in your underwear. In this situation, it’s important to not blow up or blame your partner for their family member’s unannounced visit but rather, to discuss how to confront and convey this shared boundary to your partner’s loved one appropriately.
- Communicate with your partner.
Discuss your own position, listen to each other, and sympathize with one another’s thoughts and feelings.
- Don’t take it personal.
Often, these situations or conflicts are not about us. Your partner’s family are human beings with their expectations, who may also carry suitcases or even own their own set of heavy “baggage.” It’s important to try to understand where they are coming from and empathize.
I want to acknowledge and express all of my gratitude to my (future) sister-in law for her patience, guidance, and compassion over the last few years. I especially want to thank her for assisting me with my “checked baggage” and her willingness to help me complete this blog post.