There is nothing like bringing home a close friend or partner to shine a spotlight on the unspoken rules by which every family, your family, lived and lives.
Every family that lives with one another for some time develops a set of patterns for emotional engagement that soon feels like the “family rules.” These expectations for behavior may start within a marriage and strengthen their grip as children are brought into the home. Once the children catch on to these patterns, they begin to live by them. Only family members know how that family works, even though no one may have ever spoken these powerful expectations out loud.
Many of these rules are quite helpful, and create a kind of emotional shorthand that members count on. Some rules families frequently live by are: this family lets one another know our whereabouts; this family goes to church/synagogue/mosque; this family values education; this family values friendship, and this family works hard. Others might be less helpful. They might be expressed as: this family avoids conflict; this family never questions mother/father; this family relies on men for money, women for support; this family doesn’t live outside our region; this family keeps secrets, and this family doesn’t trust anyone outside the family.
With these internal rules, members keep the connections of their family relationships, even unhealthy ones, intact. Once we bring another person into close relationship with this family system through marriage, the rules become more obvious; our new partner has no way of knowing or observing these internal rules except by bumping into them. Because they don’t have the years of unconscious training in working within the boundaries of these family expectations, newcomers invariably stir up distress and even conflict by disregarding these rules or even openly disagreeing with them. This is one way newcomers remain permanently on the outside of their partners’ family systems.
This is where the partner, whose family of origin is the one getting stirred up, has to bring his or her best self to the party or he/she will end up offending and damaging the new family and partner. If the rule is “no one can challenge the way Mom behaves,” Mom can run roughshod over the new wife of her son and her son gets caught between his loyalties toward his family of origin and that toward his partner. Because the loyalty to one’s family of origin is older and deeper, chances are that is the one that most easily wins.
In families where emotional connection has never been particularly intense or expected, this kind of division of emotional importance happens automatically. Parents have children, raise them, and expect that once their children marry, the old family changes. The new has come, and everyone has to adjust. In more emotionally intense, enmeshed, or distressed family systems, blending a new spouse and/or grandchildren into the mix may require an our-way-or-the-highway kind of behavior from the newcomer that can make for chronic distress for everyone.
I counsel couples who find themselves in conflict over family rules to think about loyalty as an emotional quality of relationships that can and must be shared unequally. One can be loyal to both one’s family of origin as well as to a new spouse, but the most successful marriages have partners who transfer their primary loyalties to their new partner. Mom or Dad may still be core relationships, but if there is any important conflict, decision, schedule, or issue to decide, the default must move to the spouse and couple.
If you and your partner seem to be in constant conflict over your visits back to visit your parents, your time spent with siblings, or the ever-present sense that you care more about pleasing your parents than you do your spouse, check in with yourself regarding that unequal balance of loyalty. If you feel miserably caught in the middle, it’s time to shift your focus. Unplug some of that urgency from your family of origin and give it to your new partner and children. And, of course, if it’s just not as easy as that for you, consulting with a local marriage and family therapist will help you more easily make that emotional transition.
(Originally written as a post for GoodTherapy.org, April 2013)