Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Joining the Family

I love looking at the candid photographs pinned to the walls at Owen's grandparents' house. As a child, he had big blue eyes and long dark eyelashes, and he's usually wearing a silly smile in the pictures. Owen is always an interesting topic of discussion for me and my in-laws; he's the greatest thing that we have in common. Sometimes I'm not sure if I know him better or if they do. They tell me stories that highlight aspects of his personality, interests, and habits that I've never taken notice of, yet they seem unaware of how he has grown during his time in college.  

In an earlier post I discussed how we can grow in our friendships by responding receptively to changes. With family, however, the relationship shifts are more drastic and more personal, and emotions run high. Recently a good friend highlighted these changes when he asked Owen, "At what point did the most important woman in your life switch from being your mother to Summer?"

Families are like small countries: they have governing structures, particular cultures and traditions, and unique world views. Interacting with your spouse's family can feel like being a foreigner, wrought with exciting new experiences, communication errors and frustration. Unlike interacting with individual friends, family relationships weave complex webs of interactions over decades of working through the trials of life.

Though you and your partner can work through and combine your different experiences as you create your own family unit, your childhood families miss out on most of the groundwork that goes into the fusion. You may see your relationship as striking a healthy balance between two different worlds, but your family may see the changes taking place in your life as an insult to how they approach life. Consider a couple where one person comes from a family of vegans, and the other from a family of hunters. The couple decides to take a middle ground and only eat dairies and fish. The hunting family fears that their child, her new spouse, and new family judge them for killing and eating their own meat. The vegan family fears that their child has compromised his values.

We can't make our families accept the changes that come with marriage, but we can respond to their emotions with love. I believe that the most effective way to create positive relationships with family is through appreciation. Your in-laws must have done something right if they've raised the person you love! Actively seek out those traits that you love about your partner in his or her family, seek to understand how they've worked to give their child life. Do not allow yourself to become bogged down with the natural frustrations that come of joining new families.

I have a friend, let's call her Laura, who experienced turmoil with her family in high school, at which time she complained extensively about all of their flaws. In loyalty to Laura, Anna hated Laura's family, and also complained extensively of their flaws. Yet, Laura never stopped loving her family, and as time continued, many of the problems she had experienced with her family healed. Now, Laura feels uncomfortable talking about her family with Anna, because Anna has neglected to acknowledge the deeper connections that Laura has with her family and continues to complain about them.

Many others make this same mistake with their partners' families, or even use familial turmoil as an excuse to get away from their in-laws. Though our partners' families probably do frustrate them (and us) on some level, no matter how deep the conflicts reach,  our partners love their families! So rather than encouraging the frustrations, encourage them to appreciate and love the good aspects of their families.

Though I strongly encourage working pedantically through even the tiniest issues with your partner, when it comes to this bigger, messier giant that is family, I suggest you approach them with an air of acceptance and always seek to give them the benefit of the doubt. They can't understand your relationship as clearly as you can, but you can't understand their familial histories as clearly as they can.

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