Dealing with the Unavoidable Extended Family 

Jon Taylor, LCSW, CSAT, CMAT

PACT Level 2 

“Who is your real family, me or them?”

Figuring out how to deal with your and your partner’s extended families can be difficult. It’s one of the major sources of disagreement between partners. Both partners can have deep feelings and a strong individual preference for handling family personalities and issues, but alignment rarely happens without deliberate work because successfully blending two lives from two different family cultures can be among the most challenging tasks that couples face.

Several factors go into how often and how intensely couples face difficulties related to extended families. Some people never feel liked or accepted by their partner’s family. Every interaction is a showdown. When families live geographically close, one or both partners can feel intruded upon by frequent requests for family time.

Other individuals come from passively hostile families, in which most things look OK on the surface, but interactions are packed with guilt, aggression, and cruelty, leaving the interacting partner angry and depleted.

The nature of these events and the resulting feelings can quickly disorient couples, so fights arise quickly and intensely, turning extended family issues into seemingly unresolvable arguments.

While no one-size-fits-all solution exists for dealing with a family’s impact on a couple, securely functioning together in the face of these issues can turn the issues around fast. For some, family has meant that “we do whatever we want to each other, and everyone has to put up with it.” In other families, strict rules and expectations have governed interactions.

In a relationship that you choose to be a part of, you have an opportunity to do better than the family you came from. You can create a system that does what is best for itself at all times, freeing both of you to have a shot at happiness.

You and your partner rule. End of sentence. Full stop.

Couples must take responsibility for the absolute need to influence the people and things around them for the good of their relationship. Otherwise, both partners will always feel second string to other priorities and people.

Giving your partner the feeling that they are the undisputed priority in your life is an invaluable gift. Appreciation and security flow from knowing that you and your partner put each other above all else and that the relationship you create together is your top priority.

You and your partner should treat each other as co-rulers. That means your partnership doesn’t move forward on any commitment or decision until both of you are on board. And, you get on board when you work on a plan of governance that works for both of you.

Nobody else gets to change the plans or structure of your relationship. When it comes to extended family interaction, you and your partner together decide how, when, and how long you are going to interact. Uncle Bob doesn’t get the deciding vote for your partnership just because he gets an itch to try out his new camera on a family portrait session 10 minutes before you two decided to leave.

You and your partner get to decide together how you will spend your time and how to best handle letting family members down, as needed. You will have a range of good options that won’t lead to stress and resentment once you both decide on and stick to the principles that will guide your relationship.

Differentiation and autonomy are necessary for closeness.

Differentiation is the recognition that no two people have the same feelings, views, and values. Autonomy is the ability for two or more people to come in and out of close contact with each other because they want to. Both approach and return are comfortable and natural. Some families create a culture of extreme closeness in all aspects of life (values, time spent together) in part to avoid the anxiety that can arise from having some distance.

Inside of your relationship, learn about what makes you different. Practice appreciation for those differences. Plan time apart to pursue individual interests as well as time together, vacationing in each other’s worlds.

If you aren’t already doing this, it can be uncomfortable at first, especially if one of you came from a family that doesn’t encourage or value differentiation or separation. Differences cause problems when they are ignored in the hopes that ignoring those differences will prevent fights.

Build strong rituals of reconnection after you have spent time apart. Decide together on the times when closeness benefits you. I once worked with one couple who managed their way around extended family issues once they decided to stay joined at the hip at family functions.

Guilt-driven obligation is toxic in any relationship.

Doing things out of obligation is not a bad thing, especially when you believe in the values that guide your behavior. However, sometimes well-meaning parents can instill the importance of certain values through toxic guilt: “I will be so disappointed if you don’t _____.” When toxic guilt is the real motivator for behavior, resentment is going to follow soon after. Many people misplace their anger and resentment toward their family on their partner, especially when they continue to reflexively say yes to family-of-origin requests when they wish they could say no.

When you and your partner are trying to convince each other to go along, use persuasion and enticement on each other. Make your request worth your partner’s while, especially if you are asking them to go somewhere or spend time with people who are a struggle for them. The presence and support of your partner are a gift, so create a culture of gratitude in your relationship that recognizes when you stretch for each other.

If you agree to go to a family event because your partner wants you to, make sure you really agreed. Do not punish your partner later for your compliance. You’ll both regret it.

The struggle is real.

One of the most compelling reasons couples work hard on creating a relationship they co-rule and govern is because it can heal wounds that come from the extended families. Remember, whatever your partner deals within their family is never as straightforward as you think it is.

Learn about each other’s hurts, insecurities, obligations, and guilty feelings surrounding family. Learn to watch for signals that signal your partner is experiencing stress with family. Help each other to effectively deal with that stress.

Family is the source of many of our highest highs and lowest lows. No matter how helpful (or not) you or your spouse’s family were growing up, make sure you are even more helpful to each other now. Creating your family with intention will reap rewards for the rest of your life.



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