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Once you are able to make the commitment to your spouse that the marriage boundaries will be closer than all other boundaries, it's time to come together and establish boundaries with the in-laws that you both agree on. This is sometimes the hardest part. Think of each person in a marriage coming from a different country; each person with have his or her own language, customs, traditions, and beliefs. It's up to the couple to create a new "country", and part of this new country will be a set of rules that govern boundaries with in-laws. Just like most governments, these rules (boundaries) will be reviewed and updated as circumstances require.
Communicate your boundaries clearly to your in-laws after you have determined what they will be with your spouse. Because different families have different forms of communication, you will need be as clear as possible. Making side comments or jokes about what you want in your relationship with your in-laws is usually confusing (unless that's the language of that particular family). Acting on your boundaries without explanation can also be confusing. Your intentions might be misunderstood. For example, continually opting out of family activities with various excuses may come across differently than simply saying, "My husband and I prefer to spend one-on-one time with the kids." Consider using an "I" statement: "I need ____________ when _____________ because I think/feel ______________."
Along with communicating clearly, it's important to avoid triangulation. Triangulation is therapy-talk for having someone else be the go-between. Think back to elementary school when you were too embarrassed to talk to you crush directly, so you had a friend deliver messages like, "Do you like me?" and "I don't want to be your girlfriend anymore." Now that we're adults, it's important to talk directly to the person that we are trying to establish boundaries with. This can be a tall order in certain relationships, but trust me, it's worth it in the end. For example, if you and your spouse have decided that you don't want your mother-in-law stopping by unannounced (because you want to have time to throw the kids' toys behind closed doors and turn on your Scentsy), don't have your sister-in-law be the one to tell her. That puts your sister-in-law in a bad spot (even if she is willing an able), it opens the doors for miscommunication, and robs you of the opportunity to work on your relationship with your mother-in-law directly. If you can't speak up for yourself on small boundary issues, how will you be able to address major issues in the future? It is also fine if your husband wants to communicate the boundary to his mother as long as he is representing the team. If he says, for example, "The wifey doesn't want you coming over unless you call first," he's not communicating that this is a team decision. He would ideally say, "We would prefer some notice if you are coming over for a visit." Emphasis on the "we".
With all of that said, here's a list of boundary issues with in-laws that you may want to consider discussing with your spouse. You may have already discussed these, but chances are that you will be discussing them again as your family relationships change and develop. If you're in a dating relationship, these are great things to discuss BEFORE marriage. Have I mentioned yet that I'm a fan of premarital counseling?
- Family time: How much of your time will be spent with your extended family, his extended family, and your own little family that you have together?
- Finances: How much are you going to let your in-laws help you out financially? Remember that if your in-laws are helping you financially, you will have some obligations to them. They may have more leverage to dictate decisions that would otherwise be only up to you and your spouse. Which leads me to...
- Major life decisions: How will you incorporate the opinions and preferences of your in-laws? Working together as a team is a great way to establish some independence.
- Marital conflict: Is it ever ok for your spouse to share with his parents the conflicts you two are having? If the emotional boundary with a parent is so close that the parent knows everything that's going on in that marriage (and naturally tends to give a lot of advice), this could lead to further conflict and unhappiness in the marriage. Remember that you want the marital boundary to be the closest. If the couple decides that they need some help and advice, it might be wisest to go together to get counsel from a parent.
- Holidays: Which traditions will you participate in with the in-laws? How do you split the time between your family and his family?
- Babysitting: How often do you want your in-laws to babysit your children?
As I've said before, every boundary will look different in every family. What is healthy for one marriage may not be healthy in the next. You have to decide what kinds of boundaries work best for you.
How have you managed your boundaries with in-laws? What issues would you add to my list?