This popular adage is one we all know, and have heard and applied to our own lives a multitude of times, I’m sure. However, the reality is not what this saying makes it out to be, especially within the context of romantic relationships. The adage in its fullness reads, ‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb’ – what does this mean for us? Well, it simply means that the relationships we form by choice are stronger, and to be valued above those that occur through mere incidence. We have no say in choosing those we share a genetic bond with, but we do have a say in those we choose to share our lives with.
Does this mean that our family relationships are any less important? Definitely not. These are the people we have spent so much of our lives with, have shared so many wonderful memories, and even trials with. But for most of us, that period of dependency and proximity ends around about 18. Our romantic relationships will, hopefully, last longer than that, right? We will share so many milestones, so many wonderful and so many difficult experiences together that we will inevitably be knit even closer together, and even the act of marriage symbolises this – each persons family candle contributes to the union, but ultimately, the lighting of the new candle is symbolic of the fact that this is a new union, separate from that of the bonds family represents.
Expressed in our vows, even, are these words: ‘Forsaking all others…’. Ok, admittedly this language is a little bit dramatic, because we shouldn’t be casting off our families, but the principle remains that this relationship is now the primary one; even the Bible is clear on this front – that a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife (Genesis 2:24).
The starting of a new relationship brings with it the beginning of a brand new family; new traditions, new memories to be made, new trials to be shared and overcome together. Each of us brings into this relationship our own expectations and behaviours, most likely learned from our family of origin, and so it is impossible to recreate, perfectly, the environment in which we grew up. This means we create our own, new, family.
The addition of children changes things up, but even so, the primary relationship of husband and wife remains. I will, however, explore this topic further in my next post.
Now, the role of in laws.
This is one of the largest issues I see facing couples, and I worry that the old misconception is some of the reason why. The distancing from family of origin that is required upon the commencement of a marital bond is very hard for some. It is understandable, of course, but no less problematic. Some couples are happily free of this issue, and more power to them! But others look upon this issue as the largest affecting their marriage.
In these relationships, there will inevitably come a time where one or more partner will be in the position of taking sides – choosing between their spouse and their family member. While it is my fervent wish that this day will never come for any of you, experience dictates it might. Now, the right course? Spouse comes first. This doesn’t have to be an ugly spectacle, but the outcome should be clear – ‘This is the person I have chosen, I have pledged my life to, and I will put them first.’ The marriage relationship is foremost, the priority, and each spouse in the relationship should rest assured that their spouse will choose them, everyday.
So why then, do in laws present a problem? No doubt they have what they think are the very best intentions for their children, but often their concern translates into boundaries crossed, and issues created. Sometimes, parents think their child would simply be better off with someone else. This misplaced concern manifests itself in the treatment of their new child-in-law, in relationships that are strained, at best. Conversations may be had, comments may be made (the sharp spikes of the ‘mother in laws tongue’ were not christened as such for nought), but ultimately, people are not good at keeping their feelings to themselves, and so spouses can be left feeling that their in laws simply don’t approve of them. Of course, spouses can be oversensitive too, and read too much into events or comments that really did not come from a negative space, but the fundamental truth is that the spouse is the priority, not the family members.
Where then, does this leave the person whose family and spouse do not get on? Of course, this is a tricky spot to be in, but I recommend every attempt at reconciliation be made. A good idea to accomplish this end may be facilitating a meeting of mediation between the affected parties, during which each can express their positions in the hopes of creating peace. Fundamentally, despite their differences, both in law and spouse share a love for their child/partner, and conflict like this ends up hurting this person most. Therefore every effort should be made to restore, or create, a relationship between in law and spouse.
Be all this as it may, prevention is always better than cure. Boundaries need to be put in place immediately, and maintained throughout the course of the marriage. These boundaries can be in the form of visitation (the in laws being overpresent is a big issue many couples face), seeking advice (many people will confide in their parents when there are marital issues – while this may seem helpful because they certainly have more marital experience than we do in most cases, no one is perfect, and this can lead to the in laws developing an unwarranted and unfair opinion of their child’s spouse), failure to distance from their parents (leaving the spouse feeling that their relationship with their spouse is secondary, or even inferior to, the one that their partner shares with their parent), and dependency (many parents become dependent on their children, especially as they age; this places pressure on the marital relationship both financially, and emotionally). It’s best to nip these issues in the bud, as far as possible.
All told, the relationship with in laws can be a tough one, but parents are not savages, and fundamentally, most love their children, and only want the best for them. A dialogue in which their child is open with them regarding their new role as husband or wife, and clarifies their new priorities, while still assuring them of their love and regard for their parents, can be invaluable in showing them what is expected of them, easing them into their new roles as in laws and giving them the respect they deserve as parents.