It’s Wednesday, the day when we talk marriage! I introduce a topic, and then you follow up either by commenting or by writing your own post and then linking up! Today we’re going to talk about setting boundaries with parents.
I’m taking an extended break this summer to get some serious writing done (working on two books and a new edition of a third), so I’m reposting some items from a few years ago, before this blog had much traffic. I thought many of you could relate to this dilemma:
One of the biggest sources of conflict in marriage is the relationship with the couple’s parents. It is all too easy for in-laws to drive a wedge between two people who otherwise love each other more than anyone else in the world. Our loyalty to our family sometimes takes precedence over what should be our primary loyalty to our spouse.
I have a great relationship with my in-laws. They have never tried to interfere, and as such we’ve always gotten along. We play cards together, we take vacations together, we laugh together. And my mother gets along with my mother-in-law, too, although the two could not be more different. But everybody in my family has decided that it is best just to get along. It’s easier for everyone. So we let things go, and we have fun.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in all marriages. Many people, when they get married, still feel closely tied to their parents–even if their parents weren’t great parents. In fact, especially if their parents weren’t great. We’re still looking to be approved by them. While understandable, this attitude is really harmful to a marriage. It’s time to set boundaries with your parents!
After one Wifey Wednesday recently, I received an email from a woman who’s in a difficult situation. Here it is, in a nutshell (I’m summarizing because I don’t want to give identifying details away):
She and her husband have been promised the family farm, at some date in the future. So for now, they live for free in a run-down abode on the land where her parents live in a wonderful, big, comfy farmhouse. The husband (the son-in-law) works on the farm all day. And one day they will get everything.
But this “one day” has never been spelled out. And meanwhile, the house is so tiny, and it’s really pretty gross (single men with cats with incontinence issues used to have the run of the place). No matter how hard you try to clean, it’s stained. And it’s tiny. And there are small kids everywhere. What do you do?
She asks, “Also, any advice on how to talk to my parents about this without sounding like I feel entitled to something? Any time I mention it they tell me that they’ve lived in worse with more kids. The whole “I walked uphill to school both ways” speech.”
Then she says:
My mom is very uptight about her house. She says she’s not attached to it but then in the next breath she says that she wouldn’t change her life or leave even if she felt God calling her to Romania to be a missionary or something. I think that the only thing my parents owe us is some plans. We plan to work hard for the farm and don’t expect it to be handed over to us. But it would just be really nice to know that we are actually working toward a goal on paper (my parents don’t believe in writing down their goals/plans, though the succesion planner is making them do exactly that).
As for the “started from nothing,” I’ve mentioned to them “didn’t you do that to give your kids a better life?” Or “did you like living in that house with 3 little kids?” To which the response is usually something like “we didn’t have a choice.”
Here’s a dynamic that’s very common in families. The parents want to keep some sense that the children are indebted to them, and so they promise something–we will give you a house, we will give you a business, we will baby-sit for you, we will lend you money–but nothing is ever actually specified. They want to keep you on your toes, and they want to have you come to them, asking for something, so that they can still feel indispensable.
It’s like the story of Jacob and Laban. Laban told Jacob that if he worked for him for 7 years, he could marry Rachel. So he worked, and got Leah. Then he was told, “just another 7 years.” So he did that, too. Then Laban continued to treat Jacob as if he should somehow be indebted to his father-in-law, until God miraculously put a stop to the whole dysfunctional charade. But Laban wanted to keep Jacob there, under his thumb.
Parents don’t always do this because they’re mean. Often they’re just insecure. You’re the baby, and you’re leaving, and you were their whole life. Does this mean they’re not worth as much anymore? And so they continue to get their identity from you needing them. So they say they’ll baby-sit, and you don’t even need to worry, you go ahead and find the job, but then when you do find the job, your mother acts as if you’re imposing on her, and she sighs, and says, “well, I have a life, too, you know. But I’ll do it because I have to.” If you had known that would have been her reaction, you would have stayed home or arranged for other childcare. But you took her at her word, and now she’s making you feel guilty.
Or what about this woman from the email? She’s been told she’ll have the family farm, but in the meantime, the parents expect her to live in a shack and be grateful. So what’s the answer?
First, we need to be clear what “leaving” means.
Leaving means that your parents no longer owe you anything.
You are an adult. Your father does NOT owe you the family farm (even if it has always been passed on). Your mother does NOT owe you baby-sitting, even if every other grandma you know helps with baby-sitting. Your parents do NOT owe you a downpayment, even if they’ve always promised it. You are an adult, and you should stand on your own two feet. Therefore, you should be completely prepared and at peace to live without any help at all.
Then, if they do offer help, and you decide you want it (it’s hard to pass up a family farm), you can approach them in a better way. You can say something like this:
That is very generous of you. I so respect what you have done to build up the business, and I would be honoured to take it over. I will always be grateful for this. So can we sit down and write out what the expectations and time-lines are, so that I can plan and be responsible for my family?
If they take offense that you’re asking for an end-date, or for something in writing, then you can say,
I never meant to cause offense. I do so appreciate the offer. It’s just that I have to plan for my family. We have to have a clear sense of where we’re going and what is required of all of us. If you can’t do that, because you haven’t decided yet, that is entirely your prerogative. You don’t owe me anything, and I completely understand. So I’m grateful for the offer, but I’ll have to decline. But if you ever do want to talk about details, I would love to still be considered.
Draw boundaries around the relationship with your parents.
You’re acknowledging that it’s their farm–or business, or money, or time, or whatever the issue is–and you don’t have a right to it. This is their generosity. But you’re also saying that, as a new family, you have certain needs, too. And if they can’t mesh, you’ll have to decline the offer. And you must be willing to do that–decline the offer.
So many couples have lived in awful conditions, in awful accommodations, working slave hours, because of a vague understanding that “one day all this will be yours”. But really the parents are just taking advantage of you or trying to control you or keep you attached to them. It’s not healthy. What happens is that you get frustrated with your spouse because you don’t have anything that’s truly yours. And then your spouse gets frustrated at your parents, at which point you get frustrated at your spouse for being mad at your parents, even though you’re mad at them, too. And the whole thing just spirals into silliness.
When it comes to parents, those two truths need to be kept in mind: once you’re married, they honestly don’t owe you anything. And once you’re married, the welfare of your own nuclear family comes first. That can be hard to digest if your parents are wealthy. You may really want some of their things, or their business. But it isn’t worth wrecking your marriage over.
Perhaps it isn’t about money. Perhaps it’s just your mother calling three times a day “just to talk”, but really she’s getting in the way of your marriage. Or perhaps your father still won’t talk to your husband, except through you. These things need to end. You are to set boundaries with your parents, leave them, and build your own family.
So, with that being said, what advice would you give to this woman who does honestly want the farm, but is finding it very difficult to live in this dirty, rundown home? Or do you have another dilemma with in-laws to share with us? Let’s talk in the comments, or write your own Wifey Wednesday post and link up the URL to THAT POST below. Be sure to link back here so other people can read these great posts!
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