In-laws and Over Correcting

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Learning not to ‘over correct’ in my in- law relationships

 I reflect on the growth of my relationship with each of my husband’s parents. It hasn’t always been easy to be clear about my position in these relationships.  I’ve endeavoured to find the right balance of staying connected but not filling in the space that belongs to my husband in managing his relationships with his own family. I didn’t always work at finding this balance. At one point in my married life I shifted rather dramatically from over involvement to minimal involvement.

What have you observed about your reaction after you’ve become cognizant of unhelpful activity in a relationship?  My trap has been to go too far in the other direction when I resolve to stop doing for others what really belongs with them.  When I saw that I was getting in the way of another’s growing up space , my response was to back off so much that I risked not staying helpfully connected. It’s a bit like over -adjusting the direction of a sailing boat by tacking in the opposite direction when all that’s required is a trim of the sails.

Let me describe the family systems lesson that I ‘over corrected” as it related to my husband’s parents.  As a typical over -functioner in family relationships I had instinctively taken on the tasks of staying connected to my in-laws in the early years of our marriage. For example, I remembered birthdays and ensured that gifts or cards were purchased and phone calls made at the correct times. My husband, who had been somewhat distant from his family as a young adult, seemed more than willing to allow me this position. It’s not that we ever openly negotiated the role it’s just the way our postures developed in our early marriage.  When I was training in Bowen’s family systems theory in the early 1990s I could identify that it was not helping my husband to forge his own relationships with his family if I was always managing this for him. I began to pull back from this. In fact I think I pretty much went ‘cold turkey’ in resigning from being responsible for connection with his parents. I did let my husband know that I wasn’t going to continue to be the primary contact with his family or keep the diary on their birthdays. I didn’t resign with anger but with a conviction that this would be better for our family in the long run. Many benefits have ensued from this decision. It was a great growing up experience for me in learning to stop monitoring my husband regarding his family. I needed to tolerate him forgetting birthdays and not contacting as often as I might have. Over the years I have seen him gradually take on more responsibility for his family connections and the relationships have certainly strengthened as a result. I have been more relaxed with my parents in law because of a reduction in my fusion with them where I had come to relish being important to them. It’s been good for me to reduce my importance in family relationships – to learn to not take up too much of the stage in relationship groups.

While this has all been a positive over the past 2 decades, I can look back and see that I took an unnecessary back seat with my in-law family. I concentrated on my side of the family and did not put in a responsible degree of effort in connecting to the very important other side of our extended family system. I have gradually worked to get a better balance in these important relationships. My husband stays at the forefront of these connections. Any important decisions will be left to him and his family members without me interfering. However I can be a resource and support to him in this – a sounding board for him. I can also be a secondary connector with his family making sure I chat directly to my in-laws when there is opportunity.

Yesterday, out of the blue, I called and chatted to my mother in law to catch up on news. My father in law was recently home from a stint in hospital and it was important to connect and hear about how they were managing and what their news was (even though my husband was keeping me in the loop). This contact is now quite independent from my husband who takes the primary responsibility for being present and accounted for in his family. My effort is to speak to each of my in-laws separately so that I forge a real relationship with them both.

I deeply value my relationship with my in-laws. There is mutual respect and care and I can see how this has been replicated in both of our daughter’s independent relationship with their grandparents. It was helpful to realise, all those years back that I was getting in the way of my husband’s developing relationship with his family. It has also been valuable and important to redress my back seat position and become a more active member of this side of my family system.  Thoughtful balance over the years is a worthwhile goal.

* This photo is of my mother –in- law’s flourishing garden.

Questions for reflection:

  • Am I aware of any unhelpful activity in my relationships, such as taking on relationship responsibilities for another?
  • When I see unhelpful patterns how do I go about correcting them?
  • Do I swing too far in the other direction?
  • Do I pull out of my old pattern with a blaming stance towards another?
  • Or can I adjust my position in a proportionate way?
  • How am I relating to my spouses side of the family? Am I allowing them to be primary in these relationships? Am I having an active role as a member of this important part of my relationship system?
  • To what extent do I relate to my in-laws as individuals rather than as a ‘clump’?

Relevant Bowen quotes (from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice)
“The various nuclear families in the extended family system tend to group themselves into emotional clumps and the communication is in often from ‘clump to clump’ rather than from individual to individual…..The new plan was to define myself as a person and to communicate individually to a wide spectrum of extended family members.” P 499

“My over-all goal was to be able to have an entire visit with the family without becoming fused into the emotional system.” P503

Over functioning- under functioning in a marriage

“The pseudo-self of the adaptive one (who allows the other to do for them) merges into the pseudo self of the dominant one who assumes more and more responsibility for the twosome….Each does some adapting to the other…The one who functions for long periods in the adaptive position (giving way to the other) gradually loses the ability to function and make decisions for self.” P 378

‘In-laws and over correcting’ – Jenny Brown

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