Family issues in a marriage

Discuss your views about your extended families with each other before you tie the knot for a happy married life

couple with familyBefore tying the knot, know that an intimate relationship cannot survive on love and air alone. Besides the love, passion, chemistry and commitment, there is something very real that most couples do not take into consideration and often causes discord. It is the ‘life’ they share together. ‘Life’ is based on values and lifestyles, and if there are major differences in core values and envisioned lifestyles, all the love and passion in the world cannot prevent a rift.

Life together

Since ‘prevention is better than cure’, it is imperative that committed couples start getting radically and painfully honest with themselves and their partner. Talk about important issues, which are usually left unaddressed in the midst of all the heady romantic talk. Your ‘life’ together houses your love, and if you love each other but hate your ‘life’ together, co-existence becomes virtually impossible. When you say ‘I do’ you barely know what you are saying ‘I do’ to, if you have not previously, consciously, freely and frankly discussed the ‘life’ to be shared together. It may annoy you today if I ask you to descend the clouds of romance and face the pragmatism of ‘real life’. But it is better to be annoyed today than to be sorry tomorrow.

If you are looking for a relationship between equals, who can relate emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially with each other in a mutually fulfilling way, then you will choose to discuss crucial issues such as ‘family’ before going ahead with living together.

Your family and you

It might be okay with you if the extended family drops in at home any time unannounced, but your partner may prefer it if they do so at a mutually acceptable time. You might like to seek your mother’s opinion on doing up your home or raising your child, but your spouse might find it intrusive. You might like living in a joint family but your spouse, in a nuclear unit.

It is very important to clarify the extent of involvement of each other’s family of origin in your life together. This issue is sensitive, and one that can destroy your relationship.The way you relate with your own family could also have a spill-over effect on your relationship with your spouse. Say you have an authoritarian father. When you are told to do something, you might view it being ‘controlled’, and resist any suggestion from your partner, however beneficial, out of your need to rebel against perceived authority.

If you have been over-protected and spoilt by your mother, you might expect the same pampering as an adult, and not want to assume any adult responsibility in the relationship. Hence, both partners should be aware of how their relationship with their families contaminate their relationship with each other. They should assume responsibility for keeping such attitudes and behaviours outside the relationship to give each other a fair chance of being happy together. Therefore, it is important to understand the relationship that both share with their individual families.

Life and you

It is also important to know the extent to which each of you is comfortable sharing your life with your families. If you don’t discuss and negotiate a comfortable way to deal with this, it can cause a lot of angst in your life together.

Pooja was from a middle-class family of a different caste and felt unwelcome in Sanjiv’s family right from the wedding day. However, Sanjiv could not get out of his idealistic view of ‘one big happy family’ and would try to push Pooja to engage with his family. He felt guilty for displeasing his parents by going against their wishes, and would try to make up for it by telling Pooja to ignore all that they said.

Pooja and Sanjiv would both get depressed and/or angry alternatively, as Sanjiv could not view himself and Pooja as a ‘family unit’ with the others as ‘extended family’. Nor could he draw boundaries with them and ask them to respect Pooja as his partner, as he continued to feel guilty as a ‘son’. Their marriage ended in a divorce over ‘family’.

Family values and behaviours also affect the personality and habits of an individual.Chirag became an alcoholic and his marriage with Seema ended in a divorce. He was raised in a family where alcohol was taboo and so was a teetotaler. When he started socialising with other couples after marriage, Chirag took up drinking. He asked his wife to hide it from his parents. She realised that his increased drinking was his way of rebelling against his parents and tried to stop him. The more she tried, the more he went into it. ‘Stop being my mother,’ he would say.

As you can see, his fear-based relationship with his parents affected his marriage. He fiercely rebelled against his wife’s ‘good sense’ that she offered in his own interest, viewing her as someone who was controlling him, and who he needed to resist.

The pre-marital couple must therefore, reflect on the following questions [see box] related to family, and be extremely clear about what your reality is. Then question the validity of your views, determine how negotiable or non-negotiable something is, based on how important it is to you and finally communicate the same to your potential life partner.

Ask yourself

couple talking on couch

  1. What do I like/dislike about the members of my family of origin?
  2. What do I like/dislike about the members of your family of origin?
  3. Are the in-laws going to be living with us, and if so, for how long?
  4. How much time in the day/week/month/year will be dedicated to socialising with the extended family on both sides? Are we both comfortable with it?
  5. What is the relationship we both share with each other’s parents/siblings/other family members? Is there a comfort level? Do we both like/approve of the relationship shared, or would prefer more/less contact /closeness with them? What are the expectations of the family from the son-in-law/daughter-in-law in terms of closeness? How do we both deal with these expectations?
  6. Do we welcome out-of-town relatives living in our home? For how long? How often?
  7. How comfortable are going on vacations with the extended family?
  8. What occasions/events/holidays/festivals do we think are important to spend with the family of origin? As a short visit or for a longer period? Do we give gifts? If so what is the budget involved in gifts/travel expenses if necessary? Where are these celebrations held?
  9. What occasions/events/festivals/holidays do we want to celebrate as a unit, away from extended family?
  10. How do we want to spend birthdays, anniversaries, children’s birthdays and other special occasions of our family?
  11. What kind of relationship would we like our children to have with their grandparents? How much time would they spend with each other?
  12. Are we comfortable with intervention from the family in couple’s matters like conflict resolution, financial planning, and child-rearing?
  13. Am I expected to look after a physically/financially/emotionally dependent member of the family? Do I need your assistance and support? Is my partner comfortable with this situation?
  14. Is there a physically/mentally sick member of the family that I am responsible for? Physically/financially?
  15. Are my/your parents planning to go to a retirement home as they age or are they planning to stay with us?
Minnu Bhonsle
Dr Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.


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