Extended families can strengthen your marriage
, or they can be a source of tension and conflict. Here are some tips to help you and your partner form satisfying, non-stifling relationships with your parents and other family members.
1. Don't presume without proof that your parents can't adapt to change. Some families may be a lot more flexible than you'd imagine. Acknowledge your parents' right to their opinions and ways of doing things. Many parents resist change in their children because they feel it's a criticism of their own ways.
2. Assert your right to do things your way, but do so non-defensively, without anger, and remember to maintain emotional contact. Sometimes grown children find it so difficult to set limits with their parents that when they do so, the action comes off as punitive and rejecting. Try to maintain warmth and contact while simultaneously setting limits. When you shift your role in this manner, everyone else in the family is freer to change.
3. Make it clear to your parents that just because you may not be living your life exactly as they are, it doesn't mean that you're rejecting them.
4. Sometimes it can be helpful to have your parents and family over to your home. When parents and in-laws aren't on their own turf, they may be more open to trying new things and doing things differently.
5. Don't expect perfection from your parents. If you’re a parent now yourself, you know what a difficult job it is to raise children. Your parents have done the best they could with the resources available to them. Practice acceptance.
6. When visiting parents or in-laws, try to take an “anthropological approach” – to look at them with an eye toward understanding and appreciating the complexities and subtleties of the communication patterns and coping strategies. Ask yourself these questions: What are the rules of this community? What are the values? The traditions? How is the power shared? What works and what doesn't? Make it a field trip of sorts, and have some fun.
(Please know that if you have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse growing up, and have chosen not to have contact with any or all of your family members, I respect your decision. Some families are so dangerously dysfunctional that there's nothing to be gained by maintaining any connection with them. Give yourself permission to grieve this loss, and to realize that you'll need to work even harder to develop a supportive community outside your family.)
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I also write at The Self-Compassion Project and Shyness Is Nice.
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.
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