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Who's in the Middle of Your Marriage?

Help for couples when a family member lacks boundaries.

Key points

  • In-law problems are a common source of friction and division in couples, and can result from failure to set appropriate boundaries.
  • Understanding how an intruder gets inside of a marriage can help couples change a faulty configuration and secure the marriage.
  • Couples caught in dysfunctional dynamics can mend their relationship through self-awareness and pre-emptive strategies.
Source: Motortion/Istockphoto

In-law issues are a common source of friction and division in couples. A dysfunctional dynamic can take root early on when one partner fails to establish appropriate boundaries with an intrusive family member, setting an unwanted pattern in motion. Unconscious allegiances and covert coalitions leave a trail of fallout that flares up in the form of conflicts around emotionally loaded practical decisions and plans. These issues can insidiously permeate the climate of a couple's relationship, creating vulnerability in its foundation around issues of loyalty, trust, and emotional security.

Interestingly, some men caught in this type of dynamic experience themselves as somehow having unfairly landed in the middle between their wife and mother who “just can’t get along.”

But is this perception accurate? Who is really in the middle of these situations?

The story of Brianna and Caleb

Brianna fumed as she overheard Caleb on the phone with his mom promising her they would visit over the long weekend. This was the first she had heard of such a plan. Rolling her eyes, she thought about how annoyingly predictable it was that he was still submitting to his mom.

Of course, they couldn’t back out of the plan now without it seeming like she was the one to blame—making her into the bad guy again. In Caleb's mom’s mind, he can do no wrong, and if he does ever disappoint her, it’s because of Brianna’s negative influence on him.

Brianna's thoughts drifted back to when they were engaged, and she started ruminating again about the time Caleb agreed to take his mom’s furniture as a “gift'' for them to use in the bedroom (of all places) of their new house, without her awareness or consent.

When he hung up the phone, Brianna found herself accusing Caleb of choosing his mom over her, a familiar old theme. Their fights routinely play out the same way. She feels angry and insecure and confronts him. He, in turn, gets defensive and angry at her, arguing that she should be sympathetic to him because she knows how impossible his mom can be (which is true). He then starts his usual rant about being “in the middle,” pulled at from both sides—but she does not buy it or feel bad for him.

Nadia Bormotova/Istockphoto
Source: Nadia Bormotova/Istockphoto

Failure to set boundaries: The effects on a marriage

Caleb missed a defining opportunity early on to draw a symbolic boundary around his marriage that would have helped guard against his mother’s intrusion and lay the foundation for emotional security in his marriage.

Instead, he capitulated under pressure and agreed to take his mom’s furniture without talking to Brianna.

Symbolically aligning himself with his mom, Caleb was complicit in acting out a covert coalition and setting up a problematic precedent. In effect, he authorized a configuration that allowed his mom to come between him and Brianna, marginalizing her and their relationship. By leaving the door to his marriage open to an intruder, it was Caleb who, albeit unwittingly, created the initial split between him and Brianna, thereby paving the way for a dysfunctional dynamic.

Why did Caleb “choose” his mom over Brianna?

Psychologically, Caleb was unable to “leave home” and make the necessary developmental transition from his mom as his primary attachment to his wife and new family. As he tried to love someone else and create his own family, the prohibition against separation from his mom and the penalty for perceived disloyalty intensified. (For more on this topic, check out my post, "The Psychology of Adults Who Are Controlled by a Parent.")

Growing up, Caleb learned instinctively to avoid conflict by being passively compliant and dutiful. But this defense no longer worked since it was not possible to be both “loyal” to his mom, e.g., never disappoint her and be aligned with his wife. (For more on this topic, check out my post, "The Psychology of the Guilt-Tripper.")

But Caleb was not consciously scheming. (See "Manipulative or Unaware: Inside the Male Mind.") His reactions were instinctive, not intentional “decisions.” Defaulting to what he learned was safe, Caleb unconsciously outsourced the latent conflict between him and his mom that were the result of the natural shifting of priorities that come with marriage. Unbeknownst to him, disavowed and compartmentalized feelings often seek expression in another form. In this case, the conflict, once re-routed, played out between Caleb’s mom and Brianna, and Caleb and his wife.

Overriding instinctive patterns

The good news is that we can override ingrained, instinctive patterns like Caleb's by activating our prefrontal cortex using deliberate effort, planning, and informed strategies. When we get pulled in by anticipatory dread and fear, we avoid taking positive risks. But if we expect these predictable feelings, we can prevent ourselves from being misled by instincts from the past that are no longer adaptive.

The key is correctly identifying these feelings as a fear-based state of mind, and recognizing that they are not diagnostic of how the feared event will actually feel. Taking action to liberate yourself often brings unexpected relief and is better than being trapped and controlled.

Yevhen Yahunov/Istockphoto
Source: Yevhen Yahunov/Istockphoto

Practical strategies for setting boundaries

Create delay to avoid being blindsided, such as:

  • Don't reply immediately to texts. Allow time to consider what you want to say.
  • Let calls go to voicemail.
  • Don’t respond in the moment to invitations or requests. A ready response can be used routinely: "Thanks—I’ll get back to you on that” or "I'll let you know. I have to think about that."

When you have to say “no” or set a boundary, be nice but firm and not defensive. For example:

  • “I know you’re disappointed, but we are coming to visit next month."
  • “I'm sorry but actually that is not going to work."
  • "Not this time, but thanks for the offer.”

Avoid explaining or elaborating. Limits are most effective when simple and brief. Use calm, but firm, repetition when challenged.

  • "It just doesn't work." (If necessary, add, "I am not going to get into explaining" or "I know it's disappointing, but I'm not changing my mind."
  • "I'm sorry, I can't say yes this time."

Plan to get off the phone quickly. Make a fast but friendly exit after setting a limit or when things are likely to get heated.

Taking ownership of difficult decisions

The essential model for a healthy marriage without intruders is that you and your spouse are an indivisible team. This perspective must be felt authentically and come through in your communications with your spouse and any potential interlopers. In practice, this means owning the decision when declining an offer or setting a boundary—and pulling back from the temptation to blame it on your spouse or subtly collude in blaming your spouse through tone, innuendo, or passivity in the face of disparaging remarks.

Guidelines for men

  • Actively collaborate with your spouse before making decisions.
  • Recognize that you can’t trust your instinctive reactions and must be vigilant even with seemingly innocuous decisions involving your mom.
  • Play it safe and keep your spouse in the loop.
  • Identify automatic reactions beforehand as ingrained survival instincts driven by fear and habit, perpetuated by lack of awareness.
  • Identify danger zones such as upcoming interactions with your mom. Anticipate how they predictably play out. Rehearse a new way to respond.
Source: Shvets/Pexels

Guidelines for women

  • Recognize that here you are in a “supporting role,” not the lead.
  • Communicate feelings and requests clearly, without being withholding or otherwise acting out anger.
  • Stay aligned with your spouse and don't put his mom down even if he does.
  • Refrain from playing out conflicts that rightfully belong to your spouse and his mom.
  • Let go and don't try to control him (and remind him of his mom).

These steps can provide protective scaffolding for couples who have become divided and help restore trust and emotional security. Working together to manage challenges and threats, rather than allowing them to divide you, offers the reward of a more peaceful climate at home, less resentment towards your intrusive family member, and the bonus of a more satisfying connection.

More from Lynn Margolies Ph.D.
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