So you’ve found the one you want to spend the rest of your life with. You can’t wait for your parent(s) to meet this special person. You expect that as much as your parents love you they will love, or grow to love, your chosen one. It’s an essential relationship that has the potential to enrich your life as well as the life of your family.
But this relationship is a very complex one. After all, your main source of love, affection, and caring as a child and young person has been your parents. (Of course, there are many situations where other family members and close friends have provided that relationship when parents have been absent or not capable of fulfilling that role.) While it is normal and expected that your relationship with your spouse will supersede the one you have with your parents, the transition from one relationship to another may be difficult when you consider all of the personal psychological and emotional dynamics. It’s not that one relationship is better than the other, they’re just very different.
It’s wonderful when everyone gets along—everyone benefits. So what happens when your mother and your spouse don’t like or respect each other and let you know this on an ongoing basis? Needless to say, this is a very difficult and often sad situation. From cold indifference to fiery conflict, this clashing of the two people you love deeply has the potential to cause unnecessary pain and suffering, mostly for you, the one caught in the middle.
So how do you navigate through these troubled relational waters while keeping yourself afloat and not allowing yourself to be pulled down under? Here are some basic ways to deal with this very tough situation that will also allow you to maintain your own integrity and support you through your efforts.
Moderate your expectations that everyone will get along and you’ll all live happily ever after. Accept the fact that life is not perfect and neither are the people that make up your world. I know this sounds obvious but, believe it or not, some people expect everything to fit perfectly and run smoothly. They just can’t believe and accept the fact that everyone they love and loves them won’t love each other, too. But it often happens that the people we’re sure will get along and enjoy each other’s company, simply don’t for their own personal reasons.
All too often there are underlying reasons why people don’t get along. Spouses may not want to “share” time and attention with their significant other with anyone else, including that person’s parents. Sometimes parents are jealous that they’re being “displaced” by someone who doesn’t have the history—all the years, time, and attention that parents have shared with their children. They may worry that their child (albeit adult child) may be too influenced and/or swayed by their spouse. Sometimes, people just don’t like each other. In fact, if it were not for you they would have nothing to do with each other.
Take an active role from the very beginning. Talk openly and frankly about each one to the other so that there is some degree of familiarity when your spouse and mother actually meet. Although you might expect that people would be on their best behavior when they finally meet, that’s not necessarily the case. Remember, people from different families and backgrounds may have different points of view and opinions. Discussing these differences beforehand might prepare people to be more open and accepting of each other. At the very least, they won’t be surprised.
If this is a first marriage, people might not know what to expect and what to do. Encourage involvement and respect. Encourage each party to make an effort to welcome and accept each other, even if they don’t understand or agree with each other. The bottom line is, don’t wait to let things just happen on their own, especially when you know there may be real issues that will come to light. Remember, people don’t have to love each other but they do need to make an effort to get along for your sake, as well as the sake and harmony of the whole family.
Refuse to get in the middle of the relationship between your spouse and your mother. This may take many conversations with each of them separately. Make it perfectly clear that you don’t intend to mediate any disagreement between them or interpret their different points of view. Setting boundaries for yourself early on has the potential to spare you many hours of grief. The idea that you should play the role of mediator over and over again is abusive to you, and in the long run, will most probably not resolve any issues unless your spouse and your mother are earnestly and honestly willing to be open to discussion, and perhaps to change in the relationship for the good of all.
Don’t try to deal with the dynamics yourself. That’s what therapists are for. For example, there may be transference where the feelings someone has about another is carried over from a similar yet, different situation. Say, someone has difficulty with their own mother but can’t deal with those issues, or may not even be conscious of them, and so it may be easier to place negative feelings on someone else’s mother. In other words, it may be easier to scapegoat someone else than deal with a conflicted relationship closer to home.
Ultimately, you shouldn’t have to choose and you need to communicate this to both parties.
Actively set boundaries about behaviors that are acceptable and those that are not. At the very least, your spouse and mother need to behave with civility and respect—for no other reason than to please you. After all, if each professes to love you so much, they need to make some effort to make you happy, hold the conflict in check, and allay your anxiety and worry. Amazing how that piece is often of little consideration or missing entirely.
Boundaries might include limiting provocative discussions so that every time you get together does not become just another opportunity to express anger and hostility. Similarly, larger family gatherings should be a time when there’s a “truce” so that other family members are not caught in the middle of a conflict or argument. Set limits around children so that they don’t have to be subjected to conflict, disapproval, and anger between two people they love very much.
Spend quality time with your spouse and your mother separately. Obviously, everything does not have to be done as a family. Obviously, it will be easier to have private time with your spouse. But make sure you carve out one-on-one time with your mother (parents) so that there is continuity with the family you grew up with because whatever you shared with your family of origin needs to be honored. A spouse’s disapproval of your need and desire to be with your family just because they don’t like your parents is never a good enough reason to limit contact with your family of origin. Admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to juggle everyone’s needs, especially when there are young children who require a lot of attention. But it’s important to find the time and make the effort to be with family—especially if you really like them.
Having said this, understand that there may be real “red flags.” In the extreme, be aware of more pathological reasons for conflict between your mother and your spouse: a partner who wants to isolate you, cut you off from family and friends; a partner who is abusive and wants to dominate and control the relationship away from the eyes and ears of other family members; a parent who wants to maintain “top billing” in your life and will go to extreme ends to do so. In this case, you may need corroboration from friends and others close to you to validate why your spouse and your mother aren’t getting along. If others feel that either your spouse or your mother is “over the top” in terms of inciting conflict, that may speak volumes.