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How I set boundaries with my parents and in-laws after I got married


Jacob Lund | Shutterstock

Cecilia Pigg - published on 06/14/22

Holidays weren’t the only snafu we had to figure out.

“Uh, sure, that could work. We’ll talk about it and get back to you.” I hung up the phone and started crying. (Okay, I wasn’t married that long ago, so I actually didn’t have to hang the phone up anywhere; I just pressed the red “end call” button and set the phone down on the table.)

I was in tears because figuring out where to spend the holidays between my parents and my in-laws was a mess. I was not communicating well – that was clear. Both my parents and my husband’s parents were hurt, and when I proposed yet another plan to my husband for what Christmas and Thanksgiving would look like, he didn’t understand and I felt very alone and misunderstood.

Holidays weren’t the only snafu to figure out. I had expectations about what staying in touch with my family and his family would look like that were different from my husband’s expectations, that were in turn different from our parents’ expectations.

And to top it all off, my husband and I are both oldest children, and were the first to get married. So neither of our parents had ever dealt with a child-in-law before, much less an adult child in a married relationship. Everyone was in uncharted territory, and communicating all of this was not going well – mostly because it wasn’t being communicated at all.

Hashing out expectations together

I was astounded at how often my husband talked to his parents, and he was similarly astounded at how infrequently I talked to mine. The first lesson we had to learn was that before we set any kind of boundary, we needed to hash out our expectations together.

Genesis tells us that a man must leave his mother and father and cling to his wife, but we are also told to honor our father and mother in Ephesians and Exodus. So, we had to find the line between loving and learning from our parents, and recognizing that we as a new couple are creating a whole new family—one that is separate and different from our families of origin.

We had many conversations in which we started uncovering what each other was thinking and feeling about how much time and what kind of time we were spending with our parents. These were not always tidy, happy conversations, but each one helped us to grow. 

It also helped us to communicate better about our schedules, so that we both knew when we had things going on and could make plans with family accordingly. This talk about our daily schedule evolved, and made us realize what the other person wanted to prioritize in general. What downtime did we each need? How much time should we be working, and how much time did taking care of our house require? What social activities did we each want to prioritize, and how did we want to spend our weekends? 

Continuous communication is key

Once we started figuring out where each of us were coming from and what we were expecting individually, we were able to have conversations about what boundaries we wanted to set as a couple.

I struggle with people-pleasing, and then have a tendency to react when my people-pleasing goes too far with over-the-top boundaries. So for example, after feeling like I have given in too many times in a row, I suddenly decide that my limit is reached and I won’t say yes to another invitation or set up any get-togethers for three months. This generally leaves my loved ones with a feeling of whiplash, and doesn’t help me learn how to say no in a measured, normal way.

My husband discovered that checking in with me more often helped me learn how to say “no” more consistently when I needed to. This helped quell the cycle of “yes, yes, yes let’s spend time together, but, okay, that’s it now, no, never again, I’m done.”

We’ve learned slowly how to balance his desire to spend more in-person time with our families, and my desire to spend more time apart from them, focusing on forming our own family.

The more clearly we have voiced our desires with each other and with our families, the better our communication has become over time. There’s always room to grow, and some good patron saints to look to for help are Sts. Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary. We turn to them a lot and ask them to help us as we learn to navigate family relationships in our married life.

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