Adjusting to Family Changes When Children Marry

Author:
Sharon May, Ph.D.


Adjusting to the changes in a family when a child gets married is often just as difficult for parents as it is for adult children. There is no textbook on how to balance between 'leaving' to establish one's own family while 'staying connected' to one's family of origin. The journey can place stress on the young couple's marriage and be a source of grief for the parents. Even when they may all want to get along, it is often a bumpy transition. And unless a family recognizes the struggle, is able to talk about it, and then chooses to be understanding and kind, the hurts inflicted can last years.

"'We'd love to have you join us!' is what we hear every weekend from his parents," complained Rebecca during one of our Safe Haven Family Intensives.

"What is the crime in inviting our son and new wife to Sunday brunch? We used to go every Sunday as a family to brunch before they got married," rebutted the frustrated in-laws, trying not to blame Rebecca for 'pulling their son away from them.'

The invitation seemed innocent enough, but it was a big trigger for the newlyweds, Adam and Rebecca. "It's not only Sunday brunch, there is also the pressure to come over for Tuesday night family dinner. When do we get to have our own family time?" continued Rebecca, and this time with tears. Adam looked on, scarred, wishing not to hurt his parents while wanting to please his wife. With fear of losing their son, the parents folded their arms and looked at each other with hurt and rejection.

We have met with many families in a similar situation: a young married couple struggling to leave their family of origin and cleave to each other, figuring out how to honor their new spouse while still staying connected to their family of origin. Often, the young husband and wife are pulled between wanting to establish their own 'family rhythms' while being loyal to their parents and old familiar family routines. As the young couple blends their two visions, beliefs, and lifestyles to form their own 'family,' their old family structure changes. Familiar traditions are lost and out of their new family structure, new ones arise. All of this takes time, sometimes years.

Parents of young adults today have typically spent over 2 decades involved in every aspect of their child's life. These parents are known as highly involved and connected parents, sometimes labeled as 'helicopter parents.' They have played every board game with their child; processed every friendship, joy and heartache; volunteered in their schools; chauffeured them to every sporting and cheerleading event, making sure they showed up with cupcakes, orange slices and posters. These parents valued family dinners, family night, family conversations, and family vacations. And to watch their adult child let go of familiar family routines, rituals and rhythms, often feels like rejection—a very big loss.

Here are some things to think about as you enter this new season, or maybe are in the midst of navigating changes as you read this, or perhaps realize that you need to start a healing journey of repair:

Two Points for Adult Children

1. Don't argue over in-laws, face them as a team. It is common knowledge that one of the top triggers for a couple's arguments are the 'in-laws.' The demands from a spouse's parent can weigh heavy on a couple's marriage. Don't put your spouse in a position of choosing between you or their parents. What a husband can let go of regarding his parents, his wife often cannot. Or what a wife can overlook in her parents, her husband often cannot. Realize that both your parents will put pressure on you to keep up family rhythms. Both your parents have flaws (shocking, I know) and you will both need grace (lots of it!) to deal with your own parents, as well as your in-laws.

2. Start with "you-and-me." As a young married couple, find your vision and mission statement for your marriage. In the same way as starting a new business, you are starting a new family, and it deserves attention in creating a new way of being and operating. What do you value? What traditions and family rhythms do you want to carve out together? What role will each of your parents have in your lives? How often, when, and where will you see them? How will it impact your marriage?

Come together as an 'us' and decide what rhythms and traditions you would like to have as you carve out your new family. Then, as a team, tell your respective families. Let your parents know that it is not your spouse who is choosing not to come over every Sunday, but that you have both made this decision based on your family values and vision. And that you support each other, standing together as an 'us.'

Two Points for Parents

1. Grieve, adjust, be flexible. When your children marry, you may feel like you are losing your son or daughter. Or you may feel like you are gaining a son- or daughter-in-law into your family. But the fact is, you are launching your son or daughter to start their own family.

Though once so involved in every aspect of your child's life, you have completed your mission. You've launched your son or daughter into adulthood, and now marriage. Support your adult child's new independence, and respect their position as husband or wife in their marriage.

Try not to take their independence as rejection. Try not to blame their new spouse for the change in family rhythms. You don't want to become the in-law the new spouse has to 'manage' to avoid being wounded by. With courage, grieve the loss of what was familiar for so many years as your child was growing up. Allow your adult child to adjust to marriage, and see what new traditions and rhythms arise. And as you wait, do so with understanding and loving kindness, rather than developing an attitude of self-pity and resentment.

2. Respect your adult child's new family rhythms. Allow your child and their spouse, to establish their own family rituals, traditions and schedules. Wait for your child to invite you into their routine, traditions and schedule. Instead of expecting them to come over because that is what you have always done as a family, ask them what new traditions they are establishing and how they would like you involved. Gently inquire: 'How often would you like to have family dinners? What rhythm works for you and your spouse?' And don't guilt them, nor entice them (like offering to pay, or choosing a fancy location in hopes they will attend). Remember to have grace. It is just as difficult for your children to establish their new family as it is for you to figure out your new role. Life has changed for you all!

If you and your family have gotten tied up in knots while attempting to launch yet stay connected, step up and offer grace, forgiveness and a 'do-over.' Be willing to admit your faults, too: 'I am sorry, that didn't sound very nice; may I say that differently?'

It won't work for anyone to give in thinking it will keep the peace. And cutting off your parents or children never works. Instead, realize everyone is trying to adjust to the changes. We all long to be loved, valued and to get along. Especially with family.

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