If you’ve ever had a serious relationship, you’ve definitely fielded the never-ending barrage of questions: “How many siblings does he have?” “What is his mom like? Does she like you?” “When are you going to meet the family?”
Then, inevitably, these questions terminate in the singsong, oft-repeated phrase: Don’t forget, you don’t just marry an individual, you marry the whole family.
Even though those words make me want to rally for a nationwide, collective eye roll, I have to admit that after almost four years of marriage with parents-in-law, seven sisters-in-law, and four brothers-in-law in the picture, there’s no denying the truth in that overused statement.
So, why is it so irritating?
Because it conflicts with two very primal instincts we all get when we fall in love: The first is our desire for intimacy, and the second is our certainty that the relationship we have is unique and unintelligible to those who are outside of it.
There’s no bigger damper on those instincts than to admit there is a large group of people involved who have a right to an opinion on your relationship. Everything in our bodies wants us to scream, “No, this is just about us; no one else matters.”
Nevertheless, the fact remains that you can’t separate your spouse from the family they came from. What you can do, though, is realize that “you marry the family” is a big generalization. There are ways in which that is very true and ways in which it is untrue, and figuring out the difference will help you make a better decision about who to marry and how to ease family-related tension after you marry.
01. You can’t ignore family relationships.
There’s no way to get out of the reality that your spouse’s family history will have a major impact on your relationship. It matters whether your spouse grew up in a loving home or a harsh one, a broken home or a whole one; it matters how his parents chose to parent and it matters how his character was formed as a child. If there are things you don’t like about the way your spouse and his family treat one another, it’s important to discuss it because it’s almost guaranteed to come up in your married life together at some point. And that goes for the good things, too. If there are things you really like about your future spouse’s family relationships, you can feel more confident that you will have a similar experience together.
One of the things that gave me a lot of peace while dating my spouse was his level of respect and care for his mom. You could clearly tell that this was demanded of him and instilled in his character from a very young age and it gave me confidence knowing that this behavior would probably influence his treatment of me and later, influence the behavior of our children toward me.
Your spouse is different than his family, but he was formed by his family and it’s a big mistake not to take that in to account when making a decision about marriage. In that sense, you very much “marry the family.”
02. You can create your own family culture.
On the other hand, despite what may have been the case with either of your families, you can find comfort in the fact that your family unit is still separate and comes first. This refrain has been a peace-creating balm for my own marriage since my spouse and I come from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds.
Our first year or two of marriage was difficult because our respective families had very different ways of doing things, like different foods at the holidays, different expectations about what’s polite, and how to share news with other family members. There are even differences in little things like the fact that my family loves sitting around the living room with paper plate dinners and his family would never not eat around a properly set table. It was a major worry for both of us that our own family would either morph into a carbon copy of my spouse’s family or mine depending on who won the cultural tug of war.
Fortunately, we realized that while we didn’t have the ability to change the cultures we were raised in, we do have the ability to dictate exactly how we would like our own family unit to be. We picked some traditions and expectations from each side that we liked and threw out the ones we didn't like. As a result, we’ve formed a family that has its own culture.
Of course, our respective families still have a big place in our hearts and we enjoy participating in their way of doing things when we visit. But now we can remind our kids: at home, we do things differently.
03. Your vow is to your spouse alone.
When we're married, we’re asked commit to a life of self-sacrificial love, where we put our spouse’s needs above our own. Love also demands us to make ourselves utterly vulnerable, revealing our flaws and weaknesses and accepting those of our spouse. These commitments are so intense, no wonder it feels a little off-putting when we’re told we need to “marry the family” as well.
When you say "I do" you are opening your heart to embrace a group of people who love and care about your spouse and therefore have some natural right to a relationship with you and especially with the children that might come from your union. That said, while we should always try to maintain a healthy relationship with our partner's family members, we can discriminate when it comes to deciding the level of influence certain family members have on our own family unit and the level of intimacy of those relationships. So, yes, marriage involves loving each other’s families but our marital commitment to our spouse is a higher priority, and that’s an important difference.
As annoying as it may be to hear, we can’t avoid "marrying" our spouse's family, to some degree. And that’s a good thing. But don’t freak out that you will be required to share every marital decision with your husband’s nosy Aunt Susie because your marriage with your spouse is something very different and much more intimate than any union you’ll have with his family.