Dividing Family Loyalties When You Marry

Woman looking at husband while her mother scolds himThere is nothing like bringing home a close friend or partner to shine a spotlight on the unspoken rules by which every family, your family, lived and lives.

Every family that lives with one another for some time develops a set of patterns for emotional engagement that soon feels like the “family rules.” These expectations for behavior may start within a marriage and strengthen their grip as children are brought into the home. Once the children catch on to these patterns, they begin to live by them. Only family members know how that family works, even though no one may have ever spoken these powerful expectations out loud.

Many of these rules are quite helpful, and create a kind of emotional shorthand that members count on. Some rules families frequently live by are: this family lets one another know our whereabouts; this family goes to church/synagogue/mosque; this family values education; this family values friendship, and this family works hard. Others might be less helpful. They might be expressed as: this family avoids conflict; this family never questions mother/father; this family relies on men for money, women for support; this family doesn’t live outside our region; this family keeps secrets, and this family doesn’t trust anyone outside the family.

With these internal rules, members keep the connections of their family relationships, even unhealthy ones, intact. Once we bring another person into close relationship with this family system through marriage, the rules become more obvious; our new partner has no way of knowing or observing these internal rules except by bumping into them. Because they don’t have the years of unconscious training in working within the boundaries of these family expectations, newcomers invariably stir up distress and even conflict by disregarding these rules or even openly disagreeing with them. This is one way newcomers remain permanently on the outside of their partners’ family systems.

This is where the partner, whose family of origin is the one getting stirred up, has to bring his or her best self to the party or he/she will end up offending and damaging the new family and partner. If the rule is “no one can challenge the way Mom behaves,” Mom can run roughshod over the new wife of her son and her son gets caught between his loyalties toward his family of origin and that toward his partner. Because the loyalty to one’s family of origin is older and deeper, chances are that is the one that most easily wins.

In families where emotional connection has never been particularly intense or expected, this kind of division of emotional importance happens automatically. Parents have children, raise them, and expect that once their children marry, the old family changes. The new has come, and everyone has to adjust. In more emotionally intense, enmeshed, or distressed family systems, blending a new spouse and/or grandchildren into the mix may require an our-way-or-the-highway kind of behavior from the newcomer that can make for chronic distress for everyone.

I counsel couples who find themselves in conflict over family rules to think about loyalty as an emotional quality of relationships that can and must be shared unequally. One can be loyal to both one’s family of origin as well as to a new spouse, but the most successful marriages have partners who transfer their primary loyalties to their new partner. Mom or Dad may still be core relationships, but if there is any important conflict, decision, schedule, or issue to decide, the default must move to the spouse and couple.

If you and your partner seem to be in constant conflict over your visits back to visit your parents, your time spent with siblings, or the ever-present sense that you care more about pleasing your parents than you do your spouse, check in with yourself regarding that unequal balance of loyalty. If you feel miserably caught in the middle, it’s time to shift your focus. Unplug some of that urgency from your family of origin and give it to your new partner and children. And, of course, if it’s just not as easy as that for you, consulting with a local marriage and family therapist will help you more easily make that emotional transition.

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  • jasper

    jasper

    April 23rd, 2013 at 11:06 AM

    Oh, yeah. Total shocker when I went to my new man’s house. They talk about everything. And I mean everything. And we talk about nothing. And I mean nothing. The first time they asked me how I felt about my man I about fell out on the floor. Nobody hadn’t never asked me nothing like that before. Then theys wanting to know all about how I knew I was in love with him and stuff. Huh? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

  • Penelope G

    Penelope G

    April 23rd, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    Just in case anyone wants to know my theory: having kids changes everything between male and female siblings. No matter how much we think we’ve progressed, the woman in the house usually decides stuff and she’ll do stuff the way her mom did. So, the sister is doing things the way she was raised while the brother’s family is doing things the way his wife was raised. Believe me, this can cause some major conflict. But, it doesn’t seem to be that way with sisters as much since they’ll both raise their families the way they were raised. Just my 2 cents worth.

  • Kat

    Kat

    April 23rd, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    Interesting thing about my husband’s family. They have the “no one lives outside of this region” rule. But, he and both of his sisters managed to break it. One sister lives 8 hours away, one 3 1/2 hours away, and there is now a continent between us and the family (only temporary, but who’d have thunk it?). In my family, we are all scattered to the four corners of the earth. But, his family definitely had that rule until this generation.

  • n mayjor

    n mayjor

    April 23rd, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    now my family. we have the mamas alway right rule and don’t nobody ever never be breaking it.

    that is. until my baby brother’s girlfriend came all up in here. thinking she was so smart and no so much.

    That dont work so good for us and now she know it. she hadn’t been nowhere. near this house for some weeks now.

    Good ridance is all i can say to her and i am so glad. you’s gone. buy buy now.

  • Peonie

    Peonie

    April 23rd, 2013 at 11:18 AM

    I definitely agree with this. If your partner and your family are in disagreement about something, you have to side with your partner if you want your relationship to work.

  • GAVIN

    GAVIN

    April 23rd, 2013 at 11:52 PM

    I personally think the recipient family has to make adjustments. After all thy cannot expect a new comer to know all the rules just like that. An even if the rules are specified it takes time for any oh to adapt. So when you make the new comer feel comfortable and are welcoming to them they would be more prepared to make changes and stick to them rather than in a situation where they are forced to adhere.

  • Rosa

    Rosa

    April 24th, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    When you get married, your loyalty has to lie with your spouse.

    This is the person who needs to come first in your life, and if you aren’t ready to make that switch in behavior then you aren’t really ready to get married.

    I think that the partner always has to take priority. This is what makes you strong and creates a team. And we all know that this will come in handy any time that family arguments flare!

    It is great to be close to the extended family, and I don’t think that relationships have to be severed just because you get married. But things do change and you have to be willing to make some sacrifices to keep the marriage home strong.

  • Allison

    Allison

    July 11th, 2017 at 9:04 PM

    I have been married for20 years and my husband still sides with his sister against me. The whole year could go by very nicely, but the minute his sister gets involved it gets nasty and I am the target. This time, he went too far. He took our children to his sister’s house without telling me in advance. He said he was going to New Jersey and wound up in Maryland at his sister’s house! I told him the difference between lying and telling the truth is that when I say I am visiting my friend, it means that I am not on my way to Canada to visit my family! If you want your spouse to be honest, you have to be honest. He knows that what he did was wrong, but is incapable of admitting it. He thinks that he is very religious, but he is just a hypocrite. So pathetic!

  • Patricia

    Patricia

    July 12th, 2017 at 10:55 AM

    It’s the other way around with me – my sister-in-law has turned my brother against me and our relationship is absolutely broken. She twists the truth about everything and has him convinced that I am responsible for all ills in the family, period, end of sentence. Nothing I can do but I certainly won’t dignify any of those lies with a response.

  • Sonya

    Sonya

    April 27th, 2013 at 5:51 AM

    A good person would never ask you to divide your loyalty. I think that there is a way to maintain some balance in that not just one pr theo ther gets more than the other. A strong family would not want there to be that kind of division.

  • Nono

    Nono

    April 4th, 2017 at 11:39 PM

    My wife has a totally inability to keep herself away from her sister or her sister influence back on to her.

    This has been a constant issue through out our marriage. I am nkt smoke body who want to keep anyone away from their family as I think it’s GOOD to be close and keep a family connection in to your adult years, but it can be suffocating in a day and age where texting exsists.

    If not controlled and allowed to run wild, it will destroy your marriage and any realitionships you may have as it divides attention and priorities and leaves the spouse feeling like an afterthought.

  • Veronica

    Veronica

    July 8th, 2013 at 7:33 AM

    No, no, no…. The new-comer In-Law in the family must respect the culture and ways of doing life that they are married into. I have 2 Sister in Laws from hell who believe they are entitled to speak entirely for my brothers, intervene on their behalf and come in between issues that my brothers and I already have under control. They are nosy, controlling, trouble-makers who still have not learnt their place yet! They must remember that they are the newbies on the block, so they need to respect our culture of letting brothers and sisters deal with their own issues and not getting all psychopathically involved, thereby causing offence, and division in the family. They can’t just simply barge on into an established family and hijack it to suit their selfish or jealous agendas.

  • Marie

    Marie

    October 28th, 2016 at 8:01 AM

    Your brothers wives are their family now, not you. That all changed when they decided to get married. They are not the ones who need to “fit in” since your brothers and them are their own family and you are the outsider. Either accept that and behave accordingly or your brothers will end up cutting off their relationship with you. Spouses will always choose each other over their family of origin and that is how it should be.

  • karl

    karl

    April 8th, 2017 at 9:06 PM

    I take it you run your husbands life. Ugh! That is narcissism.

  • Betsy B

    Betsy B

    September 27th, 2017 at 9:50 AM

    Found the Justno-inlaw. So, does the same rules apply to your brother when he is at his wife’s family? Don’t think so! Leave and cleave! Get used to it!

  • Cherry tree

    Cherry tree

    September 30th, 2014 at 5:34 AM

    I’m in a dilemma. With my 1st husband it was awful he lied, drank and ran me down. My mother liked it as I spent most of my time with her. She is a mother you don’t stand up to, never disagree or she get the rest of the family feeling sorry for her. Now I’ve been in a relationship for 4yrs and we announced we are getting married next year. She hates me bring with him as I have never felt so United with anyone. We are so close and just love being together. I couldn’t be happier. My mum says he has made a divide and just tries to make me feel guilty for being with him. She said she want to be happy for me but can’t. He’s anazing and is fantastic with my adult children. What do I do. Mum and I rent on great terms now, hardly talking. Why can’t she be glad that finaly at 45 I’m blissfully happy. Why does she involve my siblings and make them snub me too.

  • OhIThinkThat

    OhIThinkThat

    November 10th, 2016 at 10:42 AM

    I wish these types of articles would address abusive spouses as well. Sometimes the FOO gets involved because they see abuse. The article might suggest to someone who is being emotionally/psychologically abused that they should side with their abuser. Not everyone who is being abused recognizes it and often feel that they and/or their family is responsible for whatever issues exist in the relationship because that’s what the abuser leads them to believe.

  • PATTY

    PATTY

    April 11th, 2017 at 7:38 AM

    re: abusive spouses – yes from what I have seen my brother is verbally abused and manipulated on a daily basis. Hate to see this but a) he did choose his life; b) he’s in complete denial about his wife’s drinking c) to him I’m the source of all the trouble in his life so how could I ever help him? Not up to me anyway.

  • Patty

    Patty

    January 31st, 2017 at 3:15 PM

    This was me in the family and the “me” now is totally separated from my brother. He was coached in the family to consider me as the source of everyone’s trouble, and now coached by his wife. I AM strong, but I certainly long for family which is loving and unconditional. My parents are long gone. I do have a loving daughter and two loving grandsons. That is certainly my saving grace.

  • Kathy

    Kathy

    April 21st, 2017 at 10:54 AM

    I have a son engaged to this girl who has no ties to her family. The story is that her dad left when she was around 11 and her mom was quite abusive to her after that. She says she left home around age 16 and lived on her own. She was newly single mom when my son met her and now my son has taken on the role of daddy to this child. They are due to get married next May. I have concerns about this marriage because she seems to be hiding her past life from us. If you dig and try to find out why she has cut off contact with all of her family, she says it is because her mom will stalk her if she finds out where she is. This I think is a crock and I am thinking there is another side to this story. I texted my concerns to my son the other day and he told her everything I said and I was told to Back off by her. She has a weight problem also and I also voiced my concern over that to him. I have never once seen her eat a proper diet or show concern over her problem. We have gone on walks and if we walk up a slight hill she is huffing and puffing, They drive everywhere, before my son met her, he would go biking and also to the gym, now zilch. Should I be concerned?

  • DIL

    DIL

    September 27th, 2017 at 9:19 AM

    “Should I be concerned?”

    No, you should get a life that doesn’t revolve around your adult son.

    1. Her past is NONE of your business.
    2. Her weight is NONE of your business.
    3. Keep trying to break them up by being nosy, mean and asking your son to keep secrets from his future wife, and you’ll end up without a son.

    You need a hobby.

  • PATTY

    PATTY

    April 21st, 2017 at 2:32 PM

    Kathy: It’s not sounding very good to me. Weight problem not so bad but the “family secrets” and family conflicts? hmmm. I have lots of trouble with my son-in-law – he is bipolar and a narcissist, likes to play games. So I can relate to your concern. I would encourage your son, for HIS benefit, to find out more about her family. He needs to know what he is marrying into – it’s definitely not an unreasonable thing. Another thing p does she work or is she needy and looking for someone to support her and her child? The truth needs to be uncovered. All the best to you.

  • Ms Tee

    Ms Tee

    January 20th, 2018 at 10:08 PM

    I come from a close knit family, and my husband, not much so. Now this is causing a problem in our marital life as I never thought anyone would see my relationship with my family as a problem. My sister-in-law lives with us, which I absolutely hate, but I’m making sacrifices for my husband. I’m just wondering why he won’t do the same for my own family? This is causing a lot of resentment towards him and I don’t know how to move past it.

  • Patty R

    Patty R

    January 21st, 2018 at 11:35 AM

    I can only say this: people learn in their families how to be in a family if you know what I mean. His reality is that people in families don’t necessarily root for each other. He sees it that way to the core of his being and has never questioned it. I see this in how my brother behaves. He has never questioned anything my parents did and so perpetuates it. I DID question everything and I have found a better way of being in a family. I’m sorry to hear of the difficulties you are having – it must cause a lot of stress.

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