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Outlawed by Your In-laws

by Dr. Lynn Margolies

Published, PsychCentral, 2009

 

Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.

Failure to set appropriate boundaries in mother-son relationships often results in persistent in-law tensions, and divisions and factions in marriages. Numerous marital problems fall into this category and can be traced to habitual boundary difficulties between mothers and sons which spill over into the man’s relationship with his spouse. The parameters of the mother-son relationship from the outset begins to establish a pattern of coalitions, and shapes the future vulnerability or resilience of a married couple around issues of loyalty and emotional security.

Laura didn’t realize until she overheard Dean’s phone conversation with his mother that he had promised Jane they would visit her in New Jersey over Labor Day. Laura became furious. After years of marriage, Dean was still capitulating to his mother. If they didn’t go, of course, Laura would look like the bad guy.

Her mind drifted back to when they were engaged. She found herself ruminating again about the time she discovered that Dean had agreed to take his mother’s furniture to use in the bedroom (of all places) of their new house. Laura gritted her teeth as they replayed this cycle. They both knew the lines by heart: She accuses Dean of choosing his mother over her. He gets defensive, arguing that she should know how impossible his mother can be (which is true). Dean complains that he is always in the middle of the two of them and there’s just no way for him to win.

In-law entanglements are common in marriage and take root early, leaving an imprint and becoming a potential source of ongoing friction and divide.

Dean complained of being “in the middle,” pulled at from both sides by his mother and wife. However, the truth is that his mother is positioned in the middle - between him and his wife, a dynamic which he unconsciously enabled. To insulate marriages from damaging intrusions, a symbolic boundary must be drawn from the beginning, and reinforced over time, establishing the sanctity of the couple as a unified entity. Instead, Dean left the door to his marriage open, allowing his mother to make her way inside and come between him and his wife.

A defining opportunity to establish this emblematic boundary occurred during Dean’s engagement to Laura, when his mother wanted him to take her furniture. In choosing to go along with her, however, Dean symbolically aligned himself with his mother instead of his wife, leaving Laura on the outside, and unknowingly carving the initial split in their relationship.

Though Dean intended to escape conflict with his mother by giving in - a method which had “worked” for him prior to Laura - instead, he ended up with more troubles. The conflict between him and his mother was simply diverted. It came back to haunt him in the form of conflict between his mother and his wife, and between Dean and his wife - problems from which there seems no escape.

The fundamental problem here is that Dean never allowed himself to “leave home” and transition his primary attachment from his mother to his wife and new family. What should he do - or have done - to guard against, and repair, the split in his marriage?

Mindfulness, courage and strategy are the tools Dean needs for the job.

Mindfulness of his tendency to form unconscious alliances with mother which result in automatic, often passive, reactions driven by guilt, fear, habit, and unspoken loyalties. This step involves recognizing that he cannot trust his instinctive reactions and must be vigilant even when making seemingly innocuous decisions involving his mother.

Courage to take responsibility for beginning to differentiate himself from his mother and consciously acting in the best interest of his marriage and himself. Courage involves willingness to bear his mother’s anger, hurt, or disappointment, and perhaps his own feelings of loss or guilt.

Strategy involves figuring out ways to prepare himself to respond to his mother that establish a protective barrier and allow him to remain aligned with his wife. The practical strategy here includes active collaboration with Laura to keep her in the loop, learning to recognize danger zones, and rehearsing safe, routine ways to respond to his mother.

An example of a basic template for responding to mother’s requests is: “Thanks - I’ll get back to you on that.” This response allows Dean some delay. Or when “no” is the answer, or setting a limit is indicated: “I don’t think that is going to work for us. We appreciate the gesture though…” (leaving out further elaboration and using calm but firm repetition when challenged). The key is for Dean to assume responsibility for declining - and refrain from attributing this decision to Laura or subtly blaming her.

The essential communication to Jane and to Laura is that Dean and his wife are an indivisible team. The consciousness and energy necessary to make these changes work may be inspired by remembering that good teamwork results in a feeling of camaraderie, a smoother-running system, and greater all-around success.

 

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Psychologist, Newton Centre, MA.
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