In-Laws: A Ticking Time Bomb

Image courtesy: Funkdooby

With the Dads Talking crew focusing on “fireproofing” marriages this week, I thought it appropriate to discuss one of the the most common incendiary devices that can ignite turmoil and strife in a marriage… in-laws. And while it isn’t the in-laws themselves that are the problem, it is often those very folk who become symptomatic of a larger, more serious issue: relationship hierarchy. Who’s higher up the chain? Mom or wife? And though I think any man would be crazy to answer “mom” and most of us would say “wife,” it is often the exact opposite that we show our wives in our actions. Matter of fact, it was those very actions, or the lack thereof, which almost ended my own marriage approximately 8 years in.

It seems like so long ago now. I was a 19 year old, wet behind the ears kid when I first met the gal who would become my wife. I was a born charmer and found that charming dates and those women who would be casual dalliances came rather easy to me until I met her. I fell in love with her because she saw through my BS. I was hooked. She was bright, beautiful and a challenge. Little did I know that the cutie who eyed me in a mall of all places would be my wife approximately 18 months later. Like I said, I was only 19 when we met and had never lived on my own up to that point. I had not gone to college because I got into the technical side of the entertainment business and figured that most people went to college to acquire the skills to do what I was doing and make the kind of money I was making. There was also no motivation for me to move out at that time. My father who had been divorced from my mother only 2 years earlier wasn’t home much between work and his lady friend so the three bedroom house he was renting was my playground. I was such a kid and saw things through child-like eyes, making decisions I look back on now and laugh at for my point of view at the time. After meeting my wife, we would date for a while and at some point, things began to get serious. I was making good money and we traveled and I loved it! She loved it too and all was right with the world. I would profess, with sincerity, that I wanted to marry her some day. I knew I needed to live a little more… even learn how to pay my own bills since I had not done it up to that point (oh, except for my pager bill) and just generally “grow up” a little more but all of that changed when she got pregnant. I wanted to marry her anyway so I asked. Having grown up in a single parent home and being self-sufficient at a very young age, she could already see what she was getting herself into so, let’s just say, it took her a little while to say “yes.” We wanted to do things right, so we were eventually married, prior to our daughter’s birth and there we were… off on a family adventure. An adventure that would turn out to be a painful one for some time.

There’s this passage in the Bible which talks about a man leaving his mother and father and “cleaving unto his wife,” and regardless of your spiritual inclination this is a good idea. An idea I wasn’t familiar with because I was still very much immeshed in my family dynamic. My father, who could be overbearing at times, was still that way with me, a married man now. And my mother, well she was “all up in the business” as the saying goes. My wife shares some of the blame (as she’d tell you) for some of the issues which occurred on behalf of my family’s involvement in my marriage but I can tell you wholeheartedly that the lion share of the responsibility fell squarely on my shoulders. Being a people pleaser and a momma’s boy, I hadn’t yet developed the backbone to set proper boundaries with many people in my life so you can imagine that the boundaries I had in place for my parents in my marriage were next to nonexistent. At some point I would have to “become a man” and stand up, setting proper boundaries to protect my marriage from any issues, but I was a long way from that place and life was going to have to kick my butt until I got there.

I went through years of arguments with my parents. Years of them with my wife. Mad at her, at them, at myself. I would take a stand with them here and there, but there was just something in me that couldn’t let go. Looking back, I think I was afraid to stand as a man on my own two feet. Afraid to give my parents an ultimatum. They had always, all my life shown me nothing but love, but I was afraid I’d lose them If I set clear boundaries and gave them any absolute if/then consequences if they crossed those boundaries. Add to that the fact my wife had her own baggage she’d brought to the relationship which would have me considering whether breaking off ties with my parents, if it came to that, was what I really wanted to do, and it got bad. What I failed to realize was that by moving into a place of strength and standing for my relationship, setting boundaries, I would actually be creating the environment my wife needed to be able to feel free to make herself completely vulnerable to me and love me fully. I’d be creating an environment where trust could thrive. Instead I did the opposite.

I want to be very clear about one thing here, my parents weren’t being terribly malicious jerks or anything of that nature, they were just “concerned” about their boy and his well being and I was enabling it by committing that one cardinal sin… to quote Tyler Derdan, “Rule #1 of Marriage- You don’t talk about your marriage with the in-laws. Rule #2- You do not talk about your marriage with the in-laws!” Me? I was blabbing like a scared FBI informant. I mean, when you’re having marital issues, you should be able to bear all to your own mom and dad, right? Wrong! And therein lies the problem I see with most men. Often, they don’t realize that you aren’t mommy and daddy’s “boy” anymore and until you become the man they were trying to raise in the first place, your own wife may not be in a place to respect you and love you like the man she thought she’d married. That process of separation was much easier with my dad than my mother though. To put this in guy speak, once I felt confident enough in my own ability to be self-sufficient and beat my chest and bared my fangs, my dad got the point: You’re no longer the Alpha. I’ve got my own pack now. Back off or we battle. Once that point was made, I had to snarl at him a couple more times, but it was literally that… just snarls. A couple times he needed a reminder after more than two decades of being Tshaka’s daddy. We had a habit to break. For mom though, it felt so much more painful. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who had poured everything into her children. She was a modern day Donna Reid. We were her life and though she meant well, it was time to cut the cord. I actually had to give her an ultimatum and it broke my heart to do so, but sometimes things are broken down so something healthier can be built back up in their place… which was actually what happened to my marriage overall, but that’s a story for another post. Maybe.

Sadly enough, it took me losing my marriage for a time before I’d be in a place to love, cherish and protect my wife like I should’ve in the beginning. Make no mistake, the little spitfire she is, she didn’t need my protection but, I needed to be the protector and up until that point, I had failed epically at that endeavor.

So, now it’s time to pass on some things I learned through the process in the hopes that they will help another couple avoid at least some of these same issues. How do you fireproof your marriage against the in-law debacle?

1. Before you marry, while still engaged, set clear boundaries with your parents about what behavior is and isn’t appropriate in your home. My mom used to like to drop by unannounced and I didn’t have an issue with this at first but as you can imagine, my wife sure as heck did! When things happen which your wife (or your husband) feels violate your marital space, be quick to deal with them. Doing so nurtures confidence and security in the relationship with your significant other.

2. Man up! Your dad may try to throw his weight around in YOUR home. Well, that is YOUR home and he is required to respect the laws you’ve set in your home. You had to obey his rules growing up and, respectfully, he needs to know that he is in your home and you have your own set of rules. Even if those guidelines originate from your wife… they’re still YOU’RE rules (within reason of course, but that’s for the two of you to work out and compromise on if necessary).

3. Ask your wife from time to time how she feels about the level of involvement of the grandparents in your home. Ask, then shut up and just listen. Take it in and adjust accordingly. Be quick and be decisive but don’t be hasty! The second your wife tells you she’s having an issue with something, don’t rush to pick up the phone right that moment, but don’t put off dealing with it for weeks at a time. Think about what she’s told you and try to get to the heart of the matter. Even if you think she may be acting a little overly sensitive about an issue, that’s ok. A firm stance with your family builds love and trust like you can’t even imagine and sometimes your wife will come back to you after you’ve stood for her and her feelings and say, “You know that thing I had an issue with. I think that was really me. You know what? I’m ok with it.” Speaking from experience, I can tell you that this does happen. We all have things we’re working through as we try to be the most emotionally healthy partners and parents we can be and sometimes we have to go back to a spouse and accept our part in a problem. Ok, often.

I hope that if you’re a new husband, this helped in some way and it is my prayer that you will avoid some of the issues I dealt with as a result of my own baggage in my marriage. Cutting the cord with your parents is hard. I know this. But losing your wife is harder!

About Tshaka Armstrong

Tshaka Armstrong is the husband to one awesome wife, dad to three awesome children. On any given day you may find him posting internet & tech family safety info here and on his personal blog, or chatting with his tweeps when he's not dadvocating here. Join in the conversation, drop a line, share a joke and join him in encouraging each other to be awesome!