When the people you love most in the world don’t get along, it can be tremendously painful. If you’re feeling caught between the family you grew up in and the family you’ve created with your spouse or partner – with or without children of your own – you know exactly what I’m talking about.
You feel loyalty to your parents, siblings and other relatives. You feel love and concern for your partner and kids. This puts you in the middle, especially if your family openly criticizes your spouse or gives the “cold shoulder” whenever you get together.
STEPS FOR HANDLING THE CONFLICT IN A POSITIVE WAY
Fortunately, there are ways you can support your spouse with strategies that will keep the peace while making sure everyone has a voice. While your partner and your family may never have a perfect relationship, you can minimize conflict and keep things respectful. Follow these 7 steps to manage the situation more effectively.
- DON’T IGNORE THE SITUATION. If your spouse has complained to you about your family, you need to address the issue right away. Ignoring or delaying will only cause resentment, which can harm your relationship.
- TALK TO YOUR FAMILY WITHOUT YOUR PARTNER PRESENT. Bring your concerns directly to family members on behalf of your spouse. You know your own family dynamics best – so you can create an atmosphere that lets them air their feelings and observations. Do this in person or by phone so you can listen closely. Keep in mind that your family may have no idea that their behavior has hurt your spouse.
- ADVOCATE FOR YOUR PARTNER. Explain how s/he sees things. Share your partner’s feelings and give any background that helps your family understand what’s going on from his/her point of view. For example, “Joe felt hurt when you said he was a bad father for not taking paternity leave. Did you know his employer frowns on dads who take time off? Right or wrong, that’s his situation … and I think we should support him.”
- LISTEN TO YOUR FAMILY’S VIEWS. Find out if there’s an issue you haven’t addressed with your partner. S/he may not be an innocent party to the problem, which means you will need to discuss what your spouse does and says in reaction to your family, too. Fairness demands that you hear both sides of the story.
- USE “I” STATEMENTS TO AVOID BLAME AND DEFENSIVENESS. When discussing your concerns, keep the focus on what you and your spouse feel. Don’t assume anything about your family’s inner-thinking and attitudes. Point to behavior in clear, non-judgmental terms. Instead of saying, “You were rude to Sarah last night at dinner,” try saying, “Sarah felt excluded from the conversation at dinner. We noticed that you tend to talk over her when she tries to speak.”
- FOR FUTURE GET-TOGETHERS, HAVE CONVERSATION STARTERS READY. After you’ve opened up about past conflicts, there may be feelings of awkwardness. Go to the next gathering with ideas to help people relax and get comfortable again.
- HAVE AN EXIT STRATEGY. If family gatherings continue to feel stressful, tell your family what time you’re planning to leave when you arrive. “We need to head out by noon to pick a friend up from the airport.” Have a secret signal your spouse can use if things become overwhelming and s/he needs to bow out.
CREATING THE LOVING FAMILY YOU WANT TO HAVE
As an experienced couples counselor, I have helped hundreds of married and committed couples deal with family conflicts. If you’re struggling to find answers and need expert support, reach out to me today.