It's much better to decide what you cannot tolerate from family members and take the time and effort to tell them about it ahead of time, than to blow up when it happens. First, try to figure out what is bothering you. This is not always easy. Common conflicts with family members include:
- Visiting too often
- Staying too long
- Calling on the phone too often or too little
- Meddling in your business
- Trying to tell you how to live your life
If a family member is really annoying you, take the time and effort to determine what specific behaviors you are bothered by. Many times, resolving a particular conflict can improve your relationship with him or her. It might be that only one behavior is annoying, but many things bother you because of that one thing. If you are having some trouble identifying what exactly is bothering you, it might be helpful to refer to Gripes and Grievances and The Bother Barometer on identifying conflicts and apply that information to your family.
Jason found his wife's sister really annoying. Sara, his wife, was very close to her sister. They talked several times a week on the phone, and she came over almost every Sunday afternoon. Sara knew that Jason was annoyed by her sister, but could never figure out why. Jason became irritable whenever she came over and always left the room. Sara and he would often have a fight Sunday evenings after her sister had left.
One Sunday, Sara's sister stayed for dinner, and Jason was clearly upset. He kept his emotions to himself until she went home, but then he yelled at Sara. “Why does your sister always have to come over and wreck our Sundays? It's the one day that we have together and she ruins it for me!” After they talked about it some more, it came out that what really bothered Jason most about Sara's sister was her timing. Sunday was the one day he really counted on to relax, and he felt he had to be a host when Sara's sister was over. He wanted to sit in his lounge chair and listen to his CDs without worrying about a guest.
Don't let conflicts with family members get in the middle of your marriage. Work together to create a clear boundary around your relationship.
Sara let her sister know that Sunday afternoons would not work on a regular basis. Sara's sister changed her weekly visit to Wednesday nights, and she only came over Sunday afternoons when she was explicitly invited. Jason appreciated the privacy he needed on the weekends.
Stephanie and Robert had a problem with Robert's parents. They lived out of town and wanted to visit twice a year for a week. While Stephanie and Robert didn't have day-to-day conflicts with them, they always felt like the upcoming visit was looming over their heads. When Robert's parents came for an entire week, it threw their schedules off. They came on relatively short notice, and it was difficult to host them for such long visits.
Stephanie and Robert dealt with their problem by not talking about it. Then every six months or so, Robert's parents would call and announce they were coming the next week. They would tell Stephanie and Robert the flight number and time and expect them to drop everything. Both Stephanie and Robert liked his parents, but they found these visits badly timed and exhausting, even though they looked forward to seeing his parents.
Don't put pressure on yourselves to entertain your parents every minute of their visit. Set up interesting things for them to do. If you turn your schedule upside down, you are more likely to resent them.
Stephanie and Robert needed to take control of the situation. Instead of waiting for Robert's parents to call, they should have called up his parents and given them a choice of two times several months away that would have been good for them to visit. They should have also suggested a five-day visit, rather than a one-week stay. Stephanie and Robert would have enjoyed the visits if they were better timed and shorter.
Here is a list of things that will help you establish better out-of-town family visits:
- Determine the date of arrival early enough in advance, to everyone's agreement.
- Establish plans of what you and your relatives would like to do when they visit.
- Decide ahead of time how long you want your relatives to stay and let them know.
- If you will have other obligations during their visit, let them know ahead of time to prevent disappointment.
Marriage Q & A's
Q: Is it wrong to talk with my friends about my marital problems?
A: When you discuss problems you are having with your spouse with another family member or friend, you are undermining the trust in your marriage. If you compliment your spouse to others instead, you will be strengthening your marital bond!
Keep Your Problems to Yourselves
You might think that talking about problems you are having with your spouse might help you become closer to your mother-in-law. Don't do it! Asking advice about a recent argument with your spouse is a severe breach of trust. Never, ever, talk about negative things in your relationship with anyone except your spouse (or a therapist). It's extremely destructive. Even if you do not mean any harm, you are undermining the trust that the two of you have. You will not only alter other people's perception of your spouse, but whatever you discuss will be remembered by the other person long after you and your spouse have resolved the issue.