and Jack always seem to argue when they get home from a visit to Sally's
has a problem with her fiancé Anton's relationship with Bev|his over-involved
at Grandma Wanda's home always seems like it ends up with people going home
with hurt feelings.
First Task of Marriage
issues that are present in the preceding situations all stem from a common
source: the lack of proper familial connections and boundaries. Religion and
family science have both agreed on this issue. In Genesis
2:24, the Judeo-Christian religious tradition mentions that a man and woman
must separate and establish themselves as a married couple. Wallerstein (1994)
also states that a person must separate themselves from their family of origin
and create a new identity as a married person. Neither of these sources indicates
that one is to completely cut off connection with their families of origin. On
the contrary, one must separate from their family of origin, connect with their
spouse, and forge new connections with their family|all in a proper context.
difficulties can arise if someone doesn't properly distance themselves from
their family of origin (Risch, Riley, & Lawler, 2003; Silverstein, 1990).
Most of this difficulty arises because the couple has failed to construct
appropriate boundaries around their marriage (Risch, Riley, & Lawler,
2003). It may be difficult to separate from your family of origin, but it is
worth the effort. Some even feel that the achievement of separating
psychologically from your family of origin is worth praise (Wallerstein, 1994).
However, as previously mentioned, separation is not permanent. It is only for
the purpose of creating a marital relationship. The whole idea of separating in
order to connect is a paradox. Once the separations are created, the married
couple has to create new connections with their families of origin|as a married
couple. An ecclesiastical leader once told me the following: When you find a
girl you like, you have to learn how to love her as your girlfriend. When you
get married, you have to learn to love her as your wife. When you have your
first child, you have to learn to love her as a mother. When your children
leave your home, you have to learn to love her as an individual again (G.
Vazquez, personal communication, April 5, 2004). This shows that even when
connection is present, it is sometimes necessary to learn how to reconnect as
situations change (such as when one gets married). Many challenges regarding
separation and connection have their roots in one of two things: triangulation
creates an imbalance in a relationship. It is bringing a third person into a
two person relationship. Two of the people within this relationship will be
closer than they are with the third (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2008). This
can cause jealousy for the third person who is left out, or even create
competition for attention (Wallerstein, 1994).
Lou and Jane are best friends. Jane is married to Peter. Jane and Mary Lou
always go out together, often leaving Peter home alone with the kids. Jane
confides many things to Mary Lou about Peter and the marriage. Mary Lou
sometimes criticizes Peter|based on what Jane has told her|by telling him
things he should do to change. Peter feels jealous of all the time that Jane
spends with Mary Lou and gets upset with her when Mary Lou criticizes him.
this example, Peter, Jane, and Mary Lou have a triangulated relationship. Jane
shares things with Mary Lou that should only exist between her and Peter.
Because of Jane's sharing, Mary Lou, as a friend, feels like she should try and
help make Peter and Jane's marriage work better. Mary Lou should instead tell
Jane that she should not involve her in their relationship. Private information
that Jane was sharing should only be shared between husband and wife. If Mary
Lou still has issues with Peter, she should speak to him about them. She
shouldn't use Jane as a go-between.
has similar problems as triangulation. Enmeshment occurs when boundaries are
unclear and family members are unduly concerned or involved in another family
member's life (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2008). When enmeshment is present
in a family it is very hard for family members to differentiate their feelings
from another's: loyalties can also be blurred (Harper & Olsen, 2005).
and Brooke were recently married. Brooke's mother will not let them rent an
apartment that is within the price range they can afford because she thinks it
is too dangerous an area. She forces the newlyweds to live in her home. It is
awkward for Thomas and Brooke. They have trouble creating a marriage identity.
They are not allowed to be independent. Thomas and Brooke are frustrated
because they do not know what they should do. They are grateful to Brooke's
mother for the free rent. However, they want to be able to be themselves and
find that hard to do because they have to live under someone else's roof and
issues that Peter, Jane, Brooke, and Thomas are facing could be avoided if the
couples had boundaries in place.
boundary is "an abstract delineation between parts of a system or between
systems, typically defined by implicit or explicit rules regarding who may
participate and in what manner" (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2008, p. 465). In
this definition, system is used to describe an entity|such as a marriage. So in
normal speech, this definition might come to sound something like this: a
boundary is an invisible border between a marriage and outside relationships
that describes who can be allowed to interact with the marriage and how
the interactions may take place.
Why Boundaries Are
a nation, a boundary represents a geographical space that is recognized as
territory by other nations. With a clearly defined boundary, a nation is
justified in taking action to protect that which lies within its bounds. Having
boundaries around a marriage provides a similar psychological position. If
someone tries to breach the boundary of the marriage, action should be taken to
preserve the territory. Others will recognize the action as just cause. However
a boundary is not just for protection from attack. For example, a newly married
couple might say to their families of origin|hey, this is our boundary, don't
cross it. Later, should the boundary be breeched, it will be much easier for
the couple to kindly ask the intruders to back away. Having these boundaries
put up will make conflict easier to handle in the future.
a couple has created the proper boundaries the task of creating and maintaining
connection begins. One way that a couple can connect with each other and with
their families of origin is through rituals. A ritual can be described as
something|through a specific sequence of acts|to promote a change in the life
of a family (Imber-Black, Roberts, & Whiting, 2003). Family scholar William
Doherty (1997) describes a ritual as a repeated and coordinated activity that
has significance to the participant. Doherty also adds that a ritual must
contain three important parts: a transition phase, an enactment phase, and an
The Ritual Phases
transition phase is basically a coming together. Something needs to be done to
signal the beginning of the ritual. The transition phase is bringing everyone
into what Doherty (1997) calls "ritual space" (p. 25). The enactment phase is
the action part of the ritual. This is where everything takes place. This phase
is where the entire purpose of the ritual|mutual enjoyment and a greater sense
of connection|takes place. The exit phase is when the ritual begins to wind
down and ends. Doherty (1997) warns that ending a ritual in a negative way is
harmful to the experience and to the ritual.
following Christmas morning ritual is an example of the ritual phases. Little
Jimmy wakes up Christmas morning excited to see what Santa Claus brought him.
He jumps out of bed and rushes to the living room. To his great surprise Santa
has brought a plethora of gifts. Even more excited, he rushes back to the
bedrooms and begins to awaken his siblings, Sarah, John, and Michelle. The
children excitedly awaken their parents. George and Mary, the parents, climb
out of bed and ask everyone to gather in the living room to open gifts. (This
would be the transition phase.) As Jimmy, Sarah, John and Michelle rip open
their gifts and celebrate with joy as they receive "just what they asked for,"
George and Mary silently watch and smile|basking in the joy that they have
brought their children. (The enactment phase.) After all the presents have been
opened the children begin to play with their newfound pleasures. George and
Mary head to the kitchen and begin making a Christmas breakfast. (The exit
The Purpose of
can be used to create connections both in a marriage relationship and with
families of procreation and origin. These connections will be brought about
through creating traditions that can bring fond memories for many years to
couple may face a challenge when trying to create or maintain a sense of
connection with the other. They may have fallen out of the habit of actively
courting since the time they were married. As a dating or engaged couple, they
were always looking for ways to be together. Doherty (1997) acknowledges that
as a couple has been married for more and more time, the active seeking of
connection may diminish. Here are two suggestions from Doherty (1997) that may
help a couple connect:
to Each Other
suggests that 15 minutes a day can be sufficient to maintain the already
created connectedness a couple may have. However, he cautions that the time
spent talking must become a ritual or it will not happen regularly. This
talking time must be a focused regular time to talk as a couple or the desired
connection will not happen.
(1997) suggests that a couple go on a date at least every other week. His
recipe for a good date includes these three ingredients:
- Privacy. Make
sure that you are alone so that you can connect with each other (i.e., no
- Enjoyment. Do something
that you enjoy, but make sure your partner also enjoys it.
- Conversation. Connection
comes through communication, don't spend this time discussing marital
problems|just connect with each other as friends.
Extended Family Connections
relationships are many times stereotyped as being bad for marriages, however,
the very same relationships can also be enriching to family life (Silverstein,
1990). In the society of today, many people find themselves geographically
displaced from one or both sides of their extended family. In these situations
it is especially important for families to be purposeful in maintaining
connection. Following are some suggestions for extended family rituals to bring
about a stronger sense of connection.
Holiday traditions that are
transformed into rituals have the capability to create memories that last for a
lifetime. Many people assume that their holiday traditions are automatic
rituals. Doherty has pointed out that many times these events are not true
rituals|meaning that they do not include the phases of a ritual (1997). In
examining your family's holiday traditions, look for ways that you can turn the
tradition into a ritual experience to create a more connected sharing time with
family and extended family alike. Here are some of Doherty's suggestions for
transforming holidays into rituals that connect family members:
Will you go to an extended family member's home, or celebrate it at your
own home? Make sure that others know what your plans are. If Grandma Maude
is expecting the whole family to show up at her house and you don't,
feelings can be injured. Be sure to set clear boundaries.
Let everyone be a part of the celebration. If Aunt Petunia insists that
she will do all of the cooking have others help set the table, greet
guests, attend to waiting guests, clean up, etc.
enactment, and exit. Make sure that the ritual includes the ritual
phases. Many holidays center on a feast. If this is the enactment phase,
be sure that there is a transition (such as someone calling everyone
together and saying grace) and an exit phase (such as having a structured
activity at the end of a meal that has a definite end|a family hayride for
example). Perhaps include activities before and after the meal.
Some families have difficulties during the holidays. Disagreements may
arise, kids may be running amok in the house, siblings will fall into
their familiar roles, etc. If these are to be expected, then they can't
"ruin Christmas." While you should expect the expected, you should also
keep your expectations realistic at the same time. Holidays can bring
about frustration if idealistic expectations are not met.
telephone can be used to keep families connected. Fond memories can be made
from a thousand miles away as a grandmother speaks to her grandchildren over
the phone. For example, one family living 2000 miles apart had holiday
conference calls to stay in touch despite vast distances separating them. To
build better connections with the entire family, a mother calling her daughter
could also talk to her son-in-law.
family newsletter is a great way to keep extended family connected and up to
date with the happenings of your family. The newsletter could take the form of
an email, a postcard, a letter, pictures and descriptions, etc. Each family can
send a newsletter to each other, or someone can be in charge of receiving
everyone's contributions to create an extended family newspaper which is then
distributed to everyone in the family.
are quickly becoming a popular form of communication. A family can create a
blog, post family news and pictures, and share the blog with others. This is
another way in which technology can aid family connection, and many blog
sites are free.
examples are only suggestions for how to improve connections between extended
family. Most important is to be what Doherty (1997) calls "intentional"|be
purposeful in your traditions and rituals. Intentionally find ways to connect
with each other. Be flexible also. Married children should understand that
their parents want them to be with them for holidays: Parents should understand
that their married children can't be at every holiday with them (Harper &
Olsen, 2005) and need to establish their own traditions, too.
conclusion, the period of separation and connection following a marriage can be
a difficult time for anyone. In this period of change, everyone involved should
remember that life can get better. Proper separation and boundary setting will
set the stage for better connections in the future.
Intentional Family, by William J. Doherty
by Joseph Ransom, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan,
Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
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