Separations, Connections, and Boundaries: Important Knowledge for Married Couples and Their Parents

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Sally and Jack always seem to argue when they get home from a visit to Sally’s parents' home.

Andrea has a problem with her fiancé Anton's relationship with Bev, his over-involved mother.

Thanksgiving at Grandma Wanda's home always seems like it ends up with people going home with hurt feelings.

The First Task of Marriage

The 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 also states that a person must separate themselves from their family of origin and create a new identity as a married person.1 Neither of these sources indicates that one is to completely cut off the 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.

Separation

Marital difficulties can arise if someone doesn't properly distance themselves from their family of origin2,3. Most of this difficulty arises because the couple has failed to construct appropriate boundaries around their marriage2. 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.1 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 or enmeshment.

Triangulation

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 third4. This can cause jealousy for the third person who is left out or even creates competition for attention1.

Example

Marylou 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.

In 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.

Enmeshment

Enmeshment has similar problems as triangulation. Enmeshment occurs when boundaries are unclear and family members are unduly concerned or involved in another family member’s life4.  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 blurred5.

Example

Thomas 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 rules.

The issues that Peter, Jane, Brooke, and Thomas are facing could be avoided if the couples had boundaries in place.

Boundaries

A 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"4 (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 Important

Fora 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 breached, 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.

Connections

Once 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 family6. Family scholar William Doherty describes a ritual as a repeated and coordinated activity that has significance to the participant7. Doherty also adds that a ritual must contain three important parts: a transition phase, an enactment phase, and an exit phase.

The Ritual Phases

The 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 calls "ritual space"7 (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 warns that ending a ritual in a negative way is harmful to the experience and to the ritual7.

The 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 phase.)

The Purpose of Rituals

Rituals can be used to create connections both in a marriage relationship and with families of procreation and origin. These connections will be brought about by creating traditions that can bring fond memories for many years to come.

Marital Connection Rituals

A 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 acknowledges that as a couple has been married for more and more time, the active seeking of connection may diminish7. Here are two suggestions from Doherty that may help a couple connect7:

Talk to Each Other

Doherty 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.

Date Night

Doherty suggests that a couple go on a date at least every other week. His recipe for a good date includes these three ingredients6:

  • Privacy. Make sure that you are alone so that you can connect with each other (i.e., no children).
  • 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

In-law relationships are many times stereotyped as being bad for marriages, however, the very same relationships can also be enriching to family life3. 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.

Holidays

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 ritual7. 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:

  • Share your plans. 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.
  • Involve everyone. 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.
  • Transition, 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.
  • Expect the expected. 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.

Phone calls

The 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 Newsletters

A 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.

Blogs

Blogs 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.

These examples are only suggestions for how to improve connections between extended family. Most important is to be what Doherty calls "intentional" be purposeful in your traditions and rituals.1 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 and need to establish their own traditions, too.4

In 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.

Further Reading:

http://smartmarriages.com/intentionalmarriage.html

The Intentional Family, by William J. Doherty

Written by Joseph Ransom, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References

  1. Wallerstein, J. S. (1994). The early psychological tasks of marriage: Part I. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 64, 640-650.
  2. Risch, G. S., Riley, L. A., & Lawler, M. G. (2003). Problematic issues in the early years of marriage: Content for premarital education. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31, 253-269.
  3. Silverstein, J. L. (1990). The problem with in-laws. Journal of Family Therapy, 14, 399-412.
  4. Goldenberg, I., & Goldenberg, H. (2008). Family therapy: An overview (7thed.). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
  5. Harper, J. M., & Olsen, S. F. (2005). Creating healthy ties with in-laws and extended families. In C. H. Hart, L. D. Newell, E. Walton, & D. C. Dollahite (Eds.) Helping and healing our families: Principles inspired by "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" (pp. 327-334). Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co.
  6. Imber-Black, E., Roberts, J., & Whiting, R. A. (Eds.) (2003). Rituals in families and family therapy, revised edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  7. Doherty, W. J. (1997). The intentional family. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.