Although we don’t always choose our in-laws or the gender of our children/stepchildren, we have the power to recognize who is supporting and who is draining the health of our relationship. We’re all smart enough to decipher when the presence or advice of friends, family and coworkers deflate us like nails pounded into a tire. We know when unsolicited comments create anger, fear or suspicion that drives a wedge between us and our partner.
Why are we so influenced by the opinions of other people?
Because we are hardwired to live in community, we strive for supportive, fulfilling relationships. Most of us first learn what safety, security, love and comfort mean through interactions with our nuclear families. In partnership, when both families are healthy and love unconditionally, we double the potential to feel loved and supported.
The more your family and friends support your relationship, the easier it is to thrive in partnership. On the other hand, the more your family and friends openly question or critique your partner, the more stress you’ll feel. Young partners are particularly sensitive to external criticism about their mates.
Most of us feel crushed when important people in our lives disapprove of our choice of a partner or our partnership patterns. Conflicts about family and friends are so stressful that they are one of the most common reasons couples dissolve. In fact, problems with in-laws contribute to at least 40 percent of all divorces.
If you or your partner has children, the effects of conflicts with family and friends are usually more complicated. Because most parents sometimes need assistance with child-rearing or financial assistance, adult children often feel pressed to relate in a positive way with parents, siblings and friends, even if these individuals behave in unhealthy ways.
Children from dysfunctional families often do their best to resolve issues with their parents, even if their parents admit no responsibility for their inappropriate behavior. These adult children take the high road (Forgiveness Lane) because they are focused on what’s best for their children. They want their children to enjoy a better childhood than they endured. They want to give their children the benefits of positive interactions with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.
Dream Builders and Dream Breakers
Your family and friends can play critical roles that contribute to building or breaking your relationship dream. The effect of their impact on your life depends on your needs, self-awareness and the strength of your relationship. Clients often come to relationship coaching complaining, “My partner’s family is so enmeshed. Co-dependent parents expect to be involved in everything, from our decision-making to our vacations. I made a commitment to my partner, not to the needs and expectations of my partner’s parents!”
The focus of other clients is intimacy, “When we make love, I feel like my partner’s parents are lurking beneath the sheets. You can almost hear them chanting ‘do’s and don’ts’. Our intimate moments are severely compromised.”
In blended families, challenges include “My partner’s children always come first. I respect and expect that. However, once the children’s needs are met, I want some alone time, but we never get to enjoy quality we-time. The kids are so jealous that I’m getting some of my partner’s attention that they constantly interrupt us in unnecessary ways.”
The list of your potential dream breakers may be quite long. Old friends may expect you to honor established patterns, wailing, “But we’ve always gone out together on Friday nights. Don’t you value our friendship anymore?” Siblings who cherish your time add another voice that tugs at your heart, “I’ve always been there for you. Now, I feel like a rejected lover.” In many partnerships, exes also gain entrance to a couple’s we-time with frantic phone calls like, “Our child just clued me in about a big problem. You’ve got to help me right now!”
If you’re feeling smug because you’re in a relationship where your partner’s children are adults, please pay attention to this news break: Adult children often return to their nuclear family nest. Most of these young people unconsciously expect that certain familiar patterns with their parent (your partner) will magically reappear.
Because adult children usually return home when they feel dependent on a parent, they can present a host of couple’s challenges, ranging from unresolved emotional issues to financial and space usage issues.
Plot Your Partnership Status
Let’s do a check to determine how troubled or untroubled your relationship is regarding family or friends who could become dream breakers.
1. Draw a circle in the middle of a piece of paper. Place the word “Me” in the center of the circle.
2. Draw an intersecting circle and label it “My partner.”
3. Shade the portion of the circle that intersects. Label this “We-ness.”
4. Very thoughtfully look at the shaded part of the circle. How accurately does it represent the percentage of your relationship that is so secure and united that other people’s opinions or manipulations could never separate you? Most people need to re-draw the diagram to make it more accurate.
5. Using a scale of 1-10, where 1 is “We have no we-ness” and 10 is “We enjoy an ideal partnership”, rank the health of your relationship. Please note: This ranking is very subjective. Some happy couples desire a lot of we-ness. Other contented couples require very little. Since partners often differ regarding the ideal amount of togetherness, ask your partner to also complete this exercise so you can enjoy an enlightening discussion about your different perceptions, desires, needs and expectations.
6. With your partner’s participation, on a different piece of paper, draw a diagram that illustrates the amount of we-ness your ideal relationship would include. This time, when you shade the part of the circle that intersects, label it “The Sacred Untouchable We.”
7. Identify and list every person, responsibility and factor (parents, friends, coworkers, siblings, children, stepchildren, exes, occupational duties, etc.) that dilutes the we-ness in your relationship.
8. Place “U” by every uncontrollable factor that currently depletes the health of your relationship. Example: When your partner’s children need him/her for legitimate reasons.
9. Place a “C” by every potential relationship diluter that you can control to some degree. Example: You can reduce the frequency of times that parents, friends or siblings drop by unexpectedly.
10. Design an action plan for addressing your “C” items. Take your time with this process. You’ll be uncovering diamonds disguised as lumps of coal.
11. Reach agreement about which of you will follow through and when.
12. Celebrate taking your first step toward transforming your current relationship into your ideal relationship, a partnership that nurtures The Sacred Untouchable We.
Own Your Power to Create a Powerful Partnership
Each of the couples described in this article used this proven process (the exercise above) during relationship coaching to gain their ideal partnership. They took full advantage of every opportunity to discover hidden distortions, co-dependencies and conflicts. During your own process, set the intention to be grateful for every challenge that arises. Resolving the issues you discover will be a gold mine for you and the success of your relationship.
The resources you require to rebalance your relationship reside within you and your partner. This means you possess innate partnership power, even if your original relationship ranking indicates that your partnership is on the brink of sinking. When you make thoughtful, positive changes, you gain priceless, new relationship skills. Eventually, you create the peaceful, passionate, powerful partnership you want.
Most dream breakers are unconsciously, not intentionally, stomping on your vision of a perfect life. Some people have given up on the possibility of enjoying their own image of relationship bliss. It’s important not to let someone who won’t reach for the stars short-circuit your ability to thrive.
Friends and family can only be intrusive if you are indecisive about your relationship goals, distrust your own opinions, fear setting boundaries or try to be a people-pleaser. It’s time for you and your partner to clarify your relationship vision so you can set boundaries and stop dangerous intrusions.
Express your goals and vision to trusted supporters. Nurture your support network while minimizing your association with negative people. Light a positive feedback fire by surrounding yourself with positive role models who hold similar values and are also concerned with the greater good.