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Have You "Left" Your Family of Origin?
Szeto extended familyphoto © 2007 Marianne Szeto | more info (via: Wylio)
Over the last weekend, most of you probably spent time with extended family, attending Easter services, hunting for eggs, or eating a scrumptious, overly large dinner.

And so extended families are on our minds. They can be wonderful, helping with baby-sitting, setting up a house, finding a job. But they can also be trying, interfering in marriages, criticizing one's housekeeping or parenting skills, or demanding lots of time and visits.

So let me ask you a question: Have you truly "left" your family?

Remember the biblical injunction:

For this reason, a man (and woman) should leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two should become one flesh.
Before we can really form a close relationship with our spouse, we have to leave our parents. But what does that really mean?

It doesn't just mean that we leave their house. It means that they are no longer our primary source for emotional support or advice in this life. When we need to make decisions, we don't consider their needs first; we consider our husband's. When we need to decide how to spend our limited time, we aren't primarily concerned with our spouse; we worry about our husband.

This can be harder in some ethnic groups than others, because in some ethnic communities one's relationship with one's family is absolutely paramount. If you don't show them loyalty, you're not a good person. That's not as true in the old Anglo-Saxon stock I'm from, but it certainly is true in many Asian and African communities (I'm not really sure about African-American; maybe some commenters can help me out on that one). But the idea of "leaving" one's family, in some communities, seems absolutely wrong.

It's not. It's the way God intended it. So let me tell you a story of a woman we'll call Polly. Polly married young. She was massively in love with Jack, and he with her. They were immature. They had never really lived on their own, except in rather ratty apartments. But they loved each other!

Polly's parents, however, were appalled at the marriage because no one was good enough for their Polly. They told everyone who would stand still long enough to talk that they doubted the marriage would last--and these were Christian parents! When Polly and Jack moved into their first apartment together, Polly's parents did most of the work, because it was obvious that Polly and Jack couldn't handle it, and didn't know where to put the kitchen stuff.

As Polly and Jack started living their lives together, Polly's parents were always there. Polly called her mom at least once a day, especially once she got pregnant. Her mother would give her advice on what to do, but most of all, her mother would ask her if Jack was treating her well. If Polly confessed that he played a video game last night instead of eating at the table, Polly's parents would tell her how awful that was of Jack.

Two children came along very quickly, and Polly's mom looked after them. She stayed overnight occasionally so Polly could get some sleep. She told Polly that she wasn't strong enough to breastfeed, so she bottle fed. And Jack felt increasingly left out and would often go "out with the guys" or putter around in the garage.

When they split up after seven years of marriage, Polly announced she was "moving back home".

I wish I could tell you that story was hyperbole and not true, but I can't. It happened pretty much like that. Polly never left. Watching them, I always thought the best thing Polly and Jack could do would be to move far away and start their lives together. But they never did.

If you have problems with your husband, don't talk to your mother about it. Find another mentor who is not invested in the situation. If you have to decide where to spend Christmas, and your parents are pressuring you, remember that your primary allegiance is to your husband. Don't neglect his family so that you spare yours.

Sometimes we're still linked with our family not because they're nice to us and want to help but because of the opposite: we come from a horrible family and we're still trying to earn their approval. It is hard emotionally to leave. But you must.

The best test of whether or not you have left is to honestly ask your husband if your parents are too much in your marriage--and then trust what he says. Men know if a mom is interfering too much, but often we don't want to hear it. Believe him. And if he's the one with the interfering mother, find a way to talk to him about it.

Most of the marriages that I have seen split up have done so in part because of interfering mothers. In one case, it wasn't that the mother was interfering as much as it was that she made it clear she would love her daughter no matter what, and her daughter should just do what she felt was best. That's not good advice. I hope that if my daughter ever comes to me and says that she wants to leave her husband, I would march her right back there (unless there's abuse or something).

Here's my mother-in-law and me together. We had difficult relationships with our in-laws initially because I was so unlike them. I was really educated; they were not. But over the years we have grown together. And one thing that made it easier for us was moving to the same town. When we lived out of town we had to come down for extended weekends with the kids quite often, and staying under the same roof is difficult. Living in your own home, and dropping by for a few hours occasionally is much easier. And we've found so much we have in common (and we really like travelling together now, too!). We honestly love each other. But in most families, it takes a while to find that good balance with family.

So tell me: what's it like with your family? With your husband's family? Have you had a hard time leaving?



At 9:18 AM , Blogger Lori Alexander said…

When I was newly married, I once ran home when Ken and I got into a fight and my mom defended Ken and told me to go home! Wise Mom!


At 11:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I completely agree that interfering mothers can wreck marriages. My husband's mother kept actively trying to wreck ours, and the result is that we don't talk to her anymore! This is a decision that has been met with quite a bit of anger and confusion, but the fact is that we can't allow someone to try to wreck our marriage. There were other factors at work here (for instance, she sins in big ways and then expects others to apologize to her for it, which is soooo not happening from us; we can't in good conscience enable that level of sinful behavior!).

So all that to say: mothers are very powerful people, but God is more powerful still. :) Following his mandates (especially to "leave and cleave") always turns out well in the long run.


At 11:34 AM , Blogger Kate said…

Thanks for bringing this up : ) This is something I think about and people don't seem to talk about very much. I struggle with how to deal with extended family members. In our case (me and hubby), all of our parents have been divorced for a long time, so you have 4 seperate households to deal with and the big fat mess of relationship dynamics including not ever having certain people in the same room together. For example my mother wouldn't come to my wedding because my dad was there. She made up a really lame excuse.

My mother seems to be the biggest difficulty. She is single (divorced numerous times) and at this late stage of life has finally started to value her children. She has become quite nasty and demanding though.

I won't go into the gory details but the point is, I have really begun to see the poisonous effects of divorce and selfishness trickling down the line, now that I am a grown-up with my own family and kids. I deal with these people who've made decisions to rip their own families apart, brush them aside so they could follow selfish desires, and then demand that their adult children and grandchildren honor them on their terms.

In summary, I guess I'm saying I am like a lot of people of my generation. 1. My kids will never have a normal grandparent experience. All their grandparents are divorced and hate eachother with some hasty remarriages adding extreme akwardness to the situation. 2. I will never have a wise older parent to learn from. They have all all chosen the path of foolishness. 3. They have ingrained in me terrible ideas about marriage that I take with me.

Sorry if this is sad, but these are just a few thoughts that I hope are relevant : )


At 12:05 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Lori, my mother did something similar to me once, too! I always thought that was smart.

Anonymous & Kate, life is so hard with difficult parents. Kate, I totally hear your pain. How can you do Christmas when there are 4 families that need to be visited? How can you even try to have a good relationship with anybody when everybody else is always trying to figure out who is getting more of your time? That is just terrible.

It sounds like you and your husband are doing what's right and keeping your distance. If it's any consolation, I know several older couples from church who have become "surrogate grandparents" for several families, because they themselves never had kids, or their own grandchildren live so far away. Maybe you need to find some people to be the real older mentors to your family! Sometimes these adopted-in grandparents can be closer than the real ones!

I think I might write a column about how divorce trickles down...It's funny, but when people get divorced, I don't think it occurs to them that they will now see their children & their eventual grandchildren less than they would have otherwise. But it's the truth. You can only stretch yourself so far.


At 12:35 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I seem to have the opposite problem -- leaving my parents is fine and dandy but I have a very hard time being far away from my in-laws! I am truly blessed to find a man that has such a warm and loving family!


At 12:46 PM , Blogger Tessa said…

We've had our issues with extended family (on both sides) and are working to overcome. We went to an Engaged Encounter weekend when we had been married nearly a year and they talked a lot about being a united front. If I disagree with my hubby then I (usually) try to talk to him afterwards about it. And we never fight in front of others and if we are due to visit someone we agree to set aside our differences for that time and come back to it later (thought it's usually not even important by then!)
I try to never talk "bad" about my husband to anyone. Especially our parents. Would I want someone else to talk negatively about him? Absolutely not, that's my husband whom I love!
My mom always said to me that I would have a room at her house until I got married. I'll tell my kids the same when they grow up.
We are so blessed to come from two very different sets of parents but both are very committed to their marriage. The things that our parents have stuck together though are an inspiration (the loss of a child, significant health/emotional issues, not to mention some really bad financial/business years). So glad to have so many things in our favor!

We are hitting the 7 year mark this summer, with two young children, and neither are experiencing a "7-year itch." In fact, because we did "leave & cleave" we are closer now and our love is deeper than it was 7 years ago. Plus we have better relationships with both sets of parents because of it.


At 1:20 PM , Blogger Kate said…

"It's funny, but when people get divorced, I don't think it occurs to them that they will now see their children & their eventual grandchildren less than they would have otherwise."


And then they act suprised and upset that life is not the Norman Rockwell painting that they long for as the golden years come. Even sadder, some of them (one person on my side) don't seem to care about not seeing grandchildren.

Oh and yes, the adopted granparent idea is a very good one. God is so faithful to give us family members in Christ. However, in my experience, people put their blood relatives first. It feels cold but then I realized, it's supossed to be that way. Just another reason why divorce and selfish life decisions (when it comes to marriage and family) are really an ongoing curse.

Thank you for continuing to speak up about these issues, Sheila : )


At 2:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

My parents told me that they will take my husband's side in an argument if I were to take a private couple matter to them. (In other words, don't come running home to us over some little disagreement!) Excellent advice. On my husband's side, well, I'm really glad that he has the whole "leave and cleave" idea down because his mom tries to give give us very hurtful & unhelpful parenting advice. He has been the head of our house and talked to her about it (several times).


At 3:20 PM , Blogger Alea Milham said…

My husband had trouble leaving and his mother had trouble letting go. It made for some difficult times early in our marriage. Making it harder was the fact that my parents were divorced, and my m-i-l chose to interpret the fact that I cleaved to my husband as evidence of my disfunctional upbringing. :)

In our case, moving away helped our relationship. My husband (and even my children) were able to see how much of our lives had been directed by his mother after we were 2000 miles away and able to make decisions without her influence.

My m-i-l wasn't trying to hurt our marriage and I think she would be devastated if she knew the arguments she caused. She was just so sure she knew how we should lives and raise our children that she overstepped. My husband didn't know how to draw boundaries and I was afraid to offend my husband's mother. As I have matured I recognize her desire to be a meaningful part of our lives. I have learned to humble myself and ask her to help with areas where I would really appreciate her assistance.

Honestly, I am not sure that either of us would do a much better job if we moved back to the same town. However, my 2 oldest kids have turned out better than she ever expected and my husband is recognized as an expert in his field, so she now acknowledges that although we have taken a different path than she advised everything seems to have turned out just fine. ;)

To be fair, I must say that my husband has confessed that on the several times he complained about me to his mother she took my side.


At 3:25 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Alea, that's a theme going on in my Facebook page where people are commenting, too--that moving across the country often helped the marriage!

I sometimes worry that I'll interfere in my kids' marriages, simply because right now my girls tell me everything. I'll find that hard to change when they're married I'm sure. But it's the way things are supposed to be--they're supposed to have their own lives.


At 3:37 PM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

Sheila, I typed up a super long comment and blogger ate it. Ugh!!

Maybe I'll have time to visit again tomorrow and weigh in.


At 4:19 PM , Anonymous kharking said…

It sounds as if your girls are still of an age to have their primary confidante be their mother. How blessed you are for that at this time in their lives! As long as you let them go, I hope that you'll find that your girls naturally transition into trusting and sharing with their husbands rather than their mother. I found that my mom missed talking to me as much when I married but a couple of years later, when I was ready for advice about housekeeping and child development, I had a surprising amount of trouble getting in touch with her right when I wanted to because she was often talking to her own friends.
I wish that there was an older couple in the church for every young married couple who could provide the support and encouragement that everyone needs from time to time without having the stronger emotional attachment to either spouse. They can also help the couple see where the leaving has not been complete and facilitate greater unity with their spouse.
My husband and I live within an hour of both sets of parents. This created its own challenges with leaving (and now sharing grandparent time) but both of us are committed to working towards oneness and creating our own family as distinct from that of our parents. My recently married brother and his wife moved across the country. As much as we miss them and they have struggled with loneliness, it was definitely the best thing that they could have done to start their marriage far away. We hope that they will be able to move back someday--but not before they have bonded sufficiently as a couple.


At 4:52 PM , Blogger Pickle said…

Meeting my husband who is in the Army that forced us to move away from my mother is the best thing that could have happened to me! I've been gone almost 2 years and not gone home for any holiday.

I do not call every day, maybe once a week. She has finally gotten the picture that I am an adult now and I can take care of my family without her.

She spent a lot of time trying to destroy me so no one else could have me. She's angry that I moved away and no longer feed any drama nor participate in any of hers.

I think every newly wed couple should move away from home for a while to solidify themselves without interference.


At 6:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

"Christian" mother-in-laws that will not allow their adult married sons space and privacy are sinning in the most destructive ways. Even worse when they manipulate, control, ridicule and insult.

We endured something painfully similar to what the second comment unfortunately experienced with her MIL. We were also pushed to the desperate point of removing contact. The following years were the most content, peaceful, family-oriented, balanced and "team-played" of our marriage!

Lately, the contact has been seeping back in, as have the attempts to control and manipulate. Nearly every day brings back painful memories, lately. Praying God will clearly guide us through this new stage, help us to forgive the past completely, but also give us the strength and resolve not allow it to get as bad as it once was...


At 8:32 AM , Blogger Cherish said…

About two years into our marriage, we moved a couple states away. It's been hard but one of the best things we ever did for our marriage.

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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