Depending on what type of household we grew up in it can be hard to know how we will react to the mixing and melding of two unique people in a marriage. In the marriage a new household is created which blends not just two people but two sets of ideas, values and lifestyles. President Spence W Kimball in 1976 taught, “Marriage never was easy. It may never be. It brings with it sacrifice, sharing, and a demand for great selflessness. Many of the TV screen shows and stories of fiction end with marriage: “They lived happily ever after.” … We have come to realize also that the mere performance of a ceremony does not bring happiness and a successful marriage. Happiness does not come by pressing a button, as does the electric light; happiness is a state of mind and comes from within. It must be earned. It cannot be purchased with money; it cannot be taken for nothing.”
Till Debt Do Us Part
Bernard Poduska’s wrote in his book “Till Debt Do Us Part” about the idea of debt in a marriage. The debt he is talking about is not about financial debt, though that is a part of marriage and a subject worth discussing, but the debt he is talking about is the “debt” of connection and understanding. He says, ” It does not take us long to realize that we do not enter marriage empty handed; we carry a lot of “baggage” with us. For instance, we bring our levels of self-esteem, our willingness to adapt to change, our attitudes coward life, and our expectations and values.” When a new couple comes together they are adding to the collective “worth” of the union with their life experiences totaled into one for either the benefit or detriment of the relationship. In this article he talks about rules of marriage; they are:
- Explicit Family Rules – expressed verbally or posted on the refrigerator door (made public).
- Implicit Family Rules – are unspoken rules taught through nonverbal communication and repeated throughout childhood. Implicit rules tend to be just below conscious awareness, so we seldom realize we are following them until someone points it out to us.
- Intuitive Family Rules – these unspoken rules are concerned with more everyday kinds of issues, intuitive rules concern those that are more far reaching. Based on family heritage—the emotional legacy inherited by each person—an implicit rule includes any “ledger” of instinctive obligations char needs to be balanced, any need to “pay back” something “owed” to another, or to “pass on” something of value or importance (such as traditions or beliefs).
All three of these sets of rules play a part in shaping the structure of our individual, married and family lives.
“Gentlemen, You Can‘t Fight In Here! This is The War Room! (Dr Strangelove)
I hadn’t put much thought into these ideas until after reading the article Creating Healthy Ties with In-laws and Extended Families by James M Harper and Susanne Frost Olsen I knew what I wanted to write about. I had in the past been curious about this dynamic because early in my adult life I had these “family rules” ruin one of my most significant relationships. The reason I did not understand these substantial differences between myself and my ex was because I was blessed to have parents who have been nothing but kind and excepting of anyone myself or my siblings dated or thought I was going to marry. I also felt that I was a very understanding person who found it easy to compromise. I learned from Poduska in being the middle child that, “Some middle-born individuals may distort their willingness to be peacemakers—and to go along with the desires of others—into a dysfunctional desire to please others. Wanting to be accepted and liked by others becomes a top priority. They end up doing just about anything in order to avoid be ing rejected, often believing that they can buy the love and acceptance of others with gifts” In my naivety I learned that I had adopted this personality trait.
From the Beginning
In the spring of 2003 I had met an amazing young woman from Mesa Arizona. We quickly fell in love and for 5 months we communicated and started dating while she lived in Mesa Az and I in Oceanside CA. Quickly we decided we wanted to get married. We got engaged and set the marriage date for 5 months later so we had time to prepare and make all the proper arrangements. We started taking trips to visit each other at least twice a month and started to get to know each other better. In making these visits I knew I wanted to get to know her family better as well. I thought things were off to a pretty good start despite the distance between us, I was building a career in Southern California and she was finishing her school at ASU so we had our plates full but things seemed promising. On the surface things seemed to be going well but within weeks of declaring our engagement the three rules of marriage started to play a part in the dissolve of our relationship.
Family Rules; for Better or Worse
One of the situations that was the hardest for me was the enmeshment she appeared to have with her parents. Enmeshment as Olsen and Harper teach us is “a process in which parents and children feel they always have to be together … making it difficult for family members to separate feelings, and loyalty issues are distorted.” (pg 229) This enmeshment brought on another issue that was hard to resolve which is called triangulation. Triangulation is created when “communication either builds a stronger relationship with the parent than the spouse; or excludes the spouse.” (pg 330)
She and I would talk and make plans and set goals together. We communicated well with each other. Often we would spend hours on the details of our future. I felt really good about it. We would both a make an agreement on say a topic like where we would live or where we would work etc. I wouldn’t see her for sometime and then when we got back together she would tell me that she changed her mind on our decision. I would listen and work to make the changes needed to fit both of our ideas into our plans. I would then find out that her parents had been talking to her and this was one of the major reasons she would change her mind. At first I worked to make it work and try to consider their opinion. But every time I gave an inch it felt like they took a mile. I started to lose my voice in the relationship and it really started to affect my self esteem and my ability to make good decisions. I then started to get very angry. We would talk about her relationship with her parents and siblings and finally my true feelings came out and these feelings hurt her badly. No one wants their family attacked even if they know they are not perfect or have made mistakes. I was immature and didn’t know how to deal with this situation in the best way. I did not see the patterns or have the understanding to see how our relationship dynamics were playing out.
Eventually the choice had to come – was it her family or me – I may have pushed this discussion to this place but I did not know how to defend myself and my opinions in this situation. The explicit, implicit, and intuitive differences in our family rules were too much for our relationship to bear without having proper understanding and tools to help us work through these challenges.
I have since learned a few things:
- You cannot tell someone how to have their relationships with their family. That is their decision and you can either accept it and work with it or you can let go and move on. (By trying to exert a change of Explicit Family Rules by force or unkindness is a tactic that will always fail)
- We all have the responsibility to become more mature about our relationships with our family, mostly parents. This happens at different stages for different people. (How we mature and handle adult situations are rarely taught to us in words but are often expressed to us by Intuitive Family Rules)
- People say that when you marry someone you also marry their family. There is some truth to that. (All three family rules – explicit, implicit, and intuitive – play a part in this dynamic)
This level of conflict ultimately kept us from getting married was new to me. I had never had a bad relationship with any of my girl friend’s parents; even to the point that after I had dated a girl it was usually the parent who was calling me asking me to come back into their families life despite the fact that I was not dating that girl anymore. This was also hard for me because I came from a family were my parents while respected did not seek to control our lives. They asked questions and let us know how they felt but they never tried to keep us from being with someone we liked or do something we thought was best for us. I was very blessed this way.
Let’s Give it Another Try
The last long term relationship I was in was with a woman who had 2 children.Her daughter who is a teenager and she also has a 9 year old son. As the relationship progressed I started to see patterns spoke about in Olsen’s and Harper’s article. Instead of getting scared or reacting negatively I worked hard to approach these hard subjects with love and kindness. I unknowingly started to recognize, study, and ask questions about the differences in our Family Rules. Unlike the first relationship I wrote about this relationship not only had the values of her upbringing, but the values she had created on her own being a single mother, as well as the values she created with her ex husband.
Unfortunately the relationship did not work out but I did again learn some important lessons.
- A mother’s love is a mothers love – and like the bears in the woods that will do anything to protect their young singles mom’s are pretty similar. While I was not a “threat” I realized how she had to move and operate to protect her children.
- As we get older the issue of in-laws is still there but it changes. Our parents get older and they also have grand children with our potential spouse. They have needs and often daughters feel more obligated than son’s to take care of their aging parents or grandparents. This is something that most people don’t consider if you are trying to date or marry later in life. Knowing that you may have a parent or grand parent living with you is a possibility.
- Although a person may be divorced the values they created for their family with their ex-spouse carry on through the children and family patterns acted out in their family unit. This unintentional triangulation, with the ex being missing physically but not emotionally from the equation caused me to feel undervalued and ignored in the relationship.
I was not sure how to end this post, but I know that I felt that being older and single took me out of many of these conversations that seem to be based around young married couples; whether it is about in-laws, school, children, child rearing, finances and the melding of family rules. I felt that while there was still a component of these issues in my personal conversations the dynamic did not feel the same. At this point most of us have built careers, were married already (I have not been married before), own a house, traveled the word, and maybe already raised children? It has been hard for me to relate to much of these readings for this reason; I feel like I am not the demographic that these lessons are geared for in the Church. However upon further study and examination I did find the readings to be helpful and interesting. I saw that age does not make a difference in the challenges we have to face when trying to bring two different people together but the thing that can and should differ is the maturity in how we handle these challenges. At times I feel very overwhelmed by these challenges. Mostly because I am not in a married or dating relationship and that seems to be not only the focus of our class (and classes in this major) but for our eternal progression. I often wonder if we has a church culture could have approached the idea of marriage in a different way? Did we teach love, or did we teach people to obey out of fear? Do we give members the proper tools to get out of or help work through these difficult challenges? I have to stick to the words of Elder James E Faust as spoken by the Prophet Joseph Smith, “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” This idea gives me hope in knowing that I can find the tools in and out of the church to help me find the joy and happiness that should be a part of this life; whether I am married or not.