June 14, 2024
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How to Approach Your Spouse Regarding Marital Boundaries

I got married around eight months ago to Shira. Shira is a wonderful girl and she is everything I had hoped for. The reason I’m writing to you is because ever since we got married, I am shocked to see how connected Shira is still to her mother. When we were dating and engaged, I knew she was super close to her mother, and thought it was kind of sweet since my relationship with my parents is respectful, but formal. I certainly don’t pour my heart out to them, and when I need advice, they are close to the last people I would turn to for good advice.

I thought it was so special that Shira would call her mother several times a day and also call her father at least once a day. I love witnessing their closeness. But I just assumed that once we got married, I would take over for a good portion of those times. I am finding that it is not the case. Though I consider my relationship with Shira to be a good one, and I feel we are getting closer all the time, when something comes up I’ve noticed she will feel the need to tell her mother about it before she tells me.

I happen to like my in-laws very much and have a fine relationship with them. But I’m finding myself feeling jealous of them because of the special place they hold with Shira. I know this must sound very childish and certainly immature, but I can’t help myself from feeling like I’m not where I should be with Shira. I want to be number one is Shira’s mind. Now I’m number two or number three.

I know I need to speak to her about it because I find myself getting angry at times, but I don’t want her to think I’m a child. Any suggestions about how a newish husband like me should approach this conversation with his wife? And while I’m at it, let me ask you this: am I correct to expect to be No. 1?

The Navidaters Respond:

Mazel tov on your newish marriage, and thanks for writing in! Sometimes we know something feels wrong, but we bury our heads in the sand, hoping for a new outcome or reality the next time we come up for air. While this strategy keeps the peace in the short term, it can be a recipe for disaster long-term. Kudos to you for recognizing there is an issue in your marriage, acknowledging it and reaching out for help. Hopefully you are already on your way to a closer, more intimate relationship with Shira.

Generally speaking, in healthy marriages there is a pecking order:

  1. Spouse
  2. Children
  3. Parents

This list does not mean we love one more person more than another, God forbid. Rather, it is quite the opposite: in order to love each person on this list to the best of our abilities, we must prioritize our loved ones in this order. Now, of course, if your child is performing in a play and your husband has a cold, you leave your husband at home and go see your child’s performance. (Sorry, hubs, I’ll leave you some Kleenex and Ricola on the night table.) Or if, God forbid, your mother falls or your father needs you to help him put up his sukkah, you are there and your spouse will understand.

Children benefit from putting your spouse first because they feel most secure and well-adjusted when Mom and Dad are actively loving and warm with each other. And your parents benefit from being the third priority (or, in your case, second) because parents want what is best for their children. And healthy, evolved parents want their married children to make their spouses numero uno because they know when the spouse is not numero uno it will cause tension in the marriage. And when there is tension in the marriage, the children are not happy. So, generally speaking, this pecking order should work for everyone. However, there are those spouses and parents of said spouses who miss the memo and (for reasons unique to each family system) maintain the belief that the nuclear family of origin is the main priority and the spouse comes second.

Let’s do a little reality check. It’s not as if Shira duped you. She was spending this kind of “intense” time with her parents before you got married. The wool wasn’t pulled over your eyes, nor did she pull a switcheroo. What you once found endearing is now frustrating.

Learning how to set boundaries around your relationship is the “work” of marriage. For some couples it comes naturally, and others have to work at it. Questions that arise often include: How much time do we spend together? How much time do we spend apart? How much time do we spend with parents? With friends? How much do we share with our parents? How can we both meet our personal needs while still honoring both our marriage and our healthy need to spend time apart?

We teach people how to treat us. You never put the message out there that you’d like to feel like more of a priority to Shira. For all she knows, this arrangement is working beautifully. She found a man who understands the importance of her family. She can’t fix what she doesn’t yet know about.

What should you do about this situation? You wrote that you don’t want her to see you as childish. I want to validate how “un-childish” your feelings are. I think you do need to talk with her (unless you are satisfied with the status quo). And I think it can be done tastefully and lovingly. You aren’t going to throw orders around—you don’t strike me as the type of guy who would do that; but just in case others are reading this: we can’t tell our spouses what to do. That usually backfires. Rather, you are going to approach her with a lot of “I” messages, telling her how you feel, instead of telling her she is doing something wrong.

What not to say: “You spend way too much time talking on the phone with your parents. I’m finding myself really angry. I even wrote in to this therapist in a newspaper and she agreed with me that you should put me before your parents.”

Say something more along the lines of: “I’m crazy about you and you know I love your family. I also love and respect the close relationship you have with your parents. I just feel like you go to your mom before you come to me, about small things and important things, and it makes me feel uncertain about your feelings for me. I wanted to tell you this because I love you and I don’t want to hold anything back from you. I also want to work on this together, so we can take both of our needs into account.”

If Shira reacts well, then you’re golden. You can collaborate and compromise and come up with a plan that works for both of you. If she outright disagrees, or you find you cannot compromise, then you should see a couples’ therapist to help you navigate the touchy subject matters of her family and the lack of boundaries built around your marriage. Remember, you married a woman who has always prioritized her family, so be prepared for some pushback. You and Shira come from two different worlds with regard to your relationships with parents. It can take some time for couples to fully emerge from their “old worlds” and create a new one together. Hopefully, this is nothing more than a little shana rishona (first year of marriage) misunderstanding. It happens all the time. These things can always be worked out with two willing parties.

All the best,

Jennifer

Disclaimer: This column is not intended to diagnose or otherwise conclude resolutions to any questions. Our intention is not to offer any definitive conclusions to any particular question, rather offer areas of exploration for the author and reader. Due to the nature of the column receiving only a short snapshot of an issue, without the benefit of an actual discussion, the column’s role is to offer a range of possibilities. We hope to open up meaningful dialogue and individual exploration.

By Jennifer Mann, LCSW

 Esther Mann, LCSW, and Jennifer Mann, LCSW, work with individuals, couples and families in Hewlett, New York. As The Navidaters, they specialize in dating and relationship coaching. To set up an appointment, please call 516.224.7779. Sessions are held in the office or via Skype. If you would like to submit a dating or relationship question anonymously, please email [email protected]. Visit their website, thenavidaters.com, for dating and relationship advice and to learn more about their services. Follow The Navidaters on Facebook and Instagram. Check out the hit web series “Soon By You,” and be sure to tune into the Navidaters After Show!

 

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