A bishop once said, “Your family are God’s gift to you.” A playwright once said, “Your friends are God’s way of apologising for your family.” I must admit at different times in my life I have felt both are true. Whatever your past experience of family life and family relationships — whether it’s been positive, negative, mixed, or barely there — when it comes to romantic relationships, it’s wise to think about the family factor: yours and your partner’s.
Understand how your family relationships affect your expectations
‘Family’ means different things to us all but whatever shape it takes in your life it will probably have given you and your partner your first examples of male–female relationships. So it’s worth spending some time thinking about how parents or significant adults in your early life interacted together. What word(s) come to mind when you think about their relationships? Respectful, or dismissive? One-sided, or equal? Loving, or undemonstrative?
You may find some strong feelings starting to emerge about what you did or didn’t like about those relationships. Maybe you realise just how much you value the model you saw, or on the contrary, that you prefer a partner who does things very differently. Sharing these thoughts between you as a couple helps build a picture of the way your family relationships have influenced you, and what your own hopes and needs are in thinking about committed relationships.
Bear in mind that family life can leave scars, so honour someone’s privacy if they don’t want to talk about it. Be patient until they are more comfortable with sharing, and then remember to always listen more than talk.
Realise different families have different cultures
What happens if you meet your partner’s family and find yourself thrown off balance by how completely different they are from your own? This happened to me when I naïvely expected my partner’s parents to be just like mine only to find a completely different way of doing things: active, gregarious, much more fun-loving. I felt a bit out of it initially but made up my mind to just smile and go with the flow.
I’m so glad I did because I found myself relaxing and ultimately enjoying their lifestyle, though keeping up with them took a toll on my energy. This was easily resolved through a gentle chat with my boyfriend so that as a group we found a way to incorporate both togetherness and individual downtime. Mutual compromise is a beautiful act and must at least rank as a pip in one of the fruits of the Spirit! (Galatians 5:22-23)
Prepare for fractious families
As you get to know your partner’s family maybe you notice internal tensions in their family relationships. My experience is that in the early days ‘watch and pray’ probably sums up the best approach. Don’t badger your partner for the whole backstory because generally they will share it with you in their own good time. Being lovingly supportive to a partner at this stage often means just being pleasant and easy to be with in family settings, and riding things out for the time being.
Leaving and cleaving
Looking into your future, is there any Biblical guidance about how married couples and families-in-law co-exist? One Biblical phrase about marriage — ‘leaving your father and mother and cleaving to your spouse’— is repeated over and over (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7; Ephesians 5:31).
This is in startling contrast to other ancient civilisations such as Rome where the emphasis was an almost military allegiance to your family ancestors. Powerful words in the New Testament of various English translations describe the life-changing marriage bond: ‘cleave’, ‘hold fast’, ‘be united’, ‘one flesh’. The couple form a new social and spiritual unit, independent from parental control, so have the freedom and responsibility to take into account their own needs and those of their families, and work out the right level of involvement.
Seek advice on different approaches to the wider family relationship
Asking friends who’d navigated family expectations gave some helpful insights into what can lead to rewarding relationships. “Once you marry, having in-laws is like having a close, even intimate connection with people who may be as strangers. It can certainly take time to grow into being family together,” said one. “From day 1 of meeting my in-laws I felt loved like a daughter, and this love lasted throughout our marriage and is still there for me now I’m widowed,” another told me.
Or there are the practical considerations: “We love our families very much but we’ve found short visits work better for us all rather than long periods of time.” Another couple felt the need for some time and space away from their families, and worked overseas for a few years so they could establish more autonomy as a united couple before returning to live nearer their parents.
If this all sounds like too much work, don’t worry, you don’t have to do it all in one day, it’s a gradual and mutual process. And remember: perfect families and flawless family relationships don’t exist in the Bible but we can still see God working through and with them.
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