When Pete rises from his chair to thank his guests for attending his retirement party, his brother-in-law, Rick, jumps up to announce drunkenly he wants to make a toast. As he jokes about Pete's flaws to the nervously tittering audience, Pete's face gets redder and redder. He tries to remain calm but is fuming inside.
Afterward, he swears to his wife, Carly, he will never talk to Rick again. She is sympathetic with how he feels — to a point. She and Rick's wife, Jenny, are close sisters and best friends. She tells Pete he must forgive Rick and not strain her relationship with Jenny. Pete looks at her incredulously, unsure what to do. Should he give in to Carly and make peace with Rick, who never apologizes for his obnoxious behavior? Or should he stand his ground and risk ongoing marital tension?
Such dilemmas are commonplace. We don't just marry our spouses; we wed their near and, sometimes, far relations. Usually, we try to get along with everyone and not make waves. But if our spouses’ families or individual members are unbearable to us, we may complain about having contact with them or even risk trying to separate our spouses from them. This is especially true for couples over 50 who may face more frequent dilemmas about their extended family members, be they in-laws, siblings, siblings’ spouses, adult children, adult children's spouses, or stepchildren and their kin. As we write about in our new book, AARP Love and Meaning After 50, spouses may have to contend with diverging values and conflicted family priorities, made worse by inadequate communication and planning, when it comes to deciding how central extended family members should be to their marriage.
That's what Pete and Carly must deal with now. How do they each prioritize their respective extended families in their own family and reach agreement as a couple about the right balance of family vs. couple time? Should Carly's primary loyalty be to her sister or her husband? Should Pete put his wife's needs ahead of his own — and, if so, always? There are no right answers here — only difficult choices with their own pros and cons. Here are ideas for how spouses can reach agreement about the best choice for them:
Have the talk
It can be uncomfortable talking about each other's families. No wonder many couples avoid it. When conflicts arise in this area, it is essential for spouses to not overreact but instead sit down and talk about their perspectives and values. Good questions to consider together are: How do we want to deal with difficult extended family issues as a team? What ideal role do we want our spouse to play with our own families? Can we give each other latitude to deviate from those roles if we find them too confining?
Negotiate without grievance
Couples’ conversations about their families too often turn into arguments when both spouses gripe about what they've had to put up with. Rather than taking shots at one another's relatives, it is more helpful for couples to talk seriously about how to endure or even enjoy time with them. Think of this as a means of practicing the type of compromise upon which most long-lasting marriages are built. For example, Carly may have to give up on the fantasy of having long, lingering dinners with her sister and their respective husbands as a tight foursome now that it is clearer than ever how unhappy such get-togethers make Pete. As a way of caring for his wife, he might choose to be cordial, if not friendly, with Rick at larger family gatherings, such as weddings or barbecues, where there are other family members with whom to mingle and activities, such as dancing or cooking, to keep the two of them occupied.
Make happy sacrifices
Even more important for marriage than compromise is sacrifice — doing what your spouse wants just to please her even if it includes seeing her most offensive family members. The sacrifices aren't effective unless undertaken with love, not obligation. That means Pete should gladly put up with Rick at times just because Carly asks him to. And Carly should be thrilled to spend time with Pete's cousin, Chuck, who loves bad puns and even worse movies. Long-term couples over 50 have much experience holding their noses and doing what should be done. These efforts bring spouses closer together and make them feel more appreciative of one another over time.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.