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?
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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: