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How to Save Your Marriage When Mom Moves In

You love your parents. But can you live with them?

spinner image a close up of a mom looking in through a window

It’s easy to think that the trend of multiple generations living in the same home is because grown kids are boomeranging back — or never left. But just as frequently these days, it’s because aging parents are joining their adult kids’ households.

As Steve and Marta Burcham have learned, inviting an elder to move in with you can cause unexpected tensions in a marriage. The Oklahoma City couple built a whole new house to share with Marta’s 85-year-old mother after she was widowed. The two thought that putting their bedroom upstairs and Mom’s on the first floor would ensure enough elbow room for everyone. They thought wrong.

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“There’s no privacy in the house,” says Steve, 53. “The air conditioner's always a battle: I like to keep it about 70 degrees; she wants to keep cranking it down lower.”

Other sources of conflict: whether to leave TVs and radios on and whether to leave dishes in the sink for later. “It’s one thing to love your mother,” says Marta, 52 and a social media specialist. “It’s another to move her in after you’ve been married 20 years.”

A rise in multigenerational households

Reasons for Buying a Multigenerational Home

31% said it was because adult kids moved back home

37% said adult kids never left

38% wanted to look after the health of an aging relative

SOURCE: National Association of Realtors, 2022 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers

Living situations like the Burchams’ are growing increasingly common. Almost 67 million Americans over age 18 now live in a multigenerational household. For many such families, the arrangement is a source of ease and joy. Grandparents can help with child-rearing duties — and also help foot the bills. And after a few decades out on their own, midlife adults often have the perspective and wisdom to cherish more time with their parents.

But such rosy hopes can cause unrealistic expectations. “Couples can be very idealistic about how this is going to go,” says Sara Qualls, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. “Anticipating that rubs are going to come up helps to break through that idealization.”

Close quarters can easily spark conflict, says David Rakofsky, a clinical psychologist and founder of Wellington Counseling Group in Chicago. “No matter your temperament, you’re going to see this parent or in-law on their worst days. And they’re going to see you on yours,” he says. “In-laws, in particular, may have enjoyed decades of distant politeness. But that can all change, and it can feel really destructive if not well handled.”

A March 2022 report from the Pew Research Center says almost a quarter of adults in multigenerational homes say the arrangement is stressful “all or most of the time.”

If you’re considering asking Mom or Dad to move in, your first job is to make sure you’ve truly grown up. “Many people regress when they return to living with their family of origin,” says Regina Koepp, a Vermont-based geropsychologist. “It can raise old conflicts that didn’t fully get resolved and are still tender spots.”

Says Mary McLeod, 57, whose 83-year-old mother came to live with her in 2020 for help during cancer treatment: “Sometimes I still feel like I could be 15 years old. It brings up older dynamics between Mom and I: ‘You shouldn’t be talking back to me!’ ”

Whatever the history, it’s the adult child’s responsibility not to replay it. That doesn’t mean you have to suppress your feelings, Rakofsky stresses. “This may be your opportunity to work on those things. To give voice to them in a loving, constructive way.”

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Thinking of having a parent move in? Experts and those who have done so offer these tips.

Set firm priorities. “Get clear on your goals as a couple,” Qualls advises. “Do you want to have a big impact at work? Have you been celebrating the empty nest? Tell the truth about what’s important to you now. Once you do, it will become obvious which conflicts could arise — and then you can prepare for them.”

Protect your intimacy. “Think about how you use your space and time for play, for fighting, for deep talks,” Qualls adds. “When and how will the elder be kept out of decisions? How much family business gets shared?”

Escape together regularly. “Every week we take one day off, and we go have fun,” says Marta Burcham. Adds husband Steve, “We also go on three or four vacations a year, just the two of us.”

Establish house rules. Just like in any functional group-house arrangement, family members need to agree on their rights and responsibilities. Good topics to nail down: finances, meals, chores, privacy, noise, schedules, social lives. Review the list with your spouse first, then present it to the elder for their contribution.

Schedule “couple chats.” Koepp advises taking a half-hour walk together a few times a week. Whether you’re the child or the child-in-law, “try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes,” she says. “Share your perspective. Get on the same page.”

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