Ask a Muslim couple to give you a challenge in their relationship and many will say “family interference.” The stress that family and in-law interference brings to a marriage can be so overwhelming that for some couples it can lead to divorce. In a recent study by Sound Vision, it was found that ten percent of divorces were a result of family interference. The parent-child relationship, like the husband-wife relationship, is a special bond that encounters challenges when the child moves into a marital relationship, causing everyone to learn how to navigate their new roles. In order for couples to maintain healthy relationships with their parents, while simultaneously nurturing their own marriage, there needs to be communication and a clear understanding of the changing relationships.
Parents and extended family are vital in that they provide the new couple with stability and support. However, if boundaries are not clearly defined, it can overwhelm a couple and erode their marital bond. The collectivist cultures many immigrant families come from have begun to clash with the individualist society we live in and many families are not able to find peaceful co-existence in their newly formed families. Discussions about problems with in-laws and family interference in our community are met with two common arguments: that “children” need to remember to obey their parents and that parents just need to stop “meddling” and allow the new couple space to grow and nurture the relationship. However, neither of these arguments addresses the core issue that is causing in-laws to interfere in today’s nuclear families.
Most immigrants, who arrived in the U.S., left behind villages and generations of extended family. Starting a new life and beginning a family in the U.S. has often occurred in isolation and without family support. The isolation immigrant parents often feel in the U.S. has manifested into a desperate need to hold onto their nuclear family. Immigrant parents left behind their siblings and parents and now hold strong to the only “family” they have in the U.S. – their own children. Children may be seen as not only preserving a cultural lineage but as an emotional bond that is lacking in the parents’ lives. Therefore, the strong emotional attachment a parent feels to their child may be difficult to let go of once their child gets married.
Feelings of insecurity and fear are what are causing many parents to meddle in their children’s marriages. Many parents have a fear of losing their child when they get married and that they may no longer be important in the child’s life. Their behaviors are not necessarily coming with malicious intent; rather the parent’s unconscious feelings of insecurity drives them to interfere as they try to cope with “losing” their child to a spouse. In addition, parents of children who are overly dependent on them for emotional or financial support may have a harder time allowing their child to become independent decision makers once they get married. There are some subtle signs in the early stages of the marriage where the parents may position themselves to hold onto the relationship with their child. Parents may “test” their child’s loyalty to the family by making demands, threats and even withholding support of the new couple. Parents may also be critical of the spouse to see how their child will react in order to determine where loyalties lie. Parents may be insensitive to the couple’s need for physical and emotional privacy. They may give unsolicited advice and give their approval or disapproval of all decisions the couple makes. All of these behaviors may be seen by the parents as showing their care and concern, however the new couple may see it as interference and may not know its causes or how to deal appropriately with their parents.
Couples who are on the path toward marriage must have conversations early on with their parents about the changing family dynamics that will soon be taking place once the couple is married. Open communication with parents and in-laws is vital so that parents can express their concerns and feelings about the marriage as well as feel honored and respected in the family. This is also an opportunity for the couple to reassure their parents that they will continue to respect them and that a space will always exists in their life for them. The change in the relationship between the parent and child needs to be discussed, accepted, and ultimately welcomed as the next stage in life. The new level of interaction between a married couple and their respective parents will require a mature approach.
The Qur’an mandates that children always show kindness and respect to their parents, yet it does not mandate obedience. This is important to distinguish because many couples have a difficult time drawing boundaries with parents out of a fear of “disobeying” them. Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (Glorified and Exalted is He) says, “And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as] “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word.” (Qur’an, 17:23) Couples should always listen respectfully to their parents’ views and advice, but ultimately the couple must make decisions that are best for them as a unit and not out of a sense of guilt.
Many cultures have maintained control over their family through emotional manipulation and guilt veiled by the banner of Islamic duty. Obeying one’s parents has become the catch phrase remedy for all difficulties rather than critically thinking about what Allah (swt) is mandating. This verse from the Qur’an is used repeatedly to teach small children how they must always listen and obey their parents and to never talk-back. Yet if we carefully look at the verse, one notes the phrase “when parents reach old age” indicating that the “child” is actually an adult interacting with an elderly parent. It is in these times, as adults, that we must especially show kindness and respect to our parents when they are in old age and may be experiencing loneliness. Similarly, famous hadith (sayings of the Prophet ﷺ) are often invoked such as, “Jannah (Paradise lies at the feet of your mother,” as well as the reminder from the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) of who to honor most: “your mother” three times, then your father. Muslims are repeatedly mandated to be respectful and to show kindness to parents, especially their mother. Yet, no where do the Qur’anic verses and hadith suggest that parents have control over their child’s life, nor that children must obey their parents’ desires. Numerous times in the Qur’an we are reminded: “…and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden…” (Qur;an, 6: 164, 17:15, 35:18, 39:7 and 53:38). As adults, Muslims are responsible for their own choices in life and even though they may take advice and guidance from their parents, ultimately accountability falls on the individual for the choices made in life.
This understanding is critical when young couples get married and when spouses choose to “obey” their parents’ wishes or demands out of guilt or Islamic deference rather than choose to do what is best for the couple and their future. These early choices and patterns of behavior can have long lasting impacts on the marriage. As a therapist, I have encountered numerous cases of couples with marital problems because of allegiance to a parent trumping regard for their own spouse. The resulting resentment and hostility created in the family is often not resolved and continues to fracture family relationships. Newly married couples have a fragile new relationship to foster and new skills to develop as a married couple. When the pressure from in-laws and parents is excessive, a new marriage will crumble under the stress and interference. This can be prevented only if couples take the time to establish boundaries with their parents and effectively make the shift from a dependent parent-child relationship to an interdependent marital relationship, while at the same time showing kindness and respect to their own parents. The massive amount of change that takes place interpersonally can be overwhelming and many couples are not prepared for the new challenges.
There will always be meddling parents and couples will not be able to change that reality. However, by understanding the insecurities often at the core of their meddling and by creating boundaries early in the marriage, a couple can minimize the potential for conflict that arises from in-laws who interfere. When couples establish boundaries on how they will interact with in-laws, they will develop healthier relationships with their spouse as well as with their parents. The boundaries a couple can establish will be discussed in part two of this article.
Marriage is the bringing together of two families. However, many couples struggle with exactly how to mesh two families together while maintaining their independence as a couple. When a couple gets married, an extended family is created as well as the beginnings of a new family that the couple will create between the two of them. With each family comes its own values, and with every new couple a new, often unique set of traditions and memories will also develop. An initial hurdle that couples are faced with is the role their in-laws will play in their lives. Couples must move from a dependent relationship with parents to an interdependent relationship with their spouse. In order for this shift to happen, couples need to set boundaries and limits with their parents in the early stages of the marriage in order to eliminate interference.
Establishing clear boundaries is not easy and, like marriage, it can require constant attention. Even when boundaries are created, families may not always want to abide by the boundaries, so couples must learn to reinforce the boundaries they want and negotiate new ones. The process of creating a new family is challenging for a new couple, but ultimately it brings the couple closer together and it brings more peace to everyone’s lives. Before marriage, couples need to negotiate the role they envision their in-laws having in their lives. Making assumptions that you have the same vision will only lead to surprises and resentment. Setting boundaries as a couple is a way to protect your marriage early on and the communication it requires will insulate you from outside problems creeping into the marriage. Boundaries that can be set with in-laws include seeking advice, exchanging money, frequency of visits, phone calls, vacations, raising children, and gossip. Boundaries for every couple will be different and they will need to choose what the most pressing matters are that need to be addressed in their family. Couples can resolve any issues that arise by setting new limits or by simply adapting to the expectation.
Couples sometimes unknowingly place their parents in the middle of their relationship by telling them everything or by running to them at the first signs of problems in the marriage. A new couple needs to depend on one another and to make decisions as a team. This requires that couples communicate with one another and if disagreements ensue, they resolve them together rather than bringing in their parents to “referee.” This is especially vital at the beginning of the marriage because it will solidify the unification of the couple and encourage them to problem solve together as they establish their own family. Couples should not share problems with parents because most parents will generally take the side of their child. Couples should clearly communicate with each other what they will share with parents and what is best left between them. They should remain loyal to each other and remember that the marital relationship must come first in each other’s lives as they strive to create their own family.
Each spouse is responsible for protecting their spouse, even toward their respective parents. As the Qur’an describes: “…They are your garments and you are their garments…” (2:187) Like our clothing, spouses must protect each other by not allowing anyone to speak ill of their spouse. This clearly demonstrates to the parents that the couple is a unit that cannot be split. The couple should also make clear to their respective parents that there are no secrets between the couple, so whatever is said to one is free to be shared with the other. Negative comments made about one’s spouse must not be tolerated and parents must get the impression that their child’s spouse will always be respected, even in his or her absence. Even if in the presence of in-laws, the spouse being attacked cannot be left to defend himself or herself. This is the role of the child of those parents. The person with the primary relationship to the parent needs to make clear the boundaries and uphold them. Problems will arise in the marriage if a spouse is pulled to side with their parents against the spouse. The reverse is also true: spouses must never degrade their in-laws to their spouses as this will cause a fracture to develop where a spouse is caught in the middle between parents and spouse. Couples must always remember to be gracious and kind to their parents as they assert their independence as adults.
Newly married couples need space, both physically and emotionally, to nurture their blossoming relationship. Unexpected visits by in-laws may be intrusive to the couple so boundaries of when in-laws will visit must be made clear early on in the marriage. How often couples will visit the in-laws will also need to be discussed by the couple. This would include both how often and for how long so that the couple is not overly burdened and so that all their free time is not spent with in-laws. In cases where in-laws live with the couple in the same home, more specific boundaries will need to be set, such as a particular time and place everyday that will exclusively be for the couple to spend time together. Setting a limit that preserves privacy for the couple also reinforces the importance of time spent alone as a couple and allows intimacy to build between the couple.
Interference from in-laws can come in subtle ways which can threaten the marital relationship. Conflicts over money can arise when in-laws lend money to a new couple with subtle expectations attached, like visiting more often couched with reminders about the help they’ve given. Money could be a subtle way of controlling a couple’s emerging autonomy. Childrearing advice could be well intentioned, but the couple as new parents is most vulnerable to criticism and advice from in-laws. Advice that makes the couple feel incompetent is unproductive and it does not allow the couple to determine how they want to raise their own children or build confidence in their ability to raise a family. These subtle ways of interfering can cause divisions in a marriage if boundaries are not created by the couple and problems are not addressed immediately.
So how does a couple set boundaries with overly intrusive in-laws, especially if one spouse does not think there is a problem? This conflict can only be resolved if the couple works to grow closer to each other in their marriage. One pathway to this is by developing open communication and honesty with regard to the interference of the in-laws. Only after gaining a spouse’s loyalty will the issue become a priority over the interests of parents. This can be very difficult if the parents make their child feel guilty for doing so and often a spouse does not have the courage to be assertive with their own parents. In order to confront parents about destructive behavior, the spouse must first recognize that the interference is not “normal” behavior and can in fact be damaging. If someone has been raised in a family that is controlling and manipulative, manipulative behavior may have become normalized, making it very difficult for the spouse to identify this behavior as destructive. Once a spouse is able to recognize that the interference is a problem and threat to the marriage, the next step is to develop the courage to confront their parents. In some cases, this may only be possible through counseling or education. A lack of assertiveness with parents is a typical struggle most young Muslim men and women encounter and it is even more difficult if the parents are controlling and manipulative. Maintaining respect for problematic in-laws is essential even though it will not be easy. Spouses should not respond to hurtful words and actions in equally hurtful ways. Limiting the influence of in-laws on the marriage and children is vital if the in-laws are destructive to the marriage.
Boundaries are ways of preserving a family and those limits must be decided upon by the couple. A new couple struggles to develop loyalty and a new bond with one another and this can be easily fractured if in-laws interfere aggressively. In-laws who seek to have healthy relationships with their adult children and their children’s spouses will respect boundaries established by the couple and will do everything they can to help the couple be independent. The adult relationship between parents and spouses will always evolve and improve with time if family members are open and honest about their feelings and expectations. Communicating and understanding the roles everyone holds in the new family will bring peace to families and help build the bonds that create new memories.