Just as in that old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” it also takes a village to make a marriage. Or to make a successful marriage, anyway.
Modern wedding ceremonies evolved in part from ancient gatherings of tribes and families where a couple’s community of family and friends publicly acknowledged the nuptials and committed to helping sustain and support the relationship through good times and bad.
Couples at the Center of Social Structure
Human beings are social animals by nature – it’s built into us by evolution – and it’s a rare marriage that isn’t affected, for good or ill, by what you could call “outside influence.” Couples are at the center of circles of family and friends, all of whom have opinions and ideas about how marriage works.
Compare two married couples with infant children. One couple lives in a city near their parents. The other couple lives alone, far from family, perhaps thousands of miles away. Both these couples will learn pretty quickly how handy it is to have family members nearby, because taking care of babies is a lot of work!
Family members who are nearby make great babysitters, and can help out a great deal when one or both parents get sick, or have to work extra hours, or need to pick up a kid from school. A couple without nearby family will likely have to pay for that kind of help, and it ain’t cheap.
The Good and Bad of Outside Influences
That’s just one example of the many “outside” influences that affect, or can affect, a marriage. Some outside influences are benign, such as babysitting by grandparents, while others are negative, such as disapproval of one spouse by the family or friends of the other. Money, or the withholding of money, is another powerful outside influence on a marriage.
Even the giving or withholding of approval and affection by family can influence a marriage. One important thing to consider is that even the benign, helpful influences come with a cost. They aren’t “free” in the commonly understood sense of that word.
Even the babysitting, for example, can cause problems for the couple if, for example, the grandparents have different ideas about how to discipline a child, about corporal punishment, for example.
I talked to one couple who had an elderly grandmother move in with them and their two young girls. The grandmother, whom they had thought of as a helpful babysitter, instead told one of the girls, “You’re going to end up in jail someday.” Then, of course, the two spouses had a fight about whether grandma should keep living with them.
Protection From Outside Influences?
Is there a reliable way to protect your marriage from outside influences?
Yes. But it does take work. Outside influences can be very sneaky and can work to aggravate any existing problems between married partners. To defend against them, spouses need to work together and to stay on the same page. Be clear with each other about what is important – you love each other and you are married partners, working together. Your marriage comes first. Everything else is secondary.
Probably the toughest outside influence is pressure of some kind from family. Parents in particular can seek, either consciously or subconsciously, to drive a wedge between spouses, or to manipulate a couple to do what the parents think is important, rather than what is in the couple’s best interest.
Family pressure comes in many forms, from sly, subtle disapproval of a marriage partner all the way to withholding of money, affection, or even to partial or total cutting off of contact and communication. All of these can be tough to resist.
As an old saying goes, “Families are great at pushing your buttons, because they are the ones who installed them.”
To resist the influence of family requires honesty and clear communication, both between married partners and between the couple and the outside family members. No matter what differences of opinion the married couple have with each other, they need to present a united front to outsiders.
Using Communication to Deflect Outside Influences
No matter the degree of the family scorn, neglect, nagging or manipulation coming in from outside, the remedy is pretty much the same – communicating clearly and politely to the family that they need to back off. For some parents it is simply difficult to accept that their children have grown up and become adults and gotten married and so on.
A gentle but firm reminder – “We appreciate that you care about us, but we are grown ups and have to find our own path” or “I know you don’t agree that I should’ve married this person, but I did and it is my choice” – can do wonders. It can be scary to sit down and have such a frank conversation with your family, or with your in laws. But it will pay dividends.
If family members make threats or give ultimatums (“If you don’t … I’m going to …”) it is best just to respond calmly and to end the conversation. Don’t get into a shouting match, or issue threats in return. That doesn’t help.
If necessary, continue the conversation in writing. Even email can be too quick, so if you want a cooling off period between angry broadsides, try sending letters through the mail.
Ultimately, if you have to break off contact with outside family members for a “cooling off period,” then do so.
Be clear with yourself and your spouse that you are doing this difficult thing as a way of protecting and strengthening your marriage. Be clear, too, that a “cooling off period” means no communication or contact at all. Beware of being sucked back into a useless debate by a barbed text or phone message.
And Then There Are Meddling Friends
Dealing with other outside influences, such as disapproving or meddling friends, or potential suitors trying to lure away your spouse, follows the same rules. First and foremost, you and your spouse need to be honest and clear with each other. If you aren’t working together, you cannot defend against any outside force, just as a human body can’t fight off disease when it is already weak.
Keep your marriage healthy by checking in regularly with your spouse about how you have been feeling lately and about what is going on in your life (and in your mind).
Even the threat of adultery can be defanged pretty effectively by honest, grown up communication between spouses. Don’t be afraid to bring this subject up – being married should mean you can talk about anything.