Boundaries for Couples: Healthy Holidays with Extended Family

Boundaries for couples often become strained during the holiday season.

We’re spending more time with our relatives and have added family expectations that surround holiday traditions. Without having clear boundaries for couples, you can wind up feeling frustrated and misunderstood. 

And, couples can face struggles with boundaries with in-laws and extended family throughout the year as well.

Setting boundaries for couples can be indeed challenging — and can be the source of hurt feelings, arguments and  unresolved conflicts. During our interactions with extended family during the holiday season, these long-standing issues often come to the fore.

So, we’re devoting this post to helping you understand the challenges you and your partner might be encountering (you’re certainly not alone in this dilemma), as well as helping you talk through boundary concerns in order to build greater understanding between you two.

“Setting Boundaries” Defined

Boundaries are the rules and limits we set for ourselves — and as a couple — in our relationships with others.

Healthy boundaries enable us to say “no” and set limits with others while also allowing us to have closeness and good, positive relationships. Examples include: sharing information in appropriate ways, being able to communicate your wants and needs and being able to say “no” to others and accept when they say “no” to us. We don’t feel we have to compromise our values to please others.

Rigid boundaries may keep us distant from others, may prevent closeness with others, both emotionally and physically. We may be hesitant to ask for help, we can seem detached even from our partner and we may keep a distance to avoid rejection.

People with loose boundaries may tend to become over-involved and concerned about others. We can share too much personal information, struggle with saying “no” and may act against our values in order to please others.

Setting Boundaries Can Be a Mixed Bag

Establishing healthy boundaries can be challenging for some people more than others. Much may depend on what we were taught or experienced in our families as we were growing up.

As we mature, we can examine our own ways of connecting to others and determine our own choices about setting boundaries for couples.

Different cultures may have varying traditional boundaries. Some avoid closeness; others freely share information, hugs and connection with family and friends.

Also, each family develops its own style or culture as well. Some families maintain closeness with extended family members, neighbors and friends. Others are more distant.

Types of Boundaries

Several different types of boundaries are common and can include:

  • Physical Boundaries are how we handle physical touch and personal space. Healthy boundaries include an awareness ofFamilies enjoying good boundaries what makes others comfortable and how much physical contact you welcome from others. Some of us are “huggers” and easily embrace those close to us. Some people are less comfortable with physical contact.
  • Emotional Boundaries for couples involve how and what we may share with others. Sharing information with friends and family members can be a cause of hurt feelings if not first agreed upon. Poor emotional boundaries can include criticism, blaming and put-downs of others.
  • Material Boundaries include how we handle money and possessions. If we feel pressured to lend money or an important possession (such as a car), our boundaries help us identify when to set limits.
  • Time is also a source of boundary confusion. How and how much time we spend with others can impact any relationship. Couples often neglect to have thorough discussions of how their time will be spent: Pressures to spend time with children and extended family members may leave sparse time for the couple to have alone together.

Boundaries for Couples: Understanding Competing Priorities

Our first, and most powerful, attachment bonds were formed with our parents. As adults, our most important bonds are established with our romantic partner.

However, the bond we formed with our parents, siblings and other family-of-origin folks, remains a powerful influence. We can find we are straddling between both significant relationships — family and spouse or partner.

Attachment bonds are strong and enduring — therefore, when there’s conflict of any type, the emotions can be strong and easily triggered when problems arise.

“In-laws and extended family members often require couples to navigate a three-way relationship,” write authors Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies.”

“You and your partner chose each other, but you didn’t choose your partner’s family,” they explain. “If you’re like many couples, you and your partner have to work at navigating the expectations of family members.”

Typical expectations of couples by their families can include gender roles (what’s expected of each partner), opinions about parenting, receiving or giving financial support from or to family members and participation in family rituals, such as holidays.

How Do I Matter? How Do I Fit In?

holiday boundaries for couplesSpouses and partners can feel hurt or less emotionally secure when it seems the other is siding with or giving in to their own family’s influence.

To understand why issues with boundaries for couples with extended families can create such strong emotions and conflict, it’s helpful to be reminded of the powerful emotional bond created when we met our partner and fell in love.

The strong bond we initially felt — and that continues to keep us close and connected — means that our partner is the one we reach out for in times of distress, the one we miss when we’re apart, the person we count on to be there for us.

This attachment, through evolution, is crucially important to our well-being. We feel more confident, we feel secure and we feel we are not alone in facing what the world sends our way.

“We are never more emotional than when our primary love relationship is threatened,” notes Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the primary creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, in her book for couples, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.”

So, it makes sense, then, that when we feel our spouse or partner’s greater loyalty is to someone other than us — even a parent, sibling or close friend — we question our importance to our partner and whether we’re indeed a priority.

Healthy Boundaries for Couples Don’t Just Happen

“Family relationships can be both a resource and a challenge for couples. Extended-family relationships may provide social, emotional and practical support, especially in the early years of a marriage. At the same time, these relationships can create obstacles between partners that can endure for years,” according to Drs. Bradley and Furrow.

Here’s a type of scenario:

David and Marie typically spend holidays with her parents because they live in the same town. But, during their visits, David feels Marie is so involved with everyone there — except him. He feels more and more like an outsider, even though he can carry his own weight in conversations with her extended family.

Still, he feels hurt. He wants them to spend more holidays with his family, even though it involves a three-hour drive. And, he wants Marie to stay closer to him on visits to her family.

David is afraid to speak up because he knows how important these family events are to his wife. Yet, he harbors a resentment.

David clearly has a choice: Continue the resentment or speak to Marie and share his deeper feelings that include hurt, sadness and a desire for his family to feel as important to the couple.

Of course, very little will change if David doesn’t risk having that conversation — except, of course, that his resentment can continue to grow.

Let’s look at some ways boundaries for couples can be better addressed.

Keys to Greater Boundary Understanding

  1. Take time and initiate conversations with your partner to build a greater understanding of each other’s family traditions and culture. What’s most important to each family? What are the long-time holiday traditions? How does the family value closeness? What are each family’s expectations of the couple?

There may be vast differences between each partner’s family. Understanding and appreciating those differences can enlighten each of you and help you feel more comfortable.

  1. Avoid sharing personal information with family members. If your relationship has some challenges, your partner may feel his or her privacy was violated if these issues are discussed with members of your family. Too, it can be hard to “erase” the perceptions those family members may have developed after you and your partner have resolved the concerns.

Confiding in family members can feel like a source of relief; yet, it’s also a major breach of the trust you have built with your partner.

  1. Avoid criticizing your partner’s family members. Keep in mind that your partner has an emotional connection to his or her extended family, and your criticism can be hurtful to your partner.
  2. Along with understanding more about your partner’s extended family, be curious how your partner relates to them. Families are complex, indeed, and the relationships your partner has can be important. The greater your understanding of the familial bonds, the easier it will be for you to accept and honor your partner’s feelings.
  3. Plan, plan and plan! Holidays also can be stressful times. Spend time before the holidays discussing how to support each other should family holiday stressproblems emerge. Discuss, as well, how you’ll stay close and connected to your partner amidst the many family events. How can you make some time for each other during the visits? What does each of you need from each other to handle any challenges?

We spend lots of hours and dollars on holidays. Yet very little time often is spent on discussing how to keep your relationship strong during all the many interactions, family expectations and kids’ needs.

Resolving Old Issues

Speak up — we know it’s difficult — about any past emotional wounds or hurt feelings. At the end of this post, we’ll link you to some other articles on how to do this. Resolving old painful events helps each of you stay in the present and enjoy the holidays with a new perspective.

Work to resolve old or unresolved issues between the two of you related to helping or accepting help from extended family members. These may include:

  • Asking for or providing babysitting
  • Financially helping your adult children
  • Providing care and financial support for aging families
  • Offering family help when siblings aren’t equally contributing

Honor Each Other’s Family; And Prioritize Your Partner

Remind yourself that the effort to connect and accommodate your partner’s family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer in your relationship. Your understanding, patience and acceptance — despite challenges — requires rising above the smaller issues and minor hurt feelings.

What is often at the root of couples’ issues and arguments about extended families can be basic and profound: Does your partner truly feel they come first? That they are your Number 1 no matter what?

When you met and fell in love, your partner became the most important person in your life. You doted on each other, spent as much time together as possible and built your own history of emotional and physical connection. That powerful bond is the force that keeps you close and is the foundation of your partner’s security.

He or she needs to know — and feel — that they matter most. Yes, extended family and your parents were your first emotional bonds. And, they were the foundation of your ability to form adult-relationship bonds.

Often what we find is that boundaries for couples become a source of hurt and conflict when the partner does not feel he or she is a priority. Consider the information above. It might be time to rewrite a chapter in your own love story of cherishing your partner while balancing the emotional ties to your own extended family.

More Help

Learn more about after-holiday resentments for couples. Read more about How to Communicate Effectively with your Partner. Learn more about Taming Holiday Stress