How I Let My In-Laws Make and Break My Marriage

When one spouse has a primary attachment to someone that is stronger than the attachment to his partner -- be it a lover, a parent, or a child -- the marriage is in trouble.
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When I fell in love with my ex-husband, I also fell in love with his family.

Their life was a non-stop series of trips and parties and events. They traveled to far-flung exotic locales as a pack and with an entourage. They operated as a team, cheering on each person's success or jumping in to troubleshoot a problem another person might have. Whatever happened to one member of the family rippled out to all the other members and everyone chimed in with reactions and advice, Kardashian style. They were loud, they were flamboyant, they were rah-rah-rah and lots of fun.

My family, by comparison, was small and quiet. I was adopted, and ten years younger than my only sibling. My parents had me relatively late in their lives, and I always had that "caboose" feeling: tacked on, not really part of things. After college, I moved 3000 miles away and saw my family infrequently. My sister was busy with her family, and my parents were consumed with managing my mother's chronic health problems on their modest retirement funds. They were not able to be actively involved in my young adulthood, and I felt orphaned.

My in-laws made me feel special, like I was a part of something big and important. They were also extremely wealthy and powerful and not the kind of people with whom you want to have a difference of opinion. So I found myself agreeing to things I did not want to agree to in order to retain my membership in their exclusive club.

"You want me to convert? Sure!"

"You want me to sign a prenup after the wedding invitations have gone out? Okay!"

"You want to plan all our vacations and pick out all our furniture and tell me I should hire a full-time nanny even though I don't work? Yes, yes, and yes!"

Both my husband and I pursued freelance endeavors that didn't pay for our lifestyle, which was subsidized more and more by my in-laws. They were happy to bankroll our life, since they did the same for their two other children and their spouses. But as anyone who has ever been financially tied to a parent knows, it is very difficult to grow up when Mommy and Daddy control the purse strings. Tacit expectations come with every gift, and indeed, in our case money was doled out on as-want basis: this was for landscaping, that was for the new car, this was to trick out the baby's nursery.

Whether it was because we were used to everyone in the family weighing in on our issues, or because being financially dependent reduced us to acting like children, my ex and I found it difficult to work through our problems without the benefit of a committee. So instead of learning to resolve things between ourselves, we each went to his family for advice on how to deal with each other. As our relationship became more strained, family members who had been triangled in to defuse our problems became even more involved in our business. By the end, we were one big ego mass.

The Crowded Bed is a book written for couples therapists to help clients manage in-laws and family-of-origin issues so they can accomplish what every couple needs to do in order to have a successful marriage: commit to each other. When one spouse has a primary attachment to someone that is stronger than the attachment to his partner -- be it a lover, a parent, or a child -- the marriage is in trouble. If couples don't establish clear boundaries with extended family, then they never really join.

That was the situation with my ex and me. When his parents came into town, we were expected to rearrange our schedule in order to be with them. If they organized a vacation, we were instructed to jump on a plane even if it meant leaving small children behind. My ex frequently went on father-son dinners that didn't include me and that felt secretive in nature. Family pow-wows about estate planning happened without my knowledge.

It got to the point where my ex didn't want to spend a holiday without his parents; when I was on bed rest with our second child, he left me at home while he flew to a ski resort to be with his parents on New Year's. I stopped seeing my in-laws as allies, but as rivals. The more I reflected on all the things I had agreed to during the course of the marriage to please my in-laws -- converting, signing a prenup at the last minute, not insisting on separate vacations with my then-husband -- the more resentment seeped into our marriage.

My ex would not discuss plans for the future, as they were to be determined by his parents. Where we would live, making a will for the kids, taking out a life insurance policy in the event of his death, setting up financial accounts in both our names -- all of these topics were off the table. What should have been clear to me from the beginning now became glaringly obvious: the marriage had been structured to keep my ex bound to his family, while making it easy to excise me after I had served my purpose.

And I started to seethe. I was like a human tea kettle, letting off steam until my cries of injustice became an unending, piercing wail.

As fused families do, various in-laws rallied to help save the marriage, but by then too much ill will had been lobbed between them and me. I didn't just divorce my husband -- I divorced his family, which went over about as amicably as leaving the Mafia.

Now I see that part of the reason my in-laws wound up in our bed was that I invited them in by not speaking up for myself. However, had I done that from the beginning -- no, I don't want to convert; no, I'm not going to be pressured into signing a one-sided prenup after the invitations have gone out -- my ex and I probably wouldn't have gotten married. And while I can't imagine my life without the children my marriage produced, I regret that they have to grow up with divorced parents.

What they do get to grow up with, however, is what I had hoped for them when I married their dad: the experience of being part of a powerful clan who will be there to cheer them on, or catch them when they fall. Despite my concerns about my in-laws' methods of being involved, they are committed to my children. And as the wreckage of the divorce clears away, that is what I still love about them.

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