27 June 2016

Spouse vs. Parents: Who Wins in the Priorities War?

Steven sighs as he hears his wife, Lisa, on the phone with her mom. Lisa's mom is trying to guilt them into flying out to Arizona again for Christmas. Although their finances are tight and it will put a strain on the family, he knows Lisa won't say no to her mom. In fact, Lisa would probably be fine spending all holidays with her family if it were up to her. He dreams of the day they can start their own Christmas traditions in their home with their two kids.

Courtney and Tyler finally arrive home from the hospital with their newborn baby. Exhausted, they open the door to their house, only to find Tyler's parents already inside, cooking and cleaning. This would normally be a welcome sight except for the fact that they are always over there, never giving them any space. In fact, a year ago they had demanded to have their own key to their house, and Tyler  gave them one, not wanting to rock the boat. Courtney cringed as they immediately started chastising her for not bundling the baby properly and grabbed the baby without even asking. She is on the verge of tears, wishing for quiet time alone to bond with her new baby. If only her husband would stand up to them and say something, but he doesn't want to hurt their feelings.

These situations are all too familiar. I absolutely love counseling newly engaged couples alongside my pastor-husband. We cover the usual topics - communication, conflict resolution, sex, finances, etc. But we also spend an abnormal amount of time discussing one topic in particular, leaving and cleaving, because we've seen many marriages struggle in this area. It may seem like a harmless issue, but it can create a huge rift between spouses if left unchecked. 

What exactly is "leaving and cleaving?"
If you haven't heard of this phrase before, it is referenced from the Bible. After God created man and woman and the first marriage was formed, God said: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24, ESV). Thus, the concept of leaving one's family of origin and cleaving to the new spouse, forming a completely new family unit. 

In most weddings, the father walks his daughter down the aisle and gives her away to her husband. This is not only symbolic, but needs to happen in reality in order for a marriage to survive and thrive. There needs to be an immediate shift in loyalty as soon as those vows are spoken.

While counseling premarital couples, we explain what it means when you take those vows. You are saying you vow to love your spouse and put their needs above any other human being on this earth, including yourself. Your primary focus and allegiance shifts from your parents, siblings, friends, or whatever it may be before marriage, to your spouse.

But aren't we commanded to obey our parents?
Yes and no. It's actually children who are commanded to obey their parents (Col. 3:20, Eph. 6:1, Prov. 1:8, Prov. 6:20). Although we can, and should, continue to honor and respect our parents (Ex. 20:12, Deut. 5:16), the instruction to obey is for children still living in their parents' home, not a married adult. Just as you can obey without honoring (a kid throwing a fit and then grumbling the whole time while having to load the dishwasher), we can also honor without obeying our parents. We can be thoughtful and respectful to our parents, while not needing to follow their every directive, especially if it negatively affects our marriage.

Okay, so what does "cleaving" look like and how do I do it?
Just over five years ago, my now-husband and my dad sat in IHOP. Over pancakes, my dad's blessing was given for him to propose. My husband later told me the profound advice my dad gave him. My dad said (and I quote very loosely since I wasn't there): "Once married, the two of you will be your own family unit. When making decisions for your family, you have to decide what is best for you and your wife. Not what is best for anyone else. You can tell others that, while you appreciate their input, you, and only you are responsible for your family. That is who you will give account for and be responsible for. Not me, not your own parents, and not your friends." 

I cannot tell you how thankful I am for a father that understands the importance of leaving and cleaving. But that does not mean that Lane and I have never had to set boundaries for others to protect our family unit and marriage. Lane was a seemingly natural at this. However, I am a complete people-pleaser at heart, so I had problems doing this at first. A few years ago, I read Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend which helped me out immensely. It is a book that I will most likely need to read and re-read for the rest of my life in order to help me work towards perfecting those principles. Especially when dealing with parents and that delicate relationship, it is so useful to read through how to respond in a loving, but firm way, and feeling empowered and freed to set necessary boundaries.

Another important aspect of this issue that we tell our premarital couples is this: if it is your parents causing the issue in the marriage, it is your responsibility to be the one to stand up to them and enforce the boundary. They can be mad at their daughter or son for a bit and get over it (usually), but if your spouse is the one to stand up to your parents, they may go into protective mode of their child, and the rift may never be forgiven.

If you are not sure if you side with your parents and put them first, ask your spouse for their honest opinion. Discuss what would help put your marriage back as first priority. It may be hard to confront your parents. For decades, you (rightly) followed their lead, but now a shift needs to take place. It may even take talking to a professional counselor to help you create a strategy and formulate what to say. It also might be a sibling, aunt, uncle, friend, or even a boss that is creating out of alignment priorities. Again, I highly recommend reading the Boundaries book. I'd love to discuss it with you!

Whatever it takes, your marriage deserves to be first priority. You stood before your family and friends and pledged your love and loyalty to your spouse, not your mom, not your dad, and certainly not your friends.

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1 comment :

  1. That book looks like a must read!! Thanks for the suggestion!


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