by Todd Creager

You can call it serendipity, but I have had a slew of clients recently who are dealing with major in-law issues. In-laws could be wonderful supports- helping with kids, being there at holidays and even giving financial stability if and when needed. There are those families where everything goes smooth and everyone gets along but the truth of the matter is that is relatively uncommon. Most families have to go through a series of initiations (as I call it) to get to the Promised Land of family health and wellbeing.

In just the last several weeks I have been working with clients on the following types of issues:

1) The biological child feels in the middle between the biological family of origin and the spouse.

2) In-laws who meddle in the couples issues of their biological child and spouse.

3) In-laws who demand to get their way and intolerant of the choices of the adult children including where they are going for the holidays.

4) Serious conflicts between brother-in-laws or sister-in-laws where the upcoming family holidays are in jeopardy

These issues are inflammatory and not always easy to repair. However, as the couple learns better ways to handle these tough situations, they can preserve and even improve their own marital relationship. There is often a price to pay for increased marital health; it is usually a price well worth paying.


Look at your own family of origin system. Is it the kind of family where there are not enough boundaries between each family member? For example, is there too much meddling, trying to manage, over reactivity to one particular family member s pain, very little privacy? I have told clients the story about one couple I worked with where at get-togethers, his mother would have the family sit at a table where there was pre-assigned seating. The son (my client) would be seated next to his mother, and the wife (my other client) would be sitting across the table with a big plant in the middle so the couple could not see each other.

This was a mother who could not let go. At the next visit, he told his mother that he wanted to sit next to his wife and he rearranged the seating cards. His mother did not talk to him for the entire weekend and the rest of the family was upset with him also. This was an enmeshed family; one where there was no tolerance for individuality and change.

The detached family is one where there is TOO MUCH individuality and not enough connection. There is very little sharing between members and often the communication is superficial. It takes a monumental crisis to get people to pay attention to other family members and what their plight is.

There are extremes of these two types and then there are families that fall more towards the middle of the continuum. The more balance between these two extremes, the healthier is the family system. The balanced family allows for both individuality and connection; it honors both the I and the we in families and its members.

The client situations I described above in numbers 1-4 above are examples of problems of the enmeshed family. I will devote the bulk of the rest of this article in how to deal with this problem. However, before I discuss this, let me briefly discuss what to do during the holiday season and beyond if you are from a detached family.


Of course how you deal with a detached family depends on what you ultimately want out of your family relationships. If you are resigned to having a detached family and have looked elsewhere for connection and community, then of course it is perfectly within your right to move on and let your family be. However, if you want to be a maverick in your family- (I used that word before Senator McCain!) and begin a new pattern, you may need to risk speaking and acting differently to them. Some of the things you can do to begin shifting the patterns of detachment are:

1) Share a little more than usual about yourself to a family member.

2) Show some physical affection slightly beyond the comfort zone of a family member. (For example- if your family does not typically hug, then hug. If they hug briefly, hug a little longer).

3) Be frank and say that you would like to begin having a closer relationship with the family member (s).

4) Ask questions about the person that may require him to reveal more about himself than usual.


It is seldom good for your wellbeing to just go with the flow of the enmeshed family of origin. There is usually a high cost to not working on your I-ness and becoming more differentiated from your family. Differentiation does not mean separation; it just means that you are being more of who you are while connecting to others. Some of the costs of enmeshed families include:

1) Intense conflicts for the married couple due to lack of a healthy boundary around the couple- This occurs because the enmeshed family of origin intrudes into the private lives, feelings and space of the intimate couple.

2) Especially for men in highly enmeshed families- it could actually lead to low sexual desire at times. This was the case in the couple described above. Soon after the husband rearranged the seating cards and worked through his mother s cold and disapproving behavior towards him, he began feeling more sexual desire towards his wife. The reason for this may be in part that as he began to feel his own individuality, he was now free to merge with his partner.

3) Increased anxiety and depression due to low self esteem and high need to please others.

There is also a cost to standing up to your enmeshed parents and other family members. There is increased conflict and these families are usually skilled at laying on guilt and shame for breaking the spoken and unspoken family rules. The great majority of these families blame the spouse-in-law because it would be to painful to accept that their biological child is wanting this change. Here are some helpful hints for the biological child in dealing with one s enmeshed family.

1) Be open to your spouse s perceptions of your family. Of course she may not be totally right in her perceptions, but you have lived in that enmeshed system your whole life and may not recognize the toxicity of the system. I like the expression- A fish living in dirty water doesn t realize it is living in dirty water. Likewise, it will be far easier for the in-law spouse to see the family dysfunction long before you do.

2) Do not see the situation as- you are in the middle between your resentful spouse and enmeshed family. Instead, discover your own truth as you stay open to your partner s wisdom. This is your personal trip towards freedom and self-expression. A healthy family is one that is supportive and yet simultaneously embraces your need to find your own way. You are not in a tug of war; see your spouse as a catalyst to help set you free.

3) Set appropriate boundaries with your family. For example, you may not be able to give them exactly what they want such as spend all of Christmas day with them. Be kind to them but also be kind to yourself. The harsh truth is that being kind to yourself sometimes means disappointing someone else.

4) Make sure you have support systems in place in case your family skillfully pushes your guilt and shame buttons. This can mean friends, supportive extended family, a therapist or your partner.

5) Know that with every healthy move towards differentiation, your enmeshed family will make a countermove that includes what I have already mentioned- inducing guilt and shame. They are just trying to preserve the familiar.

Here are hints for the in-law spouse to deal with an enmeshed family.

1) Be patient and supportive of your spouse who is beginning to find his legs to create some healthy distance with other family members.

2) Do your best to tolerate some of the dysfunction as long as you see him engaged in the differentiation process.

3) If you find yourself being blamed, ganged up on, etc., go to your partner and ask him to speak on your behalf. Don t do his dirty work. Let him set the boundaries with the family. Often the in-law has already done too much to compensate for the passivity of the enmeshed spouse.

4) Before you run to your family or distant yourself from your partner, you may need to see a therapist to help you both be a united front in dealing with the family of origin.

What I have written is probably just the tip of the iceberg of information that could be helpful in dealing with these kinds of families. This growth stuff when it comes to our biological families is not easy but it is essential for relationship health as well individual mental and physical wellbeing. Be gentle with yourself and each other as you break new ground and learn to develop new patterns of relating.

Todd Creager

From Sarah – I love Todd. He’s one of the dearest men (it’s absolutely amazing, but as you talk with him in person – he becomes sexy, magnetic, hot – just a good guy, he seems at first, but being able to talk and connect with a man – that’s just a turn-on – and he’s been blissfully married for 23 plus years and has written a GREAT book about it and how we can do it too – “The Long Hot Marriage” – totally great book. He’s like a model for how a man should be and how it should feel to hang with one. He has free newsletters and lots of information and help on his site->

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