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Marrying into a dysfunctional family (without losing your mind)

“What am I marrying into?”

Ever heard the saying, “if you marry them, you marry the family”?

In some cases, that’s a good thing. In others…not so much.

Read on to know what you can expect from marrying into a dysfunctional family and what you can do to keep yourself sane in the process.

What you can expect

1) Poor communication

One of the things you can expect from marrying into a dysfunctional family is that their communication skills are going to be, well, less than great.

Because everyone’s used to problems coming up when they interact with each other, there might be issues with secrecy and denial because they won’t be very open when it comes to getting to the truth of things.

They won’t like having their issues brought out into the open, so they’ll do everything they can to keep everything under wraps (until, maybe, a time comes when they can use it to their advantage).

They might save little anecdotes about each other for them to use in triangulation.

Triangulation is when a manipulative person expresses something, not to the object of their feelings, but a third party. It’s a tactic that can encourage conflict between two people and is commonly seen in dysfunctional households.

An example of this at work is when a parent tells one child that the other child is treating the parent badly. They’d then encourage the first child to get angry at the other, creating unnecessary conflict because of miscommunication.

They often don’t listen to one another, so triangulation works because they could be used to not being direct with each other.

This is something you could expect from a dysfunctional family, and something to look out for; if they want something from you, they’ll do anything they can to get it, even if it means manipulating other members of the family.

2) Lack of empathy

Not being empathetic to each other is another common trait of a dysfunctional family.

They might not feel compassion and love for each other because of the way they were brought up — lots of unnecessary conflicts and conditional affection.

Since the parents might lack the ability to tune into their children’s emotions, it might be hard to connect with them on that level (even if they wanted to).

As for conditional affection, because there’s less compassion and love to go around, the family members (including your partner) might feel like the love isn’t something that should be taken for granted — like they have to earn it.

This might even manifest in your relationship with your partner and might take some work to eventually fix.

3) Boundaries aren’t a thing

Boundaries are lines between two people that shouldn’t be crossed.

Something that might be common in a dysfunctional household is the family members drawing a line in the sand and somebody else in the family coming in to kick it up into nothing.

They might be overly involved in each other’s lives, especially seen in parents’ attitudes toward their children.

Because of this, no one feels completely independent or private; everyone’s used to each other snooping around and trying to wedge themselves into places they aren’t welcome.

They might even be using introjection on each other. Introjection happens when someone indoctrinates beliefs into another person in a way that makes them feel like they have no choice but to believe it; it doesn’t allow for the possibility of different ideas.

This can lead to the other person feeling like their ideas are never completely theirs and blur the line between them and the manipulator.

Boundaries shouldn’t be crossed; people in dysfunctional families don’t always get the memo, so you can say goodbye to real privacy and hello to your mother-in-law suddenly inviting herself over to your house for dinner.

4) They’ll be overly critical and controlling

Another thing to watch out for when marrying into a dysfunctional family is their tendency to try and control each other because of their perfectionism and like I said, their missing idea of boundaries.

They think they should have a say in everything that goes on in their lives, something that is, again, more commonly seen in the parents. They can impose unrealistic expectations on their children, and they don’t always outgrow that mindset.

For example, let’s say you meet up with them for a family affair. The moment you get there, there can be unwelcome comments like “have you thought about going on a diet?” or “you should quit your job soon.”

Parents can be obsessed with perfection, and you won’t be an exception.

5) They can be gaslighters

Gaslighting happens when one person manipulates another person by questioning that person’s sanity to suit their own narratives and gain control over the other person.

They can do things like pass blame onto other people for things they never did or tell someone that they’re acting “insane“ or they’re “too sensitive” whenever they’re confronted with hurt or angry feelings.

It’s also possible for them to try and control another person’s feelings by telling them what they’re feeling. For example, someone could say “you’re not offended” to someone who’s expressed that they are in an attempt to control the narrative and have things end their way.

These contradictory experiences are examples of gaslighting and the goal is to make you feel like something is wrong with you for believing in your own experiences because they insist that their version of things is the absolute truth.

Gaslighters do what they do because they want to feel empowered when they’re the ones who control the narrative.

6) It’ll affect your relationship with your partner

All of this is a lot to deal with, so you can’t expect that it’ll be smooth sailing with you and your partner.

They have emotional baggage that comes with their experiences and it’s baggage that’ll seep into your relationship until it’s something the two of you can’t ignore.

  1. They either hate talking about them or they talk about them all the time. This situation is frustrating, and sometimes the best way to let off some steam is to verbally express what they’re feeling. It’s that or they clamp their mouths shut when the topic of their family comes up because it’s too much negativity for them to talk about.
  2. They might not know how to live without chaos and conflict. If it’s all they’ve ever known, it can carry over into your relationship; they might be shocked at how healthy things can be and pick fights just to feel a sense of “normalcy” again.
  3. Trust issues — because who wouldn’t have them after living with lies, secrecy, and manipulation all their lives? They might have trouble opening up to you (after living in a household where anything can be used against you) or might even be distrustful of you from time to time.
  4. They can feel like they don’t deserve you or deserve to be happy. Because of the conditional love they lived with, all that unconditional love and compassion you show toward them might be met with a wall of suspicion and distrust.

Of course, there’s the big possibility of all of these traits being aggravated each time they interact with their family.

They might seem like a different person than the one you’re about to marry when they’re around their family, which might not bode well for instances when they have to defend you against any backhanded compliments or outright hostility.

Is marrying into a dysfunctional family worth it?

That all depends on you and your partner.

It’s a commitment different from the commitment you’d already make by choosing to marry your partner and there are a lot of factors involved. For example:

  • Does your partner know that their family is dysfunctional? If they don’t, it’s you against them with no backup to support you.
  • How often can you expect to see the family? Has your partner cut off ties or are they still driving each other insane on a regular basis?
  • Have you accepted that these people are going to be in the background of your life forever?

They aren’t the easiest questions to ask, but you have to be honest with yourself and with your partner if you hope to make the best decision possible.

Like I said, it’s a commitment, but it can be worth it if you and your partner love each other enough to get through the black cloud that is their family together.

If you do decide to marry into the family, here are some things you can do to preserve your sanity throughout every tense dinner get-together and invasion of your house.

What you can do

1) Establish firm boundaries

Draw that line in the sand and guard it with your life.

Establishing boundaries might mean an open conversation with the family or pushing through with the plan without telling them if peace talks are out of the question. Either way, you need to stop putting up with the things they want to do.

If talking to them is possible, firmly explain what you will not tolerate, but make sure to keep things neutral; you want to steer clear of anything that might cause an emotional outburst.

To keep things neutral, you need to practice being firm but not being rude.

Being the latter might cause unnecessary friction and aggravate the situation even more. Instead, be patient — especially because they might not be.

2) Avoid messy situations

When there’s a war going on, you don’t walk right into the middle of the crossfire, right?

Practice detachment and don’t participate in any messy situations, especially the ones that don’t directly affect you or your partner.

For example, if a situation starts getting tense when you’re over at their house for the holidays, don’t take the bait; keep calm and collected and you’ll come out of there with (hopefully) no casualties to count.

3) Accept that some people can’t (or won’t) change

How other people behave is out of your control. You can’t will them to turn into better people because if they don’t want to change, they won’t.

Even though it’s hard for you, you have to manage your expectations.

You might want to fix things with them for the sake of everyone involved because you’re still hoping to have a good and healthy relationship with your in-laws but that’s a two-way street and it looks like there’s a traffic jam.

Also learn to accept that it’s not necessarily you; you might think that, with all of their tactics, something’s wrong with you.

This most probably isn’t the case, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t win them over; it comes with the territory of marrying into a dysfunctional family.

4) Know when enough is enough

In some extreme cases, severing ties can be necessary.

Maybe there’s some abuse going on or it starts to take a serious toll and you and your relationship with your partner. Whatever it is, you’ll know when your patience has snapped and you and your partner deserve to stop tolerating their behavior.

It’s going to be tough, especially with how messy it could get when it comes to your partner’s relationship with their family.

They might not want to let go or keep holding out hope that things will change for the better but both of you need to have that tough but necessary option on hand anyway if you want a good long-term solution.

5) Look toward the future

Whether you choose to cut ties or not, the proactive way to stay sane when marrying into a dysfunctional family is to go on with living your lives and nurturing your family.

Sure, your partner’s family can prove to be a distraction sometimes (or…a lot of the time) but for the rest of your time, focus on developing your relationship with your partner.

Something you can do is identify what you don’t want to take from your partner’s family.

What behaviors would you avoid? What values do you want to live out that their family doesn’t?

Use the situation as a learning and growing opportunity to make your relationship stronger; if it’s all the good you can take from all of the mess, the two of you can make it worth it.

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