Welcome to Relationship Helpers! We are in our third week of “How To Support a Spouse…” Each week we are taking a look at a different mental health or relational issue that causes spouses to struggle in their marriage.
We’ve already examined what you can do for a spouse with PTSD and how you can support a spouse with anxiety or OCD. This week we are going to focus on what to do if your spouse comes from a toxic family.
In episode 068, we discuss what to do if you are dating someone whose family is toxic. Be sure to check out that episode as well because we highlight some red flags that are areas of concern.
As marriage therapists, Vincent and Laura often encounter couples who do not know how to deal with their in-laws.
What does “toxic” actually mean?
Toxic is an umbrella term that is used to describe someone who may be codependent or lack boundaries. They may be emotionally abusive or have an addiction.
Signs of a Toxic Relationship
1.) Excessive Communication—If your spouse’s family calls them on a daily basis (with some exceptions), there is a strong likelihood that they are toxic. Parents, siblings, etc. need friendships outside of their relationship with your significant other. They may be getting the emotional support they need from your spouse rather than friends.
2.) Emotional Abuse—Does your spouse’s parents put him down?
3.) Enabling—Does your spouses’s parents make life too easy for him? Do they prevent your spouse from being responsible for themselves? If so, they are sending the message that your spouse is incapable of providing for himself.
4.) Conditional love—Does your spouse only feel loved when they perform a certain way for his parents? Does your spouse’s parents only seem happy when they are getting something from your spouse?
5.) Too Needy—Do the parents/siblings have to be bailed out by your spouse?
6.) Alcoholism/Substance Abuse/Other Addictions—Finances are a common point of contention in marriage. Does your spouse have a family member who asks for money? Is your spouse bank-rolling a family member’s addiction? Addictions take all shapes and sizes from workaholism to gaming to gambling to shopping.
7.) Anger Management Issues—Does your spouse have a family member that rages? Or does he come from a family that does not have productive conflict?
8.) Excessive Guilt—Find yourselves being sent on guilt trips by his family?
5 Things You Can Do To Help Your Spouse That Comes From a Toxic Family
1.) Give a Gentle Observations
When you talk about your spouse’s family, avoid saying harsh “you” statements. Don’t be accusatory. Your spouse has decades of experience with their family and may be sensitive to your comments. They could be enmeshed in the toxicity.
They may be in a lot of denial. You will have to gently navigate them through it. Use “I” statements such as “I’ve noticed that…”
Proceed with your observations with caution, as we are more likely to see failings of others rather than our own. In other words, we may see problems in our spouse’s family before we see problems in our own. Much like what Jesus was saying about the speck and the log in Matthew 7: 3-5.
2.) Discuss Healthy Boundaries
Once you have made the gentle observations, its time to figure out what you’re going to do to about it. This means creating boundaries for yourself, for each individual, and for your marriage. If you have children, you are going to want boundaries that protect them from inappropriate behavior.
One boundary may be how often you visit with family or if you even visit them at all. A question to consider may be where should you visit them. Would neutral territory, such as a restaurant or a park be a safer choice?
For the family where alcoholism is an issue, it may be healthier to meet away from the family home so that the alcoholic does not have easy access to alcohol. This may mean going to a park. Alcoholics often have built in defenses where they hide their alcohol at home.
When a spouse has needy parents, meeting them away from their home can shift the power differential, leaving them less likely to be able to guilt you about something that needs to be done at their home.
If you feel a guilt trip coming on while at their parent’s home, it may be helpful to postpone their requests by saying “We need to leave now, we can come back at _______ time to do __________.” This way you are not dismissing them, but you are also not giving into their demands immediately.
3.) Discussing Healthy Ways of Communicating the Boundaries and Follow-Through
Once you’ve figured out what boundaries you’d like to have, it’s important to talk about how you will communicate your boundaries. Your talk with your spouse could sound like, “Maybe if we talk this way, if we say this thing, it would be helpful in these situations.”
It’s important to talk these things out—don’t assume you know exactly what your spouse wants. In the case of over-communication between family and spouse, it will be important to protect your marriage.
Some people think that telling their family everything is good, but it actually is NOT. If your spouse’s family wants to talk about your sex life or about your shortcomings, it only serves to blur the lines in your relationship and is not healthy.
Now that you’ve thought about boundaries and talked them over with your spouse, it’s time to figure out the consequences of someone over-stepping a boundary. Remember, being assertive is a process. It’s not just laying out the boundaries once, and expecting conflict to be over. It is communicating the boundary over time and following through with the consequences of not heeding it. It’s an ongoing process.
Guilt Trip Example
Handling guilt trips could sound like this, “Mom, I appreciate that you want to spend time with me, and I enjoy our time together, however, when you continually say that I never come to see you, or lay guilt trips on me, it’s harmful to our relationship.”
“Next time that you do that, I’m going to mention that it is harmful to our relationship. I know you want us to have a healthy relationship, as well. I feel that’s the best way to address it. I want us to have a good time together.” (Learn more about handling guilt trips here—“How to Navigate a Guilt Trip.”)
Aggressive Parent Example
When you speak this way, you are aligning with the other person and they are more likely to receive what you are saying well. If you are in a situation where you have a parent who rages, you could say, “Dad, I appreciate it that you have concern for us, however, it is unhealthy and it angers me when you get loud, or start putting me down. Next time that you yell or get aggressive, I’m going to hang up because I don’t want this pattern to continue.”
“I want us to have a healthy relationship. I want you to know that just because I hang up the phone or walk away, it does not meant I’m walking away from our relationship. I’m doing this because I love you and want to have a good relationship with you. I feel like that’s what you want as well.”
4.) Allow Your Spouse to Take the Lead In Asserting Boundaries, When Possible
It is healthy for you to set the boundaries with your family and your spouse to set the boundaries with their family.
You may have to gently encourage your spouse to assert the boundaries. Help them see what they want.
If you’re so different from their family of origin, you may add some different perspective that helps them see that not everyone’s family operates the way yours does, and that’s not a bad thing. They may see that things don’t have to be the way they were.
5.) Encourage Them to Have Healthy Friendships
Having healthy friendships will allow your spouse to look at their family from a fresh, healthy perspective. More than likely they will see the difference in how their family operates versus a healthy family.
They may see that the way their family does things is not the only way.