Managing a Healthy Relationship with Extended Family

Ryan Ginn Uncategorized

As more and more people get vaccinated and begin to feel safe seeing each other again, we are going to find ourselves navigating situations we haven’t had to deal with for a long time: seeing our extended families.

Some of you have probably experienced some relief in this regard over the last few months, having not encountered as many complicated social interactions and events. But now, that is changing. These reunions will be great in many ways, but they come with their challenges, too. So how do you prepare for that, particularly as a couple?

Work with your partner, not against them

My wife and I recently had a wonderful family reunion with my sister, my nieces, my nephews, my brother-in-law, and my mother. It was almost entirely wonderful. As I reflect on it, I realize that a big piece of what made it wonderful for me and my relationship with my wife was that we were on the same page all along. We prepared for it, checked in with each other and our stress levels throughout the reunion, and basically managed this five-day event as a team.

But don’t get me wrong: as you may have experienced in your own lives, this type of teamwork doesn’t always happen. You can suddenly find yourself on a different page than your partner about some issues, and then things can go awry. You really need each other in these situations, because they’re complicated. There’s a lot to figure out, there’s a lot of different interactions that happen all at once, and sometimes you just need a break to check in with each other. A good thing about this type of situation is that it teaches you and your partner how to manage thirds together. 

Learning how to manage thirds

To label someone a third is not meant to be pejorative at all. The purpose of this label is to highlight the fact that your relationship is primary. Everyone else – mother-in-laws, work, nephews, etc. – they are all thirds, people who are situated outside of the primary relationship. It is up to the primary relationship to manage these additional relationships and make sure that they don’t undermine the wellbeing and safety of the primary relationship. If the primary relationship is undermined, then everything starts to fall apart. 

Try it out – this isn’t just some half-cocked theory, it’s actually based on the PACT theory developed by Dr. Stan Tatkin, and it refers to a lot of what we know about the interactive coregulation of primary partners. Partners need to effectively coregulate each other in order for the system, the family, to be high-functioning and stable.

Let’s look at an example. I have a client who has a two year old, and often her mother in law comes to visit. Her mother-in-law has a lot of opinions about how her son and daughter-in-law should parent. At the dinner table, she’ll start talking about how they shouldn’t be breastfeeding the child anymore, because he’s too old. Her son, my client’s husband, doesn’t do anything about this. My client is not in a place where she wants to go over her husband’s head to tell off his mother; rather, she wants her husband to come to her aid and protect her, and she feels thrown under the bus at that moment. So, this is an example of a couple who is not really managing that third element, the mother-in-law, properly, because it’s causing a great deal of stress for my client. So what does it look like to manage that properly? 

Consider this: after the mother-in-law leaves, my client goes to her husband and says, “Hey, I need you to have my back in these situations and stand up to your mother.” Of course, this is a tricky situation. If the couple is on the same page about managing thirds, the husband will say something like, “Got it, sorry about that. I will do that next time”. And then the proof will be in the pudding; we’ll see it next time, when the husband does stand up for his wife and tell his mother that she needs to leave them alone and let them parent the way they want to. 

This is a great example of how a couple can manage a third to ensure that the primary relationship is not undermined. If this is not managed properly, meaning if the mother-in-law is prioritized above the primary relationship, then all hell breaks loose. There will be a great deal of resentment from one party that shows up in different ways. And this is valid. In this scenario, my client should feel like her husband has her back, even though the third party is her husband’s mother. This kind of commitment and prioritization is exactly what they should be doing with and for each other. 

Applying the management of thirds to your own relationship

So what’s the solution to the inappropriate management of thirds, beyond this example of the mother-in-law? It’s being able to have a shared commitment and understanding that that comes first. As a part of the relationship, you have to work to better and better be able to co-manage your thirds. Remember, thirds don’t have to be people – they can be objects, too. A third could be your garden, dog, work, or money; anything that has the potential to take you away from your commitments with your partner. 

Having strong management tactics regarding thirds means neither your or your partner is undermined or feels like something else is competing with your relationship. It’s all about having a sense of safety, with both individuals feeling like they know the relationship always comes first, and that it won’t all of a sudden be thrown under the bus for other things like work or family. 

There is a caveat here – this is all about negotiation. This approach doesn’t mean that you never make compromises on things; compromise is often necessary. For example, good management of thirds can include conversations like, “Sorry honey, but this work thing is incredibly important. I don’t want to do it, and I would much rather be at our anniversary dinner tonight, but if I don’t stay at work I may lose my job”. In that case, you need to help your partner understand that it is in the interests of the relationship to skip the anniversary dinner. You can’t skip out on the commitment until you’ve had this conversation and your partner has agreed with you in some way. Perhaps they say something like, “I don’t like that you’re skipping this, but I get it, and I understand why it’s important. You have to do this and that’s okay.” It’s not about being completely happy with these decisions to allow thirds to interfere, but you have to be on the same page about them. 

Managing thirds is about understanding that, as a part of a relationship, you can’t just assume you get to do whatever you want to do and your partner should just understand. Commitments need to be honoured, and any conversations about these commitments need to be had in your partner’s language, in a way that speaks to their values. Above all else, your approach must communicate to your partner that they are not just important, but primary to you. 

If you’d like help with this, feel free to reach out and book a call.