“We love his parents, but they have a way of creating chaos between the two of us that has gotten to the point that we are seriously considering divorce,” says Karen.
“I see this scenario in my office frequently,” says psychologist Dr. Susan Hickman. “In most instances, the parents of the now adult child didn’t have good boundaries when they were raising their child. Now that their child is grown and has a family of their own, the parents believe they have the right to be involved at this same level with their grandchildren and the parents.”
Think helicopter parents who seek to control all aspects of their child’s life. Now fast forward to what this looks like when their child marries and attempts to raise children in a healthy environment.
“I’m watching what his parents are doing, thinking this is insane,” Karen says. “They have a key to our home and will show up unannounced, which I think is rude. They talk about me to my husband and seem to constantly be trying to pit us against each other. When I tried to talk with my husband about this, he became angry and felt like I was dishonoring his parents.”
“Being raised in this type of environment is like being emotionally blackmailed,” Hickman says. “The terror you felt as a child who is vulnerable to the parent stays the same over time. As an adult, when you're dealing with your parents you still feel that same terror you felt when you were 4. This is why so many young adults have difficulty breaking free. Only by violating these assumptions can this unhealthy chain be broken.”
Karen and Bob are struggling with next steps. However, many young adults actually recognize the problem and seek help, which can create even more friction between the couple and parents. And, boundaries and limits often anger parents. Then they can become even more difficult.
“As adults start breaking free from this toxic family dynamic they should expect resistance from the parents,” Hickman says. “In the process of creating a new dynamic you will probably experience pressure to get back in line. This is a sign that you are moving in the right direction.”
Here are Hickman's suggestions for breaking free:
Set boundaries and stick with them – Your marriage and family are your first priority.
Be patient – Things will not change overnight.
Learn to disengage – Don’t participate in manipulative behavior. This is not as much about you as you might think.
If your parents choose not to have a relationship with you because of the boundaries set, that is their choice. Don’t feel guilty about it.
Don’t be afraid to seek help – An objective party who can encourage you and help you keep perspective.
“Many couples have successfully walked this road and eventually developed a healthy relationship with parents,” Hickman says. “Don’t give up!”