East Meets West Couples Counselling 4/5: Extended Family
Extended families may influence a couple’s relationship in both negative and positive ways. Dr Kathrine Bejanyan is a relationship therapist with a PhD in Social Psychology. In the penultimate part of her blog series about couples counselling, she looks at how family structures, ties and expectations differ between Western individualist and Eastern collectivist cultures.
Living in extended family networks is common practice after marriage for many from an Eastern, collectivistic cultural background. The family structure – almost always patrilineal – commonly includes three generations, consisting of children, the marital couple, and grandparents. This set up protects the cohesion of the family system against separation or outside influences and ensures collective welfare.
When Janet came to therapy with me it was not because of a deteriorating relationship with her husband, but with her sister-in-laws. Janet had actually been friends with the girls before meeting her husband and, in fact, it was they who had made the introduction to their brother. After getting married and moving in with the family, the dynamics had changed between her and the sisters. They had now become bossy and authoritarian, meddling in her relationship with her husband. Janet felt their friendship had been lost.
Understanding the extended family network
Hierarchy: Within the family there is generally a hierarchical system with significant decisions usually made by the males or by the oldest female member – the mother-in-law.
Extended family relationships: In contrast to the nuclear family model in which the marital dyad is considered the core relationship, in extended family networks there are multiple intergenerational relationships, such as the relationship between the wife and mother-in-law or the married son and his father.
Relationship between the couple: Families may actually discourage too intimate and strong a bond between a young married couple. If the couple become too secure in their relationship – developing a strong connection between themselves – they can potentially pose a threat to the hierarchical system of authority within the family structure. They might seek to live on their own or make their own decisions without deferring or consulting older family members.
Destabilisation: A new bride is a cause for excitement and celebration, but she can also pose a threat to the family system – she may disrupt the son’s relationship with his parents and displace his primary loyalty, duties, and obligations. This can create tension between mother and daughter-in-law or wife and husband.
Commitment: Eastern, collectivistic cultures are more strongly oriented towards family commitments and kin relationships compared to their Western, individualistic counterparts. Therapists also need to understand the distinction between personal versus moral commitment in a relationship. In personal commitment, our clients want to remain in the relationship based on personal desires. In moral commitment, they stay in the relationship out of a sense of obligation or responsibility. A big source of this sense of moral commitment can be the accountability clients feel towards close others, such as family.
Navigating extended family structures in therapy
A key issue to keep in mind, when working with couples from collectivistic backgrounds who live in extended family networks, is that marital ties are not exclusive to the couple in the relationship. I’ve found that this extended family involvement can be both beneficial and disruptive to the couple’s relationship.
On the one hand, the couple may feel intruded upon and lack privacy, experiencing difficulty in building intimacy within their relationship. Their attempts at spending more time alone together may be met with intrusion and disapproval, aggravating family relations between the couple and in-laws.
On the other hand, relationships with other members of the family may also help to stabilise the couple’s bond with one another. For instance, the relationship between a daughter and mother in-law may help to compensate for the intimacy needs that couples in Western marriages may expect to fulfil exclusively through their romantic partner.
My work with Janet extended to several joint sessions with her and her husband. Janet alone could not thwart her sisters-in-laws’ invasiveness. Janet’s husband could see the toll this issue was taking on his marriage. He agreed to have a talk with his sisters and together they came up with a strategy to set stronger boundaries around their relationship.