“Have you decided how you’ll spend the holidays once you’re married?” I asked our engaged friends, Jack and Erin.
An amused smile crept across Jack’s face. One that communicated he was far more eager than I was for an answer to that question.
With less than a month until their wedding, this wasn’t the first time the issue of how and where to spend holidays had come up. I knew it was an ongoing discussion between them and that it stemmed from the different ways their families approached celebrations.
While Erin came from a large, extended family that observed everything together — from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July —with multiple events, Jack was accustomed to smaller, more intimate gatherings of only immediate family. As their “I do’s” grew closer, they still weren’t sure what the middle ground between her love of big celebrations and his love of small should be when they married. How would they divide their time? And was she even willing to miss out on some of her family’s scheduled activities?
Turning to Erin, Jack playfully inquired, “Have we?” She only shrugged and laughed nervously.
I decided to throw an idea out to them. “What if you started some new traditions together? After all, you are creating a new family.”
Jack eagerly nodded. Erin, though, seemed a bit perplexed. Not by the idea of new traditions, but by this concept that a husband and wife could equal a family.
It was this concept that I knew wouldn’t just affect how Jack and Erin chose to spend future holidays, but would be vital in helping them realign their relational loyalties and priorities as newlyweds.
How did I know this? I had learned from my own experience. It was a lesson my husband, Ted, and I hadn’t even started to learn until a year or two into our marriage.
“Immediate” vs. “Extended”
Ted and I married when I was in my 20s and he was in his mid-30s. In many ways, Ted was strongly independent. He owned his own condo and had traveled all over the world for business. When it came to physical distance between Ted and his parents, there were at least 1,000 miles separating them. I’d also heard Ted tell real-life tales of more than one Thanksgiving or Christmas in which he chose to spend the holiday at his home rather than going through the effort to attend a family gathering. To me, that kind of choice screamed independent.
So let’s just say that I was shocked when after we married he began to display a fierce loyalty to his parents by consistently catering to their interests over mine. I didn’t see it coming.
In fact, if you had asked me to predict premarriage which one of us was more likely to struggle with the “leave and cleave” message of Genesis 2, I would have assumed it would be me. I came from the more tightly knit family. While Ted only chatted with his parents a few times a month, I talked to mine several times a week. Additionally, I’d lived with my parents all through my undergrad years, and I’d only moved out on my own a couple years earlier to attend grad school. Ted, on the other hand, had been living independently for over a decade. He’d even resided in Mexico for nine months and spent another three in Colombia.
Yet there I was, taking a backseat whenever my desires clashed with what Ted assumed his parents would prefer.
To complicate matters further, it wasn’t just one set of parents in Ted’s life. His mom and dad had divorced when he was in middle school and both had remarried. As a result, I found myself competing with not two, but four parental figures for a spot on my new husband’s priority list.
At the time, I was unsure of what the root of our marital issue was. I just felt hurt and frustrated. A dozen years later, though, I realize that it went back to this: Ted and I (to some extent with my own parents) had failed to make an important shift in our thinking after we were married.
What exactly was the missing shift?
We hadn’t mentally and emotionally moved our parents from “immediate family” to “extended family” and filled that vacant “immediate family” slot with each other.
I want you to pause for a moment. Now scroll back up a bit and read that last sentence one more time. Let it sink in. I’ll wait.
All right, let’s continue.
From our young married perspective, sure, we were a married couple, but we didn’t necessarily feel like we constituted an independent, on-our-own family. No, we assumed that the shift would take place once we had kids of our own. And, it was our failure to make this change that affected how our loyalties and priorities were aligned. Hence, Ted’s consistent catering to his parents’ interests over mine.
I’m confident we aren’t the only couple to ever struggle with this concept of “You + Me = Family.” Perhaps if back when we were single we had realized that marriage, not babies, births a new family, we would have been better prepared to make the necessary adjustments in our young married life.
What Equals a Family?
What about you? If I were to ask you what equals a family, what would you say?
For many of us, our cultural and lexical understanding of the word family tends to be summed up well by Dictionary.com’s definition of the word. This online source describes a family as “a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children.” While families come in all different shapes and sizes in our society, there’s one common factor among them all. That’s right: children.
Right? Well …
Kids are an important part of the family as God designed it. In fact, in those early chapters of Genesis, we read as God himself instructs Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). But Scripture also gives us an early picture of the family that present-day society does not. One that shows a family’s true beginning — a beginning that is foundational to how we think about the relationship between a husband and a wife.
In Genesis 2, we’re introduced in more detail to the first couple. And what’s interesting to me is that Adam and Eve didn’t come to that garden altar with any familial relationships.
That’s right. No moms. No dads. No sisters and brothers or even second cousins once removed. Their relational priorities and loyalties were clear. God came first. Each other, second. The lions and tigers and bears … among other creatures … came third. Well, at least until baby Cain made his appearance. After that, pets moved further down the list.
I don’t know about you, but this shows me that when God decided to create the first family, its earliest beginnings consisted of a husband and a wife. Just a husband and a wife. They weren’t simply the building blocks for what would one day become a family; they were a family in their own right. They were the first family. I believe this is important. It offers us permission, encouragement even, to view those wedding-day vows as not just the covenantal binding of a man and a woman, but as the creation of a brand new family.
Now It’s Your Turn
But a lot has changed since Adam and Eve first met.
Today, things aren’t as simple. As I mentioned, when Ted and I married, we each brought a tree full of familial relationships to our union. We already had relational priorities and loyalties well in place. Ted to his parents and siblings; me to mine. It wasn’t easy to simply reorder those overnight. It took time. And then we only changed after we realized that we needed to restructure our allegiances.
So how can you start out better than we did? How can you prepare now, even if you aren’t in a relationship, for the shift that will need to take place should you marry?
You can start by realizing in advance that when you marry you will need to move your parents from “immediate family” to “extended family,” and by being ready to do it. When we adjust our thinking to include “married couple = family,” it serves as a catalyst to help us make that all-important shift when the time comes.
Having a successful marriage requires that we re-evaluate our dependencies early on. As a single adult, you may very well be independent from your parents in most ways. However, you may still look to your parents for emotional support, practical advice and perhaps, like Ted, you cater to their interests. Getting married doesn’t mean you can’t still turn to your parents for love, wisdom and friendship, or that you can’t be sensitive to their desires. What it does mean, though, is that you need to consider your spouse before you consider your parents.
“You + Me = Family” was a lesson that took Ted and me some time to learn. OK, it took us years to learn. I’m hoping it won’t take as long for Jack and Erin — or for you.
Copyright Ashleigh Slater 2015. All rights reserved.