Handling family conflict within marriage

Setting boundaries, clear communication and getting closure are essential ways to avoid and resolve conflict, writes Wendy Grace

When I was preparing for marriage we attended an excellent marriage preparation course. Interestingly one of the topics we studied was focused on family history.

This was something that I didn’t expect to think about or even talk about. Once we did, I realised how important it is to understand the differences of how you and your future spouse were raised. This is not to attack but to discover why you are who you are and also to discuss how you will raise your own children and plan your future lives together. Understanding the differences in your respective family is essential for any future conflicts that may arise.

It is important to remember that every family is flawed. There is a temptation to only notice the flaws of your spouse’s family. There are many different kinds of families just as there are many different kinds of people, but one thing that every family has in common is that they all have flaws.

Nobody grows up with perfect parents or siblings. This is a reminder that we need God to be at the centre of our family relationships. God can give us the grace to respond with love and wisdom during times of conflict.

Conflict in our familial relationships is inevitable. When managed the right way conflict can serve as a catalyst for change and be an opportunity for spiritual growth and growth of your relationship. It can get a little more complicated when you are married and you have a new family to build a relationship with.


Both sets of parents can be a fantastic blessing to a couple – they can offer their own love, support and wisdom from their own life experience. However once you are married you are now your own family. The experience of your parents is important but ultimately you, as a new family unit, must make your own decisions.

Conflicts with the in-laws is not a new phenomenon. Mostly conflicts tend to be issues that revolve around the couple as a whole rather than as individuals and the decisions you chose to take as a couple.

The first steps to finding the solution is identifying the problem. For many couples when they first marry there is naturally a huge change in both their lives. But there is also a change for both sets of parents. This shift in roles and responsibilities can cause subconscious tension. Oftentimes this is caused by parents unintentionally overstepping the boundaries.

To avoid this from happening early on in your relationship you need to make it very clear that your parent’s advice and support is always welcome but ultimately you make your decisions as a family. Some parents cross the line of their own responsibility and they become too involved.

Much of the time this can be unintentional. While the parents may feel they are acting with love and support the couple might feel smothered and controlled. This overstepping the boundaries could be on any number of decisions you will make as a couple from where you will live to where your children will go to school.

In this situation it is important to set boundaries. Appropriate boundaries enable you to set limits while still loving the other person. When you are setting

 your boundaries be very clear and ask that they are respected.

Another common issue is that of favouritism. Parents of course have a deep bond with their children. This is totally natural. Even when a child’s spouse is welcomed into the family. Still the parent’s naturally have a preference for their own child. This can sometimes cause problems where the in-laws show more interest in their own child’s life and no interest in that of the spouse.

This is where the couple must be aligned in their decision making otherwise there can be a danger that when conflict arises from this issue that the spouse may side with their parents leaving their other half stuck in the middle.

When any type of conflict arises dealing with it through proper communication can allow a relationship to grow. It is important to communicate first with your spouse as to how you will handle the situation. Then you can move on to communicate with your parents. You must be united in your decision.

When conflict arises it is first important to cool off. You will not be able to resolve conflict in the face of heated emotions. First take a step back and gain some emotional distance before you try to solve the conflict.

This means you give yourself the opportunity to think through your response rather than just to react. Only then can you make a plan for a resolution. If conflict is left unresolved it can erode a strong foundation causing animosity, distance and anger.

Unresolved anger

Handling unresolved anger involves being able to have a commitment to an open, frank and honest discussion. It is important that you are able to listen and respond gently.

Without resolution the trust on both sides will be compromised and it may be affected in the future. For example if your mother-in-law criticised your cooking you may think of this every time she visits. This could have an effect on others around you if you are tense. Even if both parties move on and stay polite, feelings of pain or mistrust are usually lingering under the surface, the longer this goes on the more difficult it will become to resolve. If you avoid the issue whatever it is, feelings of resentment can brew and feelings from the past can affect feelings in the present.

Of course the next family gathering is not the time to resolve past conflicts. The gift of our faith is that God gives us the grace to be able to forgive even in difficult situations.

Prior to sitting down to communicate make sure you have fully thought through the points you wish to make. It is very helpful writing down your thoughts for clarity and so you can communicate effectively.

It is very useful to start your response from the “I” point of view, using phrases like “I felt”. In contrast to starting from “you”, which automatically puts the other person on the defensive and may close the door to any meaningful communication.


Using the first person will avoid put-downs and place the communication in a space where it is “us” against the problem rather than against each other.

You must listen rather than just focus on your own point of view. In the majority of conflicts both parties have to take some degree of responsibility. Rather than playing the blame game it is good to look at our own role in the problem.

When we take responsibility we shift the conflict into an area where resolution is more possible. You must come up with a solution which satisfies both people, and a compromise that both you and your spouse are happy with.

At the end of your discussion you need to give closure to the conflict – a handshake, a hug or kind words. Leaving with forgiveness is the best form of closure.

Without forgiveness the corrosion of bitterness can set in.

Forgiveness gives both parties the freedom to be at peace with themselves and with each other.


Tips for dealing with conflict

*When conflict arises it is first important to cool off and gain some emotional distance.

*When any type of conflict arises dealing with it through proper communication can allow a relationship to grow.

*Prior to sitting down to communicate make sure you have fully thought through the points you wish to make.

*You must listen rather than just focus on your own point of view.

*At the end of your discussion you need to give closure to the conflict – a handshake, a hug or kind words.