The meat in the sandwich

Meat in the sandwich
Picture of Derek Boylen

Derek Boylen

Relationship Counsellor, Educator, Researcher and Director at the Centre for Life, Marriage and Family

Interfering family members is an age-old problem and is an area that couples struggle with in their relationships. It's a real challenge, particularly for couples in the early years of their relationship.

They struggle to work out the right balance because they care and love their families. They also care and love the person that they’re in a relationship with. It could be the longest existing problem in couple relationships’ history.

There is this beautiful phrase in the bible. In the book of Genesis, it says, “for this reason, a man will leave his mother and father and joined with his wife and the two shall become one body.”

Generally, family members meddle because of personality differences. Families also come with different ‘norms’ and ways of doing things, such as how they manage their money, leisure time and time off and how they express affection, like hugs, cuddles, kisses.

It must be said that change is often difficult.  And marrying into a different culture, whether it’s heritage or religion can be both a blessing and a curse.

Approaching differences from a perspective of openness and curiosity to learn new ways can be a real blessing in family life. However, it becomes very difficult when families become gridlocked into believing their way is the best way. Finding a way forward can therefore be problematic.

There are also financial reasons, such as who’s going to end up with the money and investments. There can be difficulties around power of attorney for older couples who are marrying or forming a new relationship. Who is going to make the decisions?

Traditions and cultural things of value can be a reason why families interfere. For example, how a family celebrates Christmas and other culturally important occasions. Sometimes it’s due to loneliness. For single parent families and the children who find someone they love and start a new relationship.

There are things that stand out that are helpful for couples to keep in mind. When we’re stuck in a situation where a partner or spouse sees something one way and the extended family has another view, it can make you feel like you are the meat in the sandwich. You are trying to make everyone happy but not succeeding in making anybody happy. 

Step one is to realise there is no sandwich. You have chosen your partner and if you’re married you stood at an altar and you said, “I choose to put you before all other people.”

That doesn’t mean you don’t care about your family but ultimately when it comes to a difficult decision, you prioritise your partner and his/her needs. You don’t have to make financial or parenting decisions with anyone else. It is up to you and the person you are in this relationship with.

The second thing for couples to remember is to take responsibility for their own family and negotiate with their own extended family. They obviously have a much deeper history with their own family than they do with their partner’s family.

For example, take the grandparent who loves to give his grandchildren lollies. That in itself is not a problem but it may be an issue if it occurs just before dinner. In this situation, it is much easier for the son or daughter to say to their (respective) parent not to give the children lollies before dinner because they have a better understanding of their own family. It is easier to negotiate on behalf of the couple because they probably know the best way to get what they want from their family.

It is also very important for couples to develop ‘we’ language. When we use the word ‘we’ it puts us in a position to ask our spouse when we are dealing with other family members. For example, my mum says, “Why don’t you, Karen and the kids come over on Saturday?”

Now I could say, “Look, I’ll check with Karen and get back to you.” The problem with that is that without meaning to, it can sound like ‘Derek wants to come for morning tea, but Karen’s the one who always holds him back’.

It’s much safer for me to say, “I’m not sure what we are doing Saturday, so we’ll get back to you.” Then it’s not me or Karen, it’s us. ‘We’ as a couple make these decisions together.

This is an edited summary of a Figuring out Families podcast titled Dealing with Difficult Family Members with marriage counsellor Derek Boylen. The podcast can be accessed at:

The booklet, Domestic Abuse in the Church Communities is available from the Majellan Bookshop for $12.95, postage included.

Share this article