Cutting the Apron Strings

Dr. Dan Allender, a marriage and family counseling psychologist, says that in his experience, 90% of couples he sees can trace their marital discord back to a failure to leave the influence of their parents, or a failure to cut the apron strings. Although adult children may think they are independent of mom and dad, their partner may see that they are still depending on their parents in one or more of three ways: in decision making, emotionally, and as a referee in conflict. A marriage only works when it is between two people, no strings attached. There are some things you can do to help yourself and your spouse cut the apron strings and still remain in a respectful and loving relationship with both sets of parents.

The first thing you and your spouse can do is lay some ground rules about communication with mom and dad. Being in the right state of mind to have a discussion about cutting the apron strings is important. You don't want to come across as attacking your spouse or visa versa and it is much easier to be level headed when you aren't tired or hungry. Ground rules should include:

  • If you've had a fight with your spouse, don't talk to your parents about it. Mom and dad's first inclination is to protect, and they probably can't see your marriage objectively. If you talk to them about your spouse's shortcomings, the only thing your parents will get out of it is how wrong your spouse is for you. Don't give them that idea. Your marriage needs to be strong and can't be if one spouse appears to be weak in the family's eyes.
  • Decide from the outset that you will be making your own decisions as a couple. Some parents may give unsolicited advice, but you and your spouse can navigate those waters if you've already made the decision to make your own decisions. If your spouse asks for advice from his or her parents more than you are comfortable with, or about subjects you are not comfortable with, let them know diplomatically. You can still ask advice from one set of parents or another if you are asking as a couple and have decided as a couple that you would like some help, but be careful of the slippery slope and keep the decisions within your marriage. Don't let your parents decide for you or have too much influence in your decisions.
  • If your spouse is getting their emotional needs fulfilled by their parents, it may turn into a big problem. Having your emotional needs filled by your parents is like having an affair. It can wreck marriages. The key is to respect your spouse. If you are maintaining an overly close relationship with your parents, like calling your mom every day and talking for a couple of hours, then it is time to limit your contact with them. Your parents shouldn't feel cut off, but only through long conversations with your spouse can you establish the emotional intimacy requisite for a healthy marriage.

After the ground rules are laid, there are some other things you can do if the problem of apron stings persists. You can move away, which limits contact and influence. If the problem gets really bad, you can speak to a therapist who will take an objective view of your marriage and help you find the roots of your problems. If you can sit down and express your feelings openly with your spouse, you may find that the apron strings may have already been cut in everything but your mind.

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