Rachel called into the radio show co-host with a problem. "It’s my mother-in-law," she said. "She is critical of me, no matter what I do. She doesn’t like my cooking, or the way I clean house, or how I take care of my husband, Don. I try and try to please her, but she always has something negative to say."

I asked, "Have you talked to her about this?"

"Yes, I have," she said. "I told her that I want to be a good daughter-in-law, but sometimes she is too hard on me."

"What did she say?"

Rachel sighed. "She said she was only trying to help and that I was hurting her feelings with this conversation."

"Your situation sounds difficult," I said. "But let’s talk about the invisible third player in this conflict. What does Don do?"

"Well, he says I’m overreacting and that I should get over it."

Common negative influences

That got my attention. The third player could do a lot better! Don had failed to set boundaries on his mom’s interference in their marriage, and as a result, his wife was miserable. Unfortunately, this situation is common for young couples. I’ve counselled many new husbands and wives who haven’t set boundaries to protect their marriage from negative influences, such as:

  • parents who are too involved
  • siblings interfering in the relationship
  • friends who hang around too much
  • former boyfriends or girlfriends who are still in a couple’s social circle

What boundaries you need

The early years of marriage can be a somewhat fragile period. An "open-border policy" with anyone or anything can strain love, safety, trust and intimacy. You need to stick to the principle of "marriage should be honoured by all" (Hebrews 13:4) and develop healthy boundaries.

Repeat your commitment. First, spend some time in prayer, asking God to bless your union. Then look into each other’s eyes and say your vows. And don’t forget the words forsaking all others. Bring that "forsaking" into your emotional and relational life.

Make some healthy connections. You need regular (weekly at least) contact with others who display faith, grace and acceptance – and who are not your family members. That may be a small group in your church or an older couple who is willing to mentor you. Connecting with good people will help you deal with the ones who aren’t so healthy.

Set kind boundaries. Some people hang around too much and aren’t aware their presence might be an unwelcome intrusion – the mom who drops by unannounced or the old friend who always wants to come over. Tell them, "I love having you with us, but we are concentrating more on our marriage these days. Can we make appointments ahead of time to get together?" Most people will understand and respect that parameter.

Guard against toxic people. Some relationships need to be more limited. This would include a chronically intrusive and judgmental relative or an addict who acts out when he is around you.

In these situations, be straightforward and say, "I’m sorry. We are finding that our marriage is negatively affected by our involvement with you. We wish we didn’t need to say this, but we have to see you less. If things change (e.g., you agree to respect our limits, you become more supportive, you stop using drugs around us), we’d like to think about spending more time with you. For now, it’s not a good idea."

This response is reserved for severely toxic people who refuse to respect your marriage. It may sound mean, but when couples take this tough stance, the toxic person will often make the necessary changes to stay in the relationship.

You and your spouse have started a new life together. Now is the time to set boundaries and protect the vows you made to one another. As you limit the negative influences in your marriage, you’ll find that your love has more room to grow.

Dr. John Townsend is a clinical psychologist, the author of numerous books, and the co-founder of Cloud-Townsend Resources. He lives in Southern California.

© 2009 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox

View comments ()