Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

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Breaking Free from Your Family of Origin

  • Debra White Smith Author, Marriage Revolution
  • 2008 8 Apr
Breaking Free from Your Family of Origin

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be one flesh. Genesis 2:24 KJV

Passage: Genesis 2:20-25

There can be no cleaving without leaving. A husband and wife cannot fully join to each other until they have severed dependence on their families of origin. While connection with extensive family networks can be a great source of support and encouragement, they were never meant to be a controlling factor in the lives of a married couple.

Many spouses are still as connected or even more connected to their families of origin as they are to their spouses. Clear signs of this are when one or both spouses excessively serve the family of origin and allow the family of origin to crash into their lives whenever and however they choose. There are no boundaries on the family of origin’s impact.

Whether geographically close or not, extended family relationships can be unhealthy to a marriage. This enmeshment may show up as an adult child calling her mom several times a day and depending on her support instead of her spouse. This often means the wife or husband is in second place to the mother. I’ve also encountered situations where sons place their parents before their wives, perhaps insisting that major holidays be spent with them.

According to Dr. David Hawkins,

Families, fellow church members, coworkers, friends, and acquaintances of all types are capable of damaging individuality. Families can be too distant and detached from one another, but they can also be too close. It may be hard to picture too much closeness, but closeness can be stifling. When individuals are too bent on pleasing one another, healthy engagement gives way to unhealthy enmeshment.

  • Each person has to know what the others are doing.
  • No privacy and no appropriate secrets are permitted.
  • Gossip is rampant.
  • People tell one another how to behave and feel.
  • People talk for one another.
  • People tell others how the others are feeling or what they are thinking.
  • One or more family members is overly controlling.
  • The family has a “right” way to do things and no other way is tolerated.

Before I heard the term “enmeshed families,” I had developed my own definition for these behavioral traits: a big wad of tangled snakes writhing together and biting each other. My analogy was based on the realization that such families are tangled in each other’s lives to the point that you can’t tell where one starts and the other stops. And they often live from one “biting” episode to another. Or somebody is not talking to somebody else at any given time. It’s a cycle of twisted, negative behavior.

When extended family units are enmeshed, often individual families are also enmeshed because that’s the way the adults learned to relate. For instance, enmeshment happens in the parent—child relationship when a child is expected to fulfill the family’s choice of career. Enmeshment happens in marriage when the husband and/or wife isn’t allowed to maintain his or her individuality but is expected to mold to the other’s expectations.

Enmeshed families often come together to create enmeshed churches. These churches tend to stifle creativity and stick to rigid traditions that aren’t Christ-based. These groups are more interested in defending their “standards” or traditions than seeking truth and living sacrificial love. They sacrifice individuals for the tradition.

If you can see elements of enmeshment in your family, start drawing healthy boundaries. Put your mate and immediate family first. If need be, explain what’s happening gently. Get caller ID and don’t answer all the calls from excessive callers. Plan a trip away this holiday season. It doesn’t have to be far. Nobody in your extended family will die if you aren’t there, and your own family will be healthier for it.

When two individuals are differentiated and secure in their own identities, they can give themselves to one another and become one flesh as God intended. This means that they have a close and stable relationship with their parents and a loyalty to the system in which they were raised, but now they combine their family backgrounds into a new and distinct system.

Enmeshment is the opposite of individuality. Take the chains of conformity and control off you, your mate, and your kids. Allow yourselves to be who you are and to manifest the strengths God has gifted you with. Allow your children to share their feelings, even if it involves something negative. Support healthy communication and teach grace.

Lord, show me if I’m enmeshed with my family of origin or in my immediate family. Give me the insight, wisdom, and strength to draw the lines I need so I can break from enmeshed traditions. Give me the courage to stand strong when boundaries are ignored or criticized. Give me the grace to be who I am in You and offer others the freedom to be the individuals You crafted in Your image.


Excerpted from Marriage Revolution: Rethinking Your Relationship in Light of God's Design (Harvest House Publishers) by Debra White Smith. © 2008 Debra White Smith. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Debra White Smith has 52 books to her credit and more than a million books in print, including Romancing Your Husband, Romancing Your Wife, and many fiction romances. Debra's award-winning writing, biblical knowledge, and entertaining humor have made her a reader favorite and a sought-after conference speaker.