Generational Transitions in Marriage

Learning from Jacob and Laban

Having children and generational shifts

During marriage generational transitions take place, particularly after having children. The adult daughter becomes the mother and the mother becomes the grandmother when a new generation is born. This can be a wonderful time, with the introduction of new roles and support that can bring much joy.

However, generational transitions can also bring challenges. Married couples and young parents these days have many more opportunities, different choices and different ways of parenting open to them. A mother may choose a different lifestyle pattern to her mother or mother-in-law. She may work full-time either in the world of work or at home in her role as mum. She may work part-time or be a ‘mumpreneur’. She’s able to custom tailor her life as a mother and wife, in ways that her own mother wasn’t able to.

Mother-Daughter Puzzle

Rosjke Hasseldine who writes about the ‘Mother-Daughter Puzzle’[1]points out that mothers can end up feeling jealous of their daughters, although it is hard for the mother and the daughter to recognise this emotion because society teaches us that it’s shameful and not acceptable. She tells us:

I also find that most mothers are unaware they’re feeling jealous of their daughter. They hide it away beneath being critical of their daughter’s beliefs, behaviours, and choices, or by being emotionally unavailable.

— p.15

The sense of jealousy typically stems from a feeling of loss and if this can be recognised, it can depersonalise the situation for the daughter and the behaviour can be perceived in a new light.  If the mother is able to recognise the potential feelings of loss, then this too can help a closer connection to develop.

Criticism and loss

Of course, criticism over one’s parenting, whether silent or spoken out-loud can be difficult. Whether this comes from one’s in-laws or own parents. It can be helpful to depersonalise the situation and be aware that this criticism may unconsciously come from a place of loss about the opportunities that they themselves didn’t have as parents a generation earlier. Sometimes we all wish to have a chance to ‘do things over again’ — when parents instruct their adult children on how to parent, this may be part of the unconscious desire. The advice may also not be meant as criticism, but the instruction may be part of a ‘cohort effect’ from the era when they raised children and the different standards that were prioritised by their generation.

Differentiated stance across the generations

It’s helpful to think about being differentiated with our parents when it comes to our own choices for parenting. It may be important to acknowledge their very different views, whilst upholding the boundary around what is important for your own parenting. When attempting to be differentiated we strive to maintain a close connection, but at the same time we make the effort to express our views. If we encounter any conflict when we do this, it’s good to self-soothe. We can tell ourselves ‘It’s okay, they’re entitled to their different views. I’m not responsible for their reactions, but I am responsible for sharing my own opinions in a kind, open way, so that I can have authentic interactions with those I’m close to.’

When we’re not differentiated, when we’re merged, we don’t want to tolerate any anxiety that comes from sharing our views. Instead, we’re willing to tolerate and get used to the pain of staying stuck. We resign ourselves to being in the same uncomfortable situation with our in-laws or parents because we don’t want to ’rock the boat’.

Family ties: Jacob and Laban

In the Bible we have Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law Laban as a helpful example to think further about boundaries and communication within the wider family network [2]. Jacob had difficulty in creating and maintaining boundaries with Laban. Jacob worked hard for his father-in-law, but there was a lack of reciprocal giving. Whilst Jacob honoured Laban by continuing to work hard, he reached a point of needing a greater degree of separation from his father-in-law in order for his own family to move forward.

God saw what was happening between Laban and Jacob and told Jacob to leave. God encouraged Jacob to make the bold decision to break away. Sometimes with our parents and in-laws, in order to thrive we may need to establish clear boundaries. And whilst honouring the generations of our family, we may also need some healthy degree of separation and space for our own family life.

Generational blessings

Our parents and in-laws are there for a form of support and they’re a valuable part of the wider family system. It’s important to try and respect one another’s boundaries and preferences in the new generational alignment that we find ourselves in. We’re reminded in Psalm 127: 3 that ‘Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from him’ and a blessing. A blessing that can reach up and down the generations. God help us to communicate well across the different generations, help us to be loving and kind as we negotiate new roles and new boundaries.

[1] Hasseldine, R. (2017). The Mother-Daughter Puzzle: A New Generational Understanding of the Mother-Daughter Relationship. Durham: Women’s Bookshelf Publishing.

[2]  Genesis 31 Jacob flees from Laban.

Read More

Read the previous article: Couple Fit & Having Children

Read the next article: Finding a Space for Loss

Read about about the book: In Bed with Adam and Eve – Your Guide to a Healthy Marriage

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