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Where Do You Draw the Line with Family?

Does family operate on a need-to-know-basis?

A few months ago, Maddie and I were talking on the phone about an AAPW where a couple was debating keeping a secret from their family (yes, this is what we do with our free time). Not long into our discussion, it quickly became obvious that we had two very different ideas about what you are obligated share with family… and what you’re not. (Sidenote: Maddie is on the “mom at the bachelorette” bandwagon.) There’s a lot I’ve been asked to hide in my own family: a house-fire, an open marriage, addiction issues. And when I looked at the comments, I also saw people grappling with this ideas of family boundaries. Particularly: when you marry a person, how much information/energy do you owe your partner’s family? Are they your own family now? And what, exactly, does that mean?

To explore this, I turned to the APW staff (Anonymously, of course—because family can read) for more on how they navigate the privacy versus family issue. One person is on the privacy end of the spectrum:

I think families have the right to know very little, so I draw the line at “whatever I’m comfortable with them knowing.” And that might be different things with different family members or with in-laws. My mom was really good about giving me privacy when I was younger in all sorts of ways and so she taught me to give that to others. I find snooping deeply upsetting on a moral level, and I never do it. (Not even medicine cabinets!) Medical stuff is really big for me as being off-limits—I don’t pry about doctors’ appointments/medications, and I don’t expect others to share those things with me. It helps that my partner’s family doesn’t really… talk about stuff. (In a way that I find sort of bizarre sometimes because they don’t talk about like… details of upcoming trips and stuff like that?) I think they’d like to know more about our lives, but they don’t ask because that is just how they are.

Speaking of medical conditions, that seems to be a hot topic on the “need-to-know” side of things:

I come from a family with chronic medical problems (my pops had a heart attack and triple bypass when he was thirty-five and he’s had three more heart attacks since). But there’s always been this weird secrecy with the whole family around medical stuff! My eighty-eight-year-old grandmother had a mini stroke, drove herself to the hospital, spent the night, came home, and mentioned it casually six months later. And whenever my dad is in the hospital, my mom, my sister, and I are put on communication lockdown because he doesn’t want anyone else to know. I try to be open when I have something going on health-wise (with boundaries) to model appropriate behavior.

Actually, maybe we’re just not a sharing people. My mom and dad were separated for months before they mentioned it to anyone other than my sister and me. I lived with my ex-girlfriend for years before I came out to my family, etc. Which is strange because we all talk to each other a lot. I don’t think anyone has a right to my info but it gets hard if you’re in the habit of hiding things, and then something has to be shared, it gets doubly difficult because you don’t have a framework.

While others are a hundred percent/ in the “whole package deal” camp:

As a general rule, there’s not much that we don’t share with our families, but I’d still say there’s very little that anyone has a “right” to know. If and when we share (and we usually do!) it’s because we’re mutually comfortable sharing, and not because anyone is necessarily entitled to the info.

My partner and I come from very big, very close-knit, very nosy families. It’s not that we feel like we have to share everything with them. We just sort of do, by default. (My family is the sort that makes bets about if you’re pregnant, based on the fact that you’re not having a mimosa at nine in the morning on a holiday.) But that doesn’t mean we are without privacy. We don’t talk about things that aren’t need-to-know. Our moms don’t know about our sex lives, for example, and we probably won’t be calling our sisters up when we decide to try to have a baby. But otherwise I’m of the belief that three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. And when secrets get out (because inevitably they do), it can cause a lot of hurt.

But the flip side of that is that our families are our biggest support group. We don’t live near them, and yet they are still the people we turn to first when we need a shoulder. We recently dealt with some really devastating news, and I was nearly exhausted from all the phone calls we got from family making sure we were okay in the aftermath. And I’m totally happy making that tradeoff, even if it means we have less privacy in our lives.

And finally, one staff member prefers a situation where you slowly build trust over time (and cut them off if they can’t handle it):

My partner and I got married very quickly (three months after we started dating) and the first time our mothers met was… the day we got married. Fun! Our families have never really integrated because we’ve lived across the country from them most of the time. My partner’s mom has always been fairly open with us, but she and my partner have alternated between having an OMG-we-are-BFFs relationship… to having a very formal, almost stand-offish relationship. This has been a challenge for me to navigate because there are few things I love more than spilling intimate details of life over a glass of wine, and it took us a while (a long while) to get there.

I think there is a line—I am not comfortable talking about sex with my mom OR my partner’s mom because OMG, but I will talk about relationship highs and lows, about the nitty gritty of parenting, about my ideas about various topics, and so on. Both sides of our families are really great about everyone realizing that lines are drawn, and the lines are respected. I guess it’s also fair to mention that I have no problem cutting people out completely if they have warranted it, so maybe that’s why people respect my lines? I haven’t spoken to my dad since my son was a year and a half, and I’ve never felt anything other than totally at peace about the decision.

I think it’s ultimately easier not to hide anything. I don’t ask a lot of my family (I don’t think so), but I do ask that I will be accepted as I am, whatever that means. They don’t have to like every decision we make, but I expect them to acknowledge that I am me and this or that works for me/us and that’s okay.

For now, I’m single, so I don’t have to make any decisions (phew) but I know that in the past, I’ve been careful with what I shared. Not out of a sense of privacy, but more because I didn’t want to be judged. I’m totally guilty of sugarcoating parts of my past because I wanted my partner’s family to like me. The moments when I’d break down and share sensitive information were when I knew I couldn’t go at it alone. And to me, support and community is what family’s for, right?

how do you determine what to share with your family or your partner’s family? Do you let your relatives know about hospital visits and financial situations, or is it all fair weather and holiday cards? Does anyone have a right to know personal things about your marriage or your life?

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