In the US, living with extended family is increasing. 31% of children in the US now live with at least one additional adult in the house, as well as their parents- normally a family member. 10% live with one or both grandparents in the house[i].
Let’s take a look at some of the benefits and challenges this brings to marriage and how to make the most of it if you do have family living with you.
Living with extended family is becoming more common in the USA, probably in Canada as well, but in other cultures this has been the norm for a long time.
Families from China, India, and most of southern Europe frequently live in multi-generational households[ii]. Families from these cultures living in America are also more likely to have more of the extended family living in the home with them.
Additionally, economically disadvantaged families are more likely to live in extended family households: for example if a young couple can’t afford their own house they may remain with parents. Just remember that sometimes “economically disadvantaged” in this context can also mean people who are doing just fine financially but they live in very, very expensive cities.
So what are the upsides and downsides of living with family or having family live with you?
Financial Benefits or Consequences of Living With Family
The issue typically is based on practical matters. Living with extended family can have either positive or negative consequences for the amount of resources available to the couple. On the one hand, couples can benefit from having extra income coming into the house from other people’s jobs or pensions, which can reduce financial strain and increase quality of life.
A research study from 2011[iii] found that having extended family living in the same household can help couples better manage financial difficulties, especially in more economically deprived families. Having grandparents or other family members around can also provide other resources such as childcare, practical help around the house and emotional support. Many couples living with their parents find that having mum and dad at home with them can be a real help during times of crisis or instability
On the flip side, it is equally possible for extended family to be a drain on the couple’s resources under different circumstances. Having extra adults in the house who aren’t contributing to the household income can increase financial strain. Equally, having to care for elderly parents or having to live with siblings or other family members who you don’t get along with can be emotionally draining. Under these circumstances, marital happiness is likely to suffer.
Another potential impact of the financial side is if you as a couple are depending on the financial resources of others you may end up with less independence as a result. For example, if you are relying on financial help from your parents, your parents may expect to have a say in how the house is run or even on where you spend money on renovations or decorations. This can lead to frustration and conflict[iv].
Relational Impact of Family in the Home
What about relational impact?
Just like with the financial situation, extended family living in the same household can either be good or bad for the bonds between you all. Many couples find that having parents or other family members with them can strengthen the bond they have with them: they are able to see them more often and connect on a more meaningful level through seeing themselves as part of the same family unit[v].
In our episode on child-centered marriage and why it’s bad we saw how a family is like a system where one good relationship has positive effects on all the others. This means that having good relationships with the others in the house naturally makes the marriage bond stronger. But the reverse can also be true. Having to share the same space and having to share practical tasks (housework, caring for elderly parents/young children) can create tension and conflict, which then rubs off on the married couple.
So Your Mother/Brother/Cousin/Great Uncle Wants to Move In
Once again we’ve created a bonus exercise for couples who are thinking about inviting family to move in, or even if you are there and realize you haven’t really thought it all through. The guide helps you weigh the pros and cons and discuss that with one another. Also, we included some work for you to do on boundaries so that you can help everyone be clear about roles and expectations. That goes a long way towards reducing conflict and just having everyone on the same page. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
How to Make It Work
Let’s pivot now: say you are in the situation or about to enter into it: how do you make it work?
Take the Good With the Bad
Extended family may be a drain on resources in some ways but a blessing in others[vi].
For example, living with parents may be financially costly but the added support and closeness you get from them may be worth it. Or living with a sibling may occasionally lead to conflict but the practical help or extra income you get from a sibling may offset that. So learning to see the good, and make the most if it, can help make up for the ways in which living with family is difficult.
Focus on Stability
Stability in the household is a strong predictor of marital satisfaction and wellbeing of children[vii]. This can be negatively impacted if family members are regularly moving in and out. This fluctuation in who is living in the house creates an unstable environment for children and can increase stress for the married couple too[viii]. So if extended family are going to live with you, better to have them fully commit to staying long-term, rather than frequently moving in and out.
I do also want to caution you that most abusers are male and are related to the child…doesn’t mean all male relatives who want to move in are abusers by any means but do set some of your boundaries around protecting your children. Do some research on the profiles of abusers and be extra cautious if you know that this has been part of your family history.
Set Clear Boundaries
That leads us to the topic of boundaries generally. Living amicably with extended family requires you to set clear boundaries and expectations on a few key areas:
Ownership/leadership: Another study from 2011[ix] found that extended family households are often more stable and happy when one individual or couple has more of a say in the running of the house and its resources than the other family members. When multiple family members are all living together it can get confusing as to who is “in charge”, especially when couples live with their parents/siblings. This can lead to conflict and disagreement over how things should be done around the house. So having one couple being more in control of how the house is run can remove this tension.
Childcare: while having extended family around to help with childcare can be a good thing, family members having too much of a say in how your children are raised can lead to conflict. For example, a study in 2010[x] examined Muslim families living in the UK. They found that mothers of young children often came into conflict with their own mothers as to how the children should be raised, as the older women often had much more traditional views. This led to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression for the young mothers. That’s a snapshot out of one culture. But for any of us, settling clear boundaries on how much of a say other family members have in childcare is important when you have family in the home.
Balance Family Closeness and Autonomy
Closeness with your extended family is one of the main benefits of having them live with you. But it needs to be balanced with autonomy, independence, and forming adult ways of relating to each other[xi].
For example, if you are a couple living with parents, you’ll want to be cautious around becoming too dependent or even slipping back into parent-child roles. Research done in 1998[xii] found that living with multi-generational extended family in the same house works best when there is:
- autonomy for all family members
- mutual exchanges of support: not just parents supporting adult children
- the adult children forming adult roles and responsibilities
Really interesting that once again we have a research study support the advice (commandment, really) of Scripture given right at the beginning of our Bibles: a man needs to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife (Genesis 2:24). That leaving needs to be a relational pivot away from parent-child towards an adult to adult relationship, even if the physical venue in which you live is a shared space. Autonomy, mutuality, and independent adulthood are all part of this important shift whether living together or not.
[i] Nola du Toit, Kate Bachtell, and Catherine Haggerty, “Coming and Going: The Effect of Household Composition on the Economic Well-Being of Families with Children,” 2011, http://ezproxy.derby.ac.uk/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsuph&AN=edsuph.3025&site=eds-live.
[ii] Wen-Chun Chang, “Family Ties, Living Arrangement, and Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Happiness Studies 14, no. 1 (March 1, 2013): 215–33, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-012-9325-7.
[iii] du Toit, Bachtell, and Haggerty, “Coming and Going: The Effect of Household Composition on the Economic Well-Being of Families with Children.”
[iv] Barbara A. Mitchell, “Too Close for Comfort? Parental Assessments of ‘Boomerang Kid’ Living Arrangements,” The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie 23, no. 1 (1998): 21–46, https://doi.org/10.2307/3341660.
[v] Feinian Chen et al., “Implications of Changes in Family Structure and Composition for the Psychological Well-Being of Filipina Women in Middle and Later Years,” Research on Aging 39, no. 2 (February 2017): 275–99, https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027515611181.
[vi] du Toit, Bachtell, and Haggerty, “Coming and Going: The Effect of Household Composition on the Economic Well-Being of Families with Children.”
[vii] du Toit, Bachtell, and Haggerty.
[viii] du Toit, Bachtell, and Haggerty.
[ix] Jennifer E. Glick and Jennifer Van Hook, “Does a House Divided Stand? Kinship and the Continuity of Shared Living Arrangements,” Journal of Marriage and Family 73, no. 5 (October 1, 2011): 1149–64, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2011.00869.x.
[x] Edmund J. S. Sonuga‐Barke and Minal Mistry, “The Effect of Extended Family Living on the Mental Health of Three Generations within Two Asian Communities,” British Journal of Clinical Psychology 39, no. 2 (June 1, 2000): 129–41, https://doi.org/10.1348/014466500163167.
[xi] Mitchell, “Too Close for Comfort?”