Blending relationships managing competing loyalties

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CASE STUDY A 

INTRODUCTION 

Analyze the following case from a communication perspective. Pay careful attention to concepts such as gender, roles, family-of-origin, cultural norms, rituals and patterns. 

BLENDING RELATIONSHIPS: MANAGING COMPETING LOYALTIES 
Rachel Ruan & Courtney Waite, Northwestern University 

Aaron and Helene, a young couple in their 20s, recently became engaged. They met their freshmen year of college at Washington University and dated four years before getting engaged. Aaron and Helene had a wonderful time in college together and rarely spent time apart. They seemed to agree on everything and both knew each other was “the one” for several years before Aaron proposed. They acted like a married couple already but both thought it was more sensible to wait until after graduation to get married. There are not many married couples at Washington! 

Washington University was a good distance from both Aaron and Helene’s families and as a result, neither had a chance to visit each other’s home or spend more than a few hours at a time with each other’s parents. The only time spent with family was an occasional dinner out when their families would come to visit for a big football game or Parents Weekend. The family dinners always went smoothly and were not at all unpleasant. 

Helene shared a particularly warm relationship with Aaron’s father, Ed. Ed always went out of his way to make Helene feel accepted and at ease. He showed a strong interest in her pursuits and was always eager to hear stories about what was going on in her life. Conversely, it wasn’t unusual for some tension to arise between Helene and Aaron’s mother, Jill. Helene consistently felt as though Jill was very controlling of Aaron and could be overbearing with her opinions at times. Jill had very strong opinions as to what she expected for her son and was uninhibited when it came to sharing those opinions. Helene noticed this behavior and it became something that she disliked about Jill. 

However, when Helene voiced her concerns to Aaron, he often discounted them and claimed, “If you could spend more time with my mother you would see that she has very good intentions and is very fond of you.” After some reassurance from Aaron, Helene would conclude that Aaron was right; Helene had only spent a handful of nights with Jill and maybe just did not understand her personality yet. Besides, Jill usually refrained from sharing negative opinions regarding Helene. 

There have been instances, however, when Jill has shared some of her negative opinions regarding Helene or her ideas. For example, during the second family dinner Helene had with Aaron’s parents, Helene expressed to Jill her sincere interest in attending law school following college graduation. Jill immediately responded, “Helene, are you smart enough to go to law school?” Helene was so hurt and shocked by Jill’s comment that she has had a difficult time forgiving Jill for implying that she did not have the intelligence to pursue her goals. When Helene tried to discuss this comment with Aaron, Aaron brushed off the remark saying, “It was only a joke – you cannot take anything my mom says too seriously.” Still, Helene could not get over the hurt of this comment or the fact that Aaron was not more willing to stick up for her when Jill upset her. After all, Helene was on the Dean’s List. 

During the course of Aaron and Helene’s relationship, Jill hurt Helene’s feelings several other times in similar ways. Each time Aaron did not say anything to challenge his mother’s remarks. He either pretended not to hear or tried to change the subject to a friendlier topic. However, these instances greatly upset Helene and she had a very difficult time overcoming her feelings of hurt and anger toward Jill. If Helene were braver and was not taught so strictly never to contradict adults, she might have confronted Jill. But she just could not bring herself to do it. Helene finds Jill to be intimidating and is afraid of what might happen if she tries to discuss her feelings with her. Instead, Helene repeatedly raises the issue with Aaron looking for some sort of resolution or closure. Each time Jill upsets Helene, Helene repeats to Aaron every negative thing Jill has ever said to her and becomes upset about each one all over again. During these conversations, Aaron remains very neutral. He says he understands how Helene feels and that maybe his mother should not have said some of the things she said, but insists that she “means very well and would never intentionally say or do anything to intentionally hurt you.” Aaron also points out that his mother has three brothers and was the only girl in her family and now has two sons of her own and no daughters. Aaron defends his mom saying that she does not have any experience with girls and has always put up a tough exterior as a way to better relate to the males in her life. 

Since Helene and Aaron became engaged, Helene’s negative feelings toward Jill have only intensified. When Helene and Aaron were only dating, Jill’s controlling behavior was aimed solely at Aaron. Now Jill is trying to control many aspects of the wedding plans and Helene and Aaron’s plans for the future. 

For example, one week after Aaron and Helene announced their engagement, Helene’s parents invited Aaron’s parents to a dinner party to celebrate Aaron and Helene’s engagement. Ten minutes into the evening, Jill announced that Helene and Aaron would be evenly splitting holidays with their families and that Helene’s family should not expect Aaron and Helene this Christmas. Helene was very embarrassed by Jill’s comment and was glad when her mother graciously replied that it is difficult when children grow up and begin to have their own lives and new traditions. Jill replied, “I hate Thanksgiving. You can have them then. I get every Christmas.” Luckily Ed changed the subject for the time being, but Christmas plans were never resolved between Helene and Aaron. Aaron kept telling Helene they would worry about it later. Aaron knows that Christmas is Helene’s favorite holiday and it would be very difficult for her to spend it away from her family, especially every year. He knows that he will have to work out a compromise between Helene and Jill, but is reluctant to go against his mother’s wishes and realizes that his mother will lay on a terrible guilt trip at a mere mention of the possibility that Aaron and Helene may not be at his home for Christmas. 

As the wedding date draws closer, Jill repeatedly reminds Helene and her family of how instrumental she was in planning Aaron’s older brother’s wedding and hopes she will be just as big of a part in Aaron’s wedding. She says that it is okay “if she does not have that role” in Aaron and Helene’s wedding but it is clear she truly expects to be a part of all of the planning. One particularly contentious issue is Jill’s desire to have her niece, who is a student of opera at a nearby community college, sing during several points during the ceremony. Helene prefers to have instrumental accompaniment but did not have a chance to make her desire clear to Jill before Jill asked her niece to sing in the wedding. Helene was furious and informed Jill that she and Aaron were planning to have a string quartet and had already made the necessary arrangements. At this point, the argument escalated: 

JILL: Since I knew that you wanted an intimate family wedding, I assumed that you might actually want to include your new family. 

HELENE: Yes, I want my family and new family all in attendance, but I have certain expectations for the ceremony and they don’t include a novice opera singer who I have yet to meet. Besides, Aaron and I discussed how special and lovely a string quartet would be. 

JILL: Aaron, is this true? I thought that you and I were on the same page and thought it would be best to have family involved in the wedding. Maybe you two should just go to a Justice of the Peace. 

AARON: I think that family should be there and I told you that Cousin Christie’s singing is very nice but a string quartet would be great too…(Helene then storms out of the room leaving Jill and Aaron together.) 

JILL: Is that how she always reacts to a little disagreement? 

AARON: Mom, I think that she is very stressed and has a lot on her mind right now. Don’t take it personally; she just has a lot on her plate. I’m going to go talk to her and smooth things out. (Aaron leaves to go find Helene.) 

HELENE: How could you do that to me?! We had a very long conversation about how beautiful it would be to have a string quartet. We specifically agreed that that would be a part of the wedding and now for some reason you act as though that conversation never took place. Can’t you be a man and stand up to your Mom and just tell her that you don’t want Christie to sing? Would it be impossible for you to stand up to her for once? 

AARON: Well, what do you want me to say? Do you really want me to have my Mom go to Christie and tell her that she is no longer in the wedding? I don’t know if I can do that. I want to make you happy but I think that you are overreacting. 

HELENE: Is this how it is always going to be with us? Are you always going to side with your mother and never stand up for me or the decisions we make together? I can’t stand living like this. 

QUESTIONS FOR CASE STUDY A 

1. Which of Gottman’s couple types best describes the relationship between Helene and Aaron and Jill? Explain. 

2. How does the first interaction between Helene and Aaron and Jill differ from their second interaction? 

3. What are the first indications of trouble between Helene and Aaron and Jill? Cite specific examples from their interactions. 

4. How do Helene and Aaron and Jill exhibit contempt for one another? Cite specific examples from their interactions and reference common signs of contempt within their interactions. 

5. How do Helene and Aaron and Jill exhibit defensiveness? Cite specific examples from their interactions and reference common types of defensive behavior within their interactions. 

6. What are the two primary explanations for the physiological differences between the sexes? Do Helene and Aaron and Jill exhibit these physiological differences? 

7. Which pieces of Gottman’s advice for volatile couples would be helpful to Helene and Aaron and Jill? Why? 

8. Which pieces of Gottman’s advice for productive disagreements would be particularly useful for Helene and Aaron and Jill? Explain. 

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