Many of us have been there. You fall head over heels with somebody only to find that you don’t get on with their family.
Whether things got off to a bad start straight away or got off to a flying start only to stumble later down the line, dealing with a partner’s family is often a fraught business.
Although we all know deep down that our partner doesn’t live in a vacuum, emotionally, we sometimes expect them to completely ignore their family’s input when the going gets tough.
Therapists often see couples and families where following a standoff, one partner expects the other to immediately take their side and pay no attention to what other people who may be very important to their partner are saying. Of course, worries that a parent might have about a child’s partner often end up in similar turmoil, with people having the unenviable task of feeling they need to take sides.
So how do we end up in these situations that often rumble on with peaks and troughs for years? More importantly, how do we avoid them?
Every family has its own individual unwritten but fully understood book of rules based on all sorts of things like culture, experience, tradition and gender balance. Respective ‘rule books’ are probably not something that many of us give much thought to, but it’s certainly worth doing so when sizing up a prospective partner.
Being in love usually makes us completely emotionally blind for a while and more than willing to forgive initial teething problems with our other half’s family. After all, everyone is getting to know each other’s little foibles and eccentricities, and is generally on their best behaviour. But of course after a while where once you smiled politely at the "well intended" comment, now, you just want to spit every time his or her mother suggests you could all holiday together.
It’s not surprising how after a very short time indeed, we can find ourselves behaving towards our in-laws as if we were naughty children (and often the other way around too). All sense of giving an adult response to increasingly rude and irritating comments flies out the window. We want our partner to support our point of view- perhaps we even give them an ultimatum – “it’s me or your family.”
This may seem like a good idea in the heat of the moment but try to consider how it may affect your partner. They’re likely to feel very caught in the middle and in most cases it’s not fair to make them choose. Not only could it result in unhappiness for them but it could mean they end up resenting you. If you really can’t get on with their family and are no longer on speaking terms, allow your partner to continue their relationship with them on their own.
If you’re having issues with your partner’s family, the best thing to do is discuss it together and try to come up with a plan of action. When you raise any issues, try to use non-blaming language such as "I don’t feel I’m as close to your sister as I’d like to be” rather than blaming the family member for example: "your sister always ignores me and cuts me out." If your partner is very close to their family, there’s a risk the will take offence to your comments, so begin with a softly softly approach and gauge their initial reaction.
Hopefully they’ll be able to give you some advice about how to communicate with their family more effectively – they’ll be familiar with their own family rule book after all.
If anything is to blame for communication mismatches, it's that we’ve already decided what answer we’re going to get, so we feel there’s no point in listening any more. In essence, we’ve lost curiosity about why someone might have a particular view and here lies the potential answer- take an interest. Nothing is usually more endearing to a prospective in law than having their child’s partner spend some time showing a genuine interest in, well, anything really. It’s amazing how quickly this can lead to some reciprocity as far as conversation goes and before you know it, some of the worries (and that’s what they usually are rather than deliberate intentions to cause distress) get replaced with something resembling a relationship that sort of works.
Don’t overdo it though. As with most things in life, getting the balance right is key. Partners can get jealous and making sure they know they are your "Number One" is likely to help them see that they don’t have to be in competition with either family for your attention and support. You never know, it may even end in happy families. Who’d have thought?
Ammanda Major is a Senior Consultant on Sex Therapy for Relate. She has a regular agony aunt column on the Relate website called Ask Ammanda where you can write in with your questions about sex and relationships to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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