- The phrase “you can’t choose your family” is a cliché for a reason, as family friction can cause all sorts of problems. However, it’s also important to remember that you can’t choose your partner’s family either
- Getting into a serious relationship often means getting to know your partner’s family, and things can get awkward and painful if things don’t click
- Does your partner’s bad family have to be a dealbreaker, or can you learn to get along?
Is it normal?
Not getting along with your significant other’s family can be a pretty isolating experience. Most obviously, it can be difficult to communicate your struggles to your partner without feeling as though you’re badmouthing their loved ones, and it can sometimes feel easier to just avoid the subject with them all together.
Not only that, but the idyllic image of the perfect relationship often includes a great relationship with both sets of parents, with the relationship between two partners creating a happy extended family. When the illusion of joint holidays, huge Christmases and cousins who are also best friends falls apart, there is often an element of shame.
Despite this, relationship experts have confirmed that it’s totally normal to love someone without loving the people who raised them. As Joshua Klapow, Ph.D said when speaking to Elite Daily: “Like vs dislike is far too simplified to describe a relationship with your partner’s family. You don’t need to like your partner’s family to love your partner or to have a successful relationship.”
Should I break up with someone because of their family?
Whether or not your partner’s difficult family has to mean breaking off your relationship is a big question, and the answer depends entirely on context. According to psychologist Dr. Paulette Sherman, writing for TheZoeReport, the causes of conflict are often some mixture of: “cultural differences, value differences, religion, protectiveness, attachment, and communication issues and boundaries”.
Within each of these categories exists a huge spectrum of problematic behaviours, some of which you might be able to deal with or resolve – and some which you may not. Having a mother in law who invites herself to your birthday or takes it upon herself to tell you what colour to paint your walls might be annoying, but it’s nothing that conversation with your partner and the Facebook mute button can’t help mitigate.
However, controlling, disapproving or just plain inappropriate behaviour can also escalate to a place of active harm. If your partner’s family try to dictate your decisions around marriage and children, if they gaslight or outright attempt to manipulate you, or if your values are irreconcilable, it might be time to cut these family members out.
In serious cases, such as when family members disapprove of your sexuality or harbour political views that tangibly affect you in a negative way, chances are your partner will already want to limit contact with them. At the very least, they should be able to take your concerns seriously and help put safeguards in place to protect your emotional health. In those cases, Sherman says: “It may still be possible to co-create a life together and to navigate familial issues as they arise.”
How to get along with a partner’s family
You and your partner may decide that the problems their family present are minor and that you see them infrequently enough that remaining cordial is both possible and the easiest pathway forward. But how do you get over that initial awkwardness and friction?
Research potential faux-pas
Cultural differences are often the first stumbling block to clear and polite communication. Find out from your partner the kind of faux-pas you might unwittingly, whether they are specific to their family or broader cultural trends.
Whether there’s an unspoken rule that no-one talks during the football, or you’re expected to make a tea for everyone when you put the kettle on for yourself, it’s best to know in advance.
Kill them with kindness
No matter how set against you it may feel as though your partner’s family are, they will probably soften up in the face of a true charm offensive. Bringing a gift never goes amiss, and it is best to offer to help out with the washing up.
Even if you find yourself hurt or patronised by the family, remaining polite while sticking to your boundaries goes a long way.
Change up your backdrop
When you have a difficult relationship with your partner’s family, inviting them into your home might be the last thing you want to do. However, you don’t want them to have the home advantage either.
The easiest solution is to get both you and your partner’s family onto neutral ground whenever you have to interact. The family are more likely to be on their best behaviour in public, and setting events at a restaurant rather than at home makes it easier to politely excuse yourself when you’ve had enough.
What to do if you can’t get along
Mitigation strategies might work fine if your partner’s family are only minorly annoying, but what do you do if they represent a significant barrier to your happiness every time you interact? If you decide to pursue the relationship in spite of the family, there are some strategies you can use.
Create a united front
If your partner’s family is difficult or upsetting to deal with, then lean on your partner to help limit potential conflicts. Discuss topics that are particularly sensitive to you with them, so that if their family bring them up in conversation, your partner can smoothly change the subject without anybody noticing.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have to set a reasonable boundary, make sure your partner knows how important it is for them to support and reaffirm that decision, and communicate about how the family are making you both feel often.
Don’t stay over
Neutral territories are always best, but there are some situations where being in your partner’s family home for extended periods of time. If their family aren’t the kind to spend Christmas in the carvery and then the pub, then there is a way to make holidays more manageable: don’t stay over.
Don’t settle for retreating to your partner’s childhood bedroom every time things get tense. Book a hotel room, rent and AirB&B, or stay at a friend’s house. If you’re nearby, agree to simply slip home as the evening draws to a close. This will give you an easy out when you’ve had enough, and give you a judgement free zone to vent and recharge before the next day of festivities.
Set clear boundaries
If you feel the need to set a boundary with your partner’s family, chances are it’s for a reason. That means it’s all the more important to stick to it, both to reaffirm its importance to the family and to yourself.
If you establish that pregnancy talk is off the table, don’t let that first little joke or question slide. Doing so might seem polite, but it opens the door for more sneaky enquiries, since you “never objected” when they first brought it up.