Most relationships involve not only a new partner but a whole new family. Sometimes people are lucky and grow to love and cherish these new people in their life; sometimes, however, the clash of values and personalities is so horrendous that the relationship is doomed from the start.
In general, it is a mixture. For example, you may adore your wife’s mother but find your wife’s father an intolerable bully; you may like your boyfriend’s sister but find her husband an unbearable show off, and so on. Few people like everyone in their partner’s family and, unless you learn to cope, resentments will build, tempers will flare and your relationship may even be ruined. Unfortunately, there is rarely an escape. Even if you avoid your partner’s family all year, Christmas, Thanksgiving, the birth of a child and numerous other events will inevitably place you in their company.
As Tolstoy famously said, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And this is because every family is composed of a unique mix of personalities and tensions. The classic example is the young mother whose partner’s mother constantly interferes, criticises and tries to take control. But even in so typical situation as that, differences exist. One mother-in-law may sincerely respect her son’s partner and genuinely believe she is being supportive, while a second may be trying to break them up. Sometimes, the problem is one of simple disapproval. The new family may disapprove of you, feeling that you are somehow unworthy of them – socially, intellectually, or in some other way.
In other cases, it may be a clash of values. You may hold a religious faith while your boyfriend’s family are sceptics who ridicule religion at every opportunity. Politics is another common flashpoint: your girlfriend’s family may be conservative while you lean to the left. In other cases, it isn’t even your partner’s blood relations who cause the problems but someone who has joined the family from outside. A man may like his wife’s parents and sister but find her sister’s husband arrogant and patronising. He avoids him all year but must face him at the Christmas dinner table. Throughout the meal he makes nasty little comments, insinuating that the man is a failure or has lived a dull life compared to him. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly.
How to Cope
It is a surprising fact that, though the shelves of the average bookstore are loaded with advice on how to maintain a happy relationship, comparatively little has been written on coping with a partner’s family. No matter how old you are or what your issues may be, keep the following in mind:
1. Consider your own behavior. Before complaining about the behavior of others, consider the way you behave. For example, a woman may find her mother-in-law cold and distant. She then complains about this to her friends. Eventually, one of her friends says “well, to be honest, you aren’t very friendly to her are you? You never invite her over or pop in for a coffee. Maybe she seems so cold and distant because that is what she thinks you want.” Of course, you may well be in the right, but always consider your own behavior. Be open, polite and friendly. Ask your partner’s family about their lives – about their job, the books they are reading, how their children are getting on at school, and so on. And try to make notes about such things. If you remember to ask your brother-in-law how his job interview went, he may be touched and make more of an effort with you. If nothing else, behaving well will clear your conscience should a nasty confrontation arise.
2. Talk to your partner. The importance of this cannot be over-emphasized. You must make it clear to your partner how you feel – or rather, how your partner’s family make you feel. If her father constantly belittles you, you must tell her that you are a proud man and not prepared to tolerate it. If your husband’s mother is forever interfering in the way you raise your children, you must talk this out. But do so calmly and clearly. Stick to the facts and focus on how you feel rather than how dreadful these people are. Never forget that this is your partner’s family. Do not pressure your partner to run their own family down, and do not force your partner to choose between you and them. It simply isn’t fair. Even if you have a blazing row with your partner’s mother and she says appalling things about you, that does not give you the right to demand that your partner stops seeing her. You may decide not to, but that is your business.
3. Establish boundaries and rules and stick to them. When dealing with your partner’s family, be clear and honest. Good communication is vital. It is no good moaning about the way your wife’s brother pops in at odd times of the day without warning, or the way your husband’s mother tries to instill her religious beliefs in your son – tell them! But do so as a team. This is especially important when you have children. As a couple, decide on the boundaries, limits and priorities before going into battle. The key is to make your values and beliefs clear to your partner’s family in a calm, friendly, non-confrontational manner. And then back them up. For example, if you have made it clear that you want your privacy respected but your in-laws keep showing up without warning, make a point of going out each time they arrive – or simply tell them you are busy.
4. Stay neutral when they argue among themselves. Of course, you will not always be the centre of family tensions and dramas. Your partner’s family will have their own issues with one another and may fall out among themselves. When they do, one or more may look to you for support. Be wary of taking sides. Remember, families bicker and yell, but they usually make up. And blood relations find it easier to forgive one another than to forgive an outsider. For example, if your partner’s sisters fall out and you side with one of them, then they make up, do not be surprised if the one you sided against never forgives you.
5. Try to be understanding. Do not be a pushover, but do try and understand why people behave in the way they do. Imagine you begin a relationship with a woman who introduces you to her family. Everyone treats you well except her father, who seems cold, even hostile. At first, you assume he is just being rude and unkind because that is in his nature. One day you mention this to your partner’s mother and she assures you that it is nothing personal. He had a dreadful childhood, one filled with abuse and neglect. That in turn left him suspicious of strangers and afraid of outsiders coming into his world; you suddenly realise that he is hostile because he is afraid of losing his daughter. There is often a reason people behave badly. Sometimes they are just unpleasant and have no excuse. But fear, misunderstanding, and simple pain may also be the cause.
Above all, stay calm and try to see things from other people’s point of view. There is often a reason people say and do things that upset you, and they may not be what you think. Before you lose your temper and say something you regret, be sure of your facts. And remember above all that you are not alone – most people find it a struggle to get along with everyone in their partner’s family.