Relationships involve more than two people. Not only must you adjust to your new lover’s flaws and insecurities, you must also deal with their friends and family. Sometimes this is a success, sometimes not. You would not be the first to have your relationship ruined by your girlfriend’s spiteful sister or your boyfriend’s intrusive mother.
Many people have no respect for personal space and will quite literally walk into your house or apartment without knocking. If you grew up in a home where people didn’t do that kind of thing, such behavior can be intolerable. Joining a large, boisterous family, in which people constantly drop in unannounced, can also be exhausting, especially for an introvert. Your partner’s family then sense your irritation, cannot understand it, and so put it down to coldness or snobbery – and tensions begin.
This becomes especially problematic when children arrive. Your partner’s mother, for example, may find it impossible to keep away. If she is also critical of your mothering skills, or believes you should be taking better care of her son, a clash is inevitable. So common is this that popular comedy shows like Everybody Loves Raymond are based around the unbearable mother across the street.
Another common problem is the dysfunctional family whose members rely on your partner. So, for example, your partner is the eldest child of two alcoholics who treat her more like a carer than a daughter. To take another hypothetical example, your new boyfriend has two brothers who both use drugs and dabble in petty crime. Your boyfriend is the stable, hardworking one, and so they turn to him when in trouble. More than once you must drive with him to the police station at 2 a.m. to bail them out.
Of course, not every family is intrusive or dysfunctional. You may dislike them because they hold offensive or ridiculous views. They may, for example, hate gay people or oppose abortion. Others may try to impose their religious beliefs on you, or on your children.
Sometimes there is nothing obviously wrong. They are average, ordinary people who behave in a friendly and welcoming manner. And yet within a few weeks you cannot bear them. The father is smug, arrogant and self-satisfied, the mother shallow and materialistic, the other siblings spoilt and obnoxious.
Even when a partner’s family do treat you badly, it can often be in the most subtle way. Indeed, outsiders may fail to understand your problem. Maybe they patronise you, or make you feel socially or intellectually inadequate. Some turn this into an art form and crush you with a harmless, or even complimentary, remark.
These sorts of examples could be multiplied endlessly. Therapists hear such stories on an almost daily basis. The real problems begin when your partner fails to support you. For example, a man and woman have a child together. They move in with her mother to save on rent. The mother is insufferably intrusive and patronising, however, and makes it clear to the boyfriend that her daughter has married beneath her. When he explains all this to his girlfriend, she laughs and replies “that’s just what mum is like. You’ll soon get used to her.” The boyfriend explains that he has no intention of getting used to her and that he expects his girlfriend to back him up. She then accuses him of bullying her, he yells that she’s unsupportive, and so on.
Empathy and Understanding
It is easy to advise someone to be understanding. And when a therapist does, the client may reply that that is easy to say. After all, they don’t have to sit there while their partner’s brother laughs at how little they earn. And in some situations there is nothing to understand: you dislike these arrogant monsters and cannot bear their company!
Nevertheless, empathy and understanding can work wonders. People often seem rude or unpleasant, but beneath that protective outer layer may lie immense kindness and sympathy. We usually behave badly for a reason. If your girlfriend’s father seems unfriendly, try to find out why. Maybe he was abused and neglected as a child. All his life he longed for a family of his own. He finally got one and now you threaten to take his daughter away. That may seem crazy to you, but that is what is going on inside his head. Once you grasp this, you can reassure him.
It is also important to empathize with your partner. Being caught between you and their family is no fun! Remember, they had no say over the family they were born into. And what seems bizarre or dysfunctional to you is normal to them. We accept our family because it’s all we’ve ever known. They may also struggle to make their family understand you. Families have their own little rituals and patterns of behavior. The members also slip into a role: the clever one, the quiet one, etc. Stepping outside those roles isn’t easy. Indeed, the other members are likely to find it threatening. If your gentle boyfriend tells his drunken father not to make crude comments, that takes all his courage. Appreciate and acknowledge this.
The Importance of Communication
The importance of good communication cannot be overstated. Do not assume that your partner or in-laws know how you feel. And if they do know how you feel, do not assume they understand why. Begin with your partner. In spite of the irritation or offense his, or her, family cause you, it isn’t your partner’s fault. Make it clear that though you have no intention of putting up with it, you do not blame them.
What you say takes time to sink in. To stick with the hypothetical example above, the drunken father has always made such stupid jokes. You therefore need to make it clear to your boyfriend that you find them offensive – and why. Don’t just say “I can’t bear your father.” Your boyfriend will assume you mean because he drinks.
Should you find yourself having to confront the family, choose your words carefully. People operate with different sets of assumptions, especially when they are from different cultures. For example, a man from rural Italy marries a well-educated girl from London. When she becomes pregnant, they move back to his family home. But the girl is shocked by how intrusive and critical his mother seems. This is a simple cultural clash. In the more traditional Italian families, the mother-son bond is exceptionally strong. And the mother expects her daughter-in-law to spoil the son – and to take her advice.
Establishing Common Ground and Focussing on the Positive
As with any relationship, establishing common interests, or points of agreement, is key. If your brother-in-law goes on a rant and you disagree, keep quiet and think about something else. Don’t provoke arguments, and don’t take the bait when they provoke you.
Let’s say you are by nature an introverted dreamer. Your boyfriend’s family, however, are unsentimental business people whose conversation revolves around money. It would be pointless to chat about the latest novels. Instead, ask their advice on your father’s pension or your brother’s business debts. If their passion is baseball, read up on it and ask them to explain the rules. Nothing wins someone over like taking an interest in their passion. Just be careful not to sound false or patronising.
If you find yourself in a large family, cultivate a relationship with the sibling you most like. Again, read up on their passion. If the middle brother seems friendlier than the others, and you learn that he is into horror movies, do a little research and then ask him what he made of some re-make of a ’70s classic. It may seem cold and calculating, but you will then have an ally against the spiteful sister or overbearing father.
Finally, try seeing the good in them. OK, so they oppose abortion and gay marriage, but at least they practise their Christian faith by donating money to charity and volunteering at the local homeless shelter. OK, so your girlfriend’s brother constantly borrows money and is forever in and out of addiction centers, but you know he has a good heart and loves his kids.
Ultimately, of course, you may have to accept that little can be done. There is a clash, and that’s all there is to it. In such situations, you can only keep your distance. But you must also find a way of keeping them at a distance! Again, this is why communication is so important. Your partner needs to understand how you feel, to understand that boundaries must be set and that he must make them clear to his family.
Often, the lack of clear boundaries is itself a source of tension. Many people, even those who like their in-laws, are driven to breaking point by their constant intrusion. Your partner’s family need to understand that they cannot just appear any time they like. But be careful how you approach the issue. People hear what they want to hear. And some are so insecure, or so paranoid, that everything is interpreted as rejection. You politely ask your mother-in-law to call before she drops round; she interprets that to mean you hate her and never want her in your house again.
You set boundaries by being precise and specific. If your mother-in-law says that she has baked a cake and will drop it round in the morning, reply “oh, how kind…I should be free between ten and eleven.” That way, you remind her that you have a life of your own.
And you need to back up these rules. For example, let’s say you are a big sports fan. The big game is on, and you and your friend fire up the barbecue and open some beers. Half an hour before the match, however, your girlfriend’s mum and dad call in unannounced. Even if they were unaware of the match, you need to make it clear that this is your time. Don’t just tell them to go away. Explain what is happening, and then tell them you’ll be in tomorrow after three. Always do so in a polite and respectful manner, but firmly.
There are essentially three different ways of dealing with troublesome people. You can be passive, assertive, or aggressive. The passive person finds boundaries impossible to establish and maintain. When the in-laws knock at the door, they let them in and miss the game. The aggressive go too far and insult them. The assertive are firm but polite.
No matter what, you can take some consolation from this – you are not alone! All over the world people are struggling with their partner’s critical mother, bitchy sister or obnoxious brother!