As everyone knows, relationships are difficult. In part this is because they involve a whole new set of people. A new partner brings with them new friends, siblings, parents, grandparents, and so on. Sometimes people grow to love their partner’s family. Others, however, find they are neither liked nor accepted.
Of course, the dislike isn’t always obvious. Often, it will be hidden behind fake smiles and hugs. For many, it can take months, even years, to sense that something is wrong.
One of the first signs is a simple lack of interest or curiosity. When people dislike you, or disapprove of you in some way, they don’t want to know about your life – especially the trivial details. If your relationship with them is healthy, they will ask about your hobbies and work. And they will want to hear your opinions. For example, let’s say movies are your passion. If they like you, they will ask if you’ve seen anything good recently, or if there are any movies you are looking forward to. And note how they ask. When they mention such things, do they do so through gritted teeth? Maybe they avoid eye contact. (People with low self-esteem or social anxiety often avoid eye contact, so be sure that isn’t the reason).
Neither will they want to spend time with you. And that means excuses. If you invite them to a barbecue or music festival and they refuse, take a moment to examine the reasons. Do they seem plausible? Do they constantly invent excuses for not visiting? How about the other way around? Do they invite you to their dinner party or barbecue?
The biggest giveaway will be your partner’s behavior. Being caught between your partner and family isn’t pleasant. Often, they turn into peacekeepers, forever trying to placate one side or the other. If your partner’s family do dislike you, your partner won’t want you to know, either from fear of hurting you or a fear of tension and rows. Does your partner come home late and then explain that he “happened to be passing” his parents’ home and so dropped in? If your partner constantly sees his family on his own, something is wrong.
As with so many things in life, the more you understand the better you will cope. Do the entire family dislike you? Or is it just one individual who has a problem? Jealousy plays as big a part in family life as elsewhere, so be on your guard. For example, your girlfriend’s sister has money worries. Her boyfriend’s business is struggling and they now rent an apartment on the bad side of town. You have plenty of money and a nice house. Unfortunately, your sister-in-law has always been jealous of your new girlfriend, and you have opened that wound. Never underestimate the damage one jealous individual can inflict. One toxic person can turn an entire family against you, especially if they have influence.
Sometimes the dislike will have nothing to do with you personally. For example, the father is a domineering bully with chronic health problems. Your new partner and her sister were expected to obey and care for him. And now you appear and undermine his authority, maybe even take his daughter away. Often, people dislike someone but lie to themselves about the reason. Human beings are masters at self-deception. In the above example, the father convinces himself (and his wife and daughter) that you are a liar and a cheat. He has no evidence for this, but he cannot admit the real reason for his hatred, either to his family or to himself.
Or, to take another hypothetical example, your new girlfriend was beaten and abused by her ex-boyfriend. Her father and brother were furious but unable to intervene, and they are determined never to let it happen again. So you enter this new environment under a cloud of suspicion. They then project onto you all the pent-up rage and hatred they felt towards her ex. The first time you and your partner argue, her family turn on you and your relationship with them never recovers.
In some cases, the family will dislike you for something you cannot change – and shouldn’t have to. Imagine some middle-class liberals from New York. Their daughter meets a working-class boy from Texas whose family are lifelong Republicans and gun-owners. In that case, he is judged by his family, not on his own merits. Sometimes, the dislike will be based on sheer ignorance and bigotry (the Jewish family who will not accept their son’s German girlfriend, for example, or the white family who dislike Mexicans). Snobbery, racism, xenophobia, and countless other prejudices are just as common within families as anywhere else.
Dealing With the Problem
Some people grow angry when rejected. They announce that they couldn’t care less, that it suits them not to make polite conversation, that they are happy to stay away. Indeed, the dislike is often mutual, and when things are brought out into the open, or when there is a big argument, it comes as a relief. Sometimes, however, people are hurt and wish to put things right.
First, keep in mind that you don’t have to like each other. If someone dislikes you, don’t try too hard. So long as they aren’t looking for a fight it should be easy to reach an unspoken agreement, especially when children are involved. If some flaw is pointed out, something you do or say that upsets or offends them, make an effort to change. But if the dislike is vague or unfair, you are wasting your time.
A calm, quiet dignity is best. Be polite, smile, and make them feel welcome when they call – but do no more. And be careful not to put yourself in the wrong. If you behave as though you’ve done something wrong, do not be surprised when people treat you that way. Equally, do not be false. A sickly, over-dramatic welcome may be interpreted as sarcasm. When people suspect that you are being insincere, it will provoke them. Instead, be calm and rational: they don’t like you, it’s a shame, but you’ll do your best to behave in a reasonable and civilized way.
You presumably love your partner. And this is the family that produced him, or her, which may astonish you. Look hard enough, however, and you are sure to see similarities. Also, he or she is in love with you. Again, if he can love you, and they are his closest relations, maybe they will too. Eventually they may grow to appreciate the very things your partner does.
It is also important to maintain boundaries. This is important no matter what the situation, but if your partner’s family dislike you they will be even less likely to respect those boundaries. And don’t worry about upsetting them. As has been pointed out, trying too hard will only annoy and antagonize them. Deep down people respect the calmly assertive. Assertive is the key word. When dealing with other people, you can be either passive, aggressive or assertive. Always aim for assertive.
For example, imagine your sister’s brother often calls round unannounced. When he does, he barely looks at you, talks only to his sister and constantly criticizes the state of the garden. The aggressive person would bite his tongue during the first couple of visits and then explode, telling him to mind own business and that he is sick of the way he drops in whenever he feels like it. The passive individual, on the other hand, would endure his behavior, make him a coffee and laugh at his jokes. The assertive person would calmly but firmly state the facts.
If your new family dislike you, they will probably treat you with contempt, calling round whenever it suits them and not caring if it puts your plans out. Imagine your father-in-law phones to say he’ll drop round that afternoon to fix the faucet. You politely explain that his daughter won’t be there and that you’ve got friends coming over to watch the game. But he drops by anyway – just as the game is about to kick off.
In cases like this, you need to be firm. When you answer the door, smile and inform him that his daughter still isn’t home and won’t be for some time, that you and your friends are watching the game and that his banging and scraping will disturb you. If he’d like to grab a beer and join you he’d be welcome. Then add nothing more. Assertive people say their piece and add nothing. If others are offended or annoyed, too bad.
Another common problem is criticism of your parenting skills, especially from your partner’s mother. Again, you need to stamp on this kind of criticism and sniping. Do not imagine that by ignoring it it will go away. As so often in life, if you do not stand up for yourself the bad behavior escalates. They will push until they hit a wall of resistance, and then back off.
Above all, don’t obsess about your partner’s family. The more you do, the more likely you are to make things worse. And don’t take out your frustration on your partner. Feeling that others dislike you is never pleasant. In many people it produces anger. How dare they make me feel this way! How dare they shake my confidence and lower my self-esteem! Given the situation, you may not be able to vent this anger directly – but you can vent it on your partner. Time and again good relationships break down because one person grows angry with their in-laws and then releases their anger on their partner. You are not in a relationship with her father or her sister. And it isn’t fair to blame your partner for making you feel this way.
Focus on your relationship instead. In the long term, this may be a good way of winning over your partner’s family. When someone makes those we love happy, inevitably we warm to them. And take comfort from the fact that you are not alone. All over the world people are struggling to cope with their partner’s family. Ultimately, there is no simple solution. As with so many things in life, you must adapt and compromise.