I remember the movie comedy scene in which the father of the bride gave a toast and said, “When I first met Stu, I was not quite sold. He seemed unattractive. He lacked intelligence and imagination. He was missing the spark you look for in a man.”
That scene is a clue that not all families are sold on the partner their adult child picks to join the clan. In fact, sometimes the tension is so high, families don’t speak to one another. Other times, there is an underlying unspoken tension. This is what Tara felt with her family. And let’s be honest, nobody likes it when people you love don’t get along.
Tara was engaged to John but there was a problem. Her family did not like John and was quite vocal about it. Yet no direct conversation had taken place regarding the specifics of their dislike.
So, Tara decided it was time to have a family talk. Since John was about to be added to the family, she could not ignore the ever-present tension she felt when they were all together. She was caught in the middle between the man she loved and her family. She made the decision to talk to her family alone. After all, she knew her family best and thought this would be a first good step.
What were they reacting to? Maybe she could reassure them or find common ground.
In order to keep things from becoming defensive, Tara began the conversation by telling her family that she appreciates their love and care for her. But now, John is part of her life and she hopes they will get to know him better. However, she knows there is tension and wants to know why.
To her surprise, her family was very willing to provide her with specific red flags they had observed. One was his quick temper. Another was his efforts to isolate her from the family. And Tara’s sister heard conversations between John and Tara in which he put Tara down and complained about her weight.
Sometimes family members who know you well, see things in a relationship you may be blind to because of loving feelings. If you have good relationships with your family and siblings, these are important voices in your life. When they raise issues about a relationship, you need to consider their observations. Are they seeing things you minimize or make excuses for? Do your friends make similar comments as well? If you can listen without becoming defensive, you will hear other perspectives.
After listening to her family’s observations, Tara put a pause on the relationship. After talking to her family, she noticed John had few friends outside of their relationship. In addition, a friend of her sister’s said John lost his temper often in his previous relationship. She thinks he has an anger problem and knew this was the reason for his break-up. In fact, he had a history of sweeping girls off their feet and then becoming quite controlling.
Family members like Tara’s can be helpful if they have the best for you in mind. But not all families are healthy. Sometimes their dislike of a partner is based in prejudice, differences of opinions, expectations and their own pathology. In those cases, you still need to understand the reasons for their dislike.
When the reasons are dysfunctional, you will need to set boundaries and minimize your time together. When you do get together, work to keep the peace and find things in common. Focus on similarities, not differences.
Most likely, you won’t convince your family of your choice. But in those dysfunctional cases, you can show Christ’s love and control your response to perhaps even unfair treatment. You may need exit strategies if tensions run high. And you will have to set boundaries if the conversation turns ugly. When that happens, it helps to have prearranged signals in order to cue each other when to leave or take a time out.
When you do get together with your family at holidays or other events, avoid tackling big issues. Save those for private conversations and you take the lead with your family. Keep trying to work things out knowing that acceptance may not come.
Families are important to all of us. We want their love and acceptance. We also want them to validate our choice in a partner. If your family is healthy, listen to their feedback and consider their input.
If they are unhealthy, find ways to stay involved but don’t put yourself in a position of being abused or disrespected. Keep trying, as I believe families matter to all of us. And if you encounter serious difficulties with your family, a family therapist can help you navigate the specifics.I love him but my family does not!