Your Family and Your Partner Don’t Get Along —Now What?
You’ve met the love of your life. You’re happy beyond belief, and your family can’t wait to meet the person who is making their child so happy until … things don’t go as planned.
The energy is off, your mother won’t stop rolling her eyes and dad can’t be bothered to communicate. Instead of things getting better, the meeting is a harbinger of worse things to come. Of course, this is nothing new. In-laws have always been a royal pain in the ass – sometimes literally.
Take Prince Harry, for instance. Harry recently relinquished he and wife Meghan Markle’s royal titles as Duke and Duchess of Sussex due to the relentless, and often racist, attacks on the couple by the British tabloids. Having witnessed his mother experience similar torment in the past, Harry chose to spare his wife at the expense of the royal family.
To help us everyday folks navigate this unfortunate yet all too common circumstance, AskMen spoke to experts on what we can do when our partners and in-laws aren’t getting along.
Why Can In-Laws Be So Difficult Sometimes?
The answer all boils down to control. Bringing a new partner into the family means change. Holidays and other events will be different moving forward, and that can be a tough pill for some families to swallow.
Parents often “forget” that their child is no longer a child. By refusing to acknowledge that it’s time their romantic relationship becomes the dominant relationship, it ultimately creates a tug-of-war between family and partner.
“Some parents don’t want to lose influence over their adult child and will interfere in decisions that couples try making together,” says author, marriage coach and relationship expert Lesli Doares. “Some families struggle being flexible and try to impose their way of doing things without understanding that it’s disrespectful.”
Of course, a family’s intent is often not sinister. Parents want what’s best for their child, so if they feel their partner is getting in the way of that, they may feel it’s their duty to get involved. But, like it or not, family alignments have to change when someone new is introduced.
Making an Attempt to End the Tug-of-War
As the partner whose family is presenting a problem, you may not be able to grasp the severity of the problem at hand. After all, it’s the way they’ve always known things, so you might think your partner is blowing things out of proportion. This just means that you must validate your partner’s perspective before the relationship falls apart, ensuring that your primary alliance is to one another.
Once everybody has agreed on the problem, that’s when the tough part starts. “The child of the family must have a conversation with their family about the new boundaries,” says Daores. “The first conversation can assume the family is unaware of what they are doing or the problems they might be causing.”
Prepare for defensiveness when initiating the conversation, but don’t accuse anybody of anything. “Just say that you are setting new parameters,” continues Doares. “Don’t threaten them, and be as specific as possible about the changes you are requesting. Allow them to ask clarifying questions and give them ample time to make the changes.”
It’s just unrealistic to expect your family to comply entirely with your requests, so have a standard of what’s acceptable before you tackle the most harmful behaviors first.
If changes happen, make sure you acknowledge them. If things don’t change, have another, more severe, conversation. “This one needs to have teeth,” she says. “Say, if you can’t be respectful to my partner, we will leave. Then follow through. These aren’t threats but enforcement of boundaries.”
If things still don’t pan out, consider speaking to a therapist.
“I have worked with many adults, their spouses, and their parents, and when both parties were reasonable and wanted to make peace, they were able to learn a process where both sides could be understood and validated,” says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a professional counsellor and relationship therapist.
One of the more successful tools is the “Imago Dialogue,” which Slatkin says curbs reactivity and enables people to truly understand and listen to another. “Even if the situation seems irreparable, I have seen estranged family members reconcile with this process,” he says.
When Is It Time to Ex-Communicate Your Partner?
“Ex-communication is a serious step and shouldn’t be thrown out lightly,” says Doares. “It should only occur after all efforts at negotiation fail to create an atmosphere that everyone can live with.”
To this point, it’s important for the punishment to fit the crime. When the family makes it abundantly clear by their behavior that they will not honor the boundaries you’ve set either through conversation or therapy, ex-communication may be the only option.
“The child doesn’t have to cut all ties, but must not subject their partner (or children) to the unacceptable behavior that continues,” explains Doares. “Ex-communication is a serious step and shouldn’t be thrown out lightly. It should only occur after all efforts at negotiation fail to create an atmosphere that everyone can live with.”
As for Slatkin, he agrees, stating that “[ex-communication] is the best option when it becomes unbearable.”
“It is the last possible move and should be permanent if you have tried multiple approaches to reach a respectful arrangement between all parties,” he says. “Because I work with people in high stakes relationships often with business, finances and multiple generations involved, it is certainly not to be taken lightly but certainly to be taken seriously when the decision has been made.”
Ultimately, if your family is unwilling to work things out after one, two or several conversations, and you’ve tried every possible solution to resolve the conflict, it may be best to consider a break before cutting ties as it’s far less permanent.
This will give both sides a chance to reflect, granting them time to think about what they can do to change for the good of the relationship.
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