Is Family Drama Interfering with Your Relationship? Follow These 4 Steps
You love your partner. You share a life. But your relationship doesn’t exist in a bubble. It can often be tested by outside forces and stressors, including interference from close or extended family members. And the way you deal with those family-related issues can either strengthen or weaken your bond, regardless of how much you love each other.
“Navigating family issues as a couple is tricky, because all families have different family rules,” says Angela Amias, LCSW, a couples therapist and the co-founder of Alchemy of Love, which provides online relationship programs for couples. “When you grow up in a family, it’s easy to assume that your rules are normal. But many families have rigid and unhealthy expectations that end up causing conflict for couples.”
So how do you navigate the impact of family expectations and conflict on your relationship?
How Family Drama Affects Romantic Relationships
According to clinical psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. Dena DiNardo, any problematic dynamic in a family of origin can become a problem in your romantic relationship, from intrusive parents to a sibling struggling with addiction. When one partner notices problems and speaks up, it can cause tension.
“Partners usually have an easier time observing what’s happening within a family that is not immediately their own,” says DiNardo. “Although they are not always exactly correct, there’s often a lot of validity to what they notice.”
“For many men, especially men who either don’t see (or don’t want to see) what’s going on in their family, this will cause a fight or conflict within the romantic relationship, which further distracts them from the problematic dynamics in the family of origin,” she adds.
You may be in the opposite scenario, where your partner is putting pressure on you to go along with dysfunctional family rules without complaining. Regardless of your specific situation, the steps below can help you safeguard your relationship against family drama.
Steps to Follow When Family Interferes with Your Relationship
1. Tune Into Your Feelings
First, it’s important to pay attention to how you’re feeling about the situation, says Amias. According to her, this may be easier to do when your partner’s family creates tension in your relationship (you’re bothered!). When your own family is causing the issues, things can get complicated.
For example, you’ll want to pause and tune into your feelings before snapping at your partner for complaining about your mother’s nightly phone calls.
“It can be hard to admit having negative feelings about a parent because it triggers guilt, but recognizing your guilt is the first step to setting healthy boundaries to protect your relationship,” adds Amias.
2. Discuss and Identify the Issues
The second step is discussing and identifying the issues with your partner with the goal of understanding the situation and gaining clarity, according to Amias.
“Once you understand the problem better, you can start exploring different options for responding to it,” she says. Being a good listener is as crucial as being an honest communicator here.
“Listen, with an open mind to your partner’s perspective of what’s going on, even if you don’t agree,” says DiNardo.
3. Stop Going Along with Dysfunctional Expectations
Maybe you’ve discussed the fact that when your partner talks about your marital problems with her sister, it makes you feel uncomfortable and ganged-up upon. Or perhaps you’ve realized that your decisions are too influenced by your father’s expectations — and it’s making your partner feel resentful.
After you’ve successfully identified the issues and how they’re making you feel, the next step is to stop going along with the dysfunction.
“If the family issue is coming from your family, don’t pressure your partner to go along with dysfunctional family expectations,” says Amias. “Similarly, if it’s your partner’s family issues that are causing conflict in your relationship, remind yourself that you don’t have to follow their family rules in order to keep the peace in the family.”
If it feels hard to communicate about this and confront things head-on, DiNardo recommends individual, couples or family therapy to address and change the problematic dynamics.
4. Support Each Other and Prioritize Your Relationship
As you start shifting the way you relate with your family, there might be pushback. Amias suggests looking for ways to support each other as a couple.
“Family issues can put a lot of strain on relationships,” she says. “When couples aren’t able to support each other and put their relationship first, unresolved family issues are one of the top reasons why relationships end. If you value your relationship, make sure you’re prioritizing working together with your partner over trying to please members of your family.”
“Look at the conflict as objectively as possible and come up with a couple of different strategies for change,” DiNardo adds.
The idea is not to alienate family members or fall into an “us vs. them” mindset. It’s to prioritize and protect your relationship and find compromises that work for both you and your partner while setting healthy boundaries with family.
Following the steps above does not guarantee a happy ending, but failing to do so is a recipe for disaster. You can’t control what family members do and how they react. However, if both you and your partner stay dedicated to transforming the situation and continue to uphold your boundaries, your relationship can survive family drama and flourish.
“Relationships can and do suffer significantly due to unresolved problems with the family of origin,” says DiNardo. “Often this is due to a lack of boundaries between the family of origin and the couple.”
“Some relationships will end,” she adds. “Some will go on with one or both partners significantly suffering, but not knowing what else to do. And some will grow for having invested a lot of open-minded thinking, awareness, and change.”
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