How to Keep Your Family From Ruining Your Relationship
Even after we're grown and gone from the nest, families still have an amazing capacity to ruin our lives. To me, this capacity is most obvious in our relationships with outsiders, i.e., a dating relationship, an engagement, even a marriage.
There are two ways your family of origin can mess up your relationship with your sweetie. They can be direct about it, and actively try to split the two of you up, or they can just sit back and let their own dysfunctional model - the only model you really know - sow the seeds of discord and unhappiness in another generation.
The good news is that both of these tactics can be somewhat diminished with a little care and forethought on your part. But before you put any of these solutions to use, you need to ask yourself a few hard questions first. Questions like, "Why is my family actively discouraging my relationship with this person? Could my sweetie honestly not be a good match for me? Does he or she not support and care about my needs, and is my family picking up on this?" Once you've answered these questions honestly - to yourself and out loud to all parties involved - now is the time to start countering your family's influence.
The first tactic is, obviously, to be in constant, honest communication with your partner about the situation. Dealing with your family of origin is a lot like dealing with your children; you need to present a united front at all times. It's been said that "A house divided against itself cannot stand," and this is so very true when it's your house, your home, and your partner and any children the two of you may be responsible for. When my mother tried to recruit my husband Alex to be a co-parent of me (at 40), he told me - much to my mother's chagrin and denial. Alex, knowing I expected him to be a husband, a partner, and an equal, pretty much figured what would happen to our relationship if I didn't know what my mother had tried to do to it behind my back. So he told me, and consequently the issue never had a chance to drive a wedge between us.
Another way to diffuse major family bombs is to spend as little of your life as possible with your sweetie and your family in the same room. Split major holidays between your family and your partner's family - that's only fair. Consider a romantic getaway at a B&B for just the two of you rather than stressing through another horrible Christmas dinner. If it's really that bad, move. Many a grown son or daughter have moved halfway (or more) across the country to get away from their toxic family.
Set limits and rules about how and when your parents and siblings can visit, and stick to them. If your mother, your grandmother, or your aunt have a habit of just walking into your home any time they feel like it, that can put a real damper on your plans for a romantic dinner and massage! Given enough interruptions, or potential interruptions, neither of you might feel particularly romantic toward each other and that will ruin your relationship! Tell the family member(s) who are so free with your front door that they have to call first - and that you might not always be home when they want or expect you to be! If the intrusive family member doesn't have a key, start locking the door. If they do have a key, change the locks. Get caller ID, so if Mom calls right when you're sitting down to dinner, you can note it and call her back - at your convenience. You're an adult It's your home. Act like it.
Don't run crying to your family, either in person or on the phone, every time you and your sweetie have a disagreement. First of all, it's none of your family's business unless he or she hit you, especially if you have children. If it's not that extreme situation, keep them out of it. If they already don't like your partner, this will just give them ammunition. If they do like your partner, hearing all the negative things he or she did during a fight just might change their opinion!
Plus, it's common for your sweetie to feel betrayed by your running to outsiders for help, and may choose to stop sharing his or her honest feelings with you in the future, since you're probably going to blab them to your family at the first opportunity. Betrayal and lack of trust tend to ruin a relationship. Don't let this happen to yours.
Also, it's not a very mature thing to do, and may give your family the extra ammunition it needs to try to split the two of you up, if they're arguing "you're too young!" or something like that.
In my case, I have more trouble fighting the dysfunctions I was raised on than my family actively trying to break up my relationship. I fight my parents' bad example of a marriage every day I interact with my husband Alex. My mother, as I've mentioned before is a master control freak who constantly either puts down, dismisses, micro-manages or ignores my father - and anyone else who gets in her way. My father, after two major bouts of therapy with my mother to get her to stop and after an attemped move-out of the home, has given up and is now letting himself slide into dementia to escape from her (which my mother is in denial about, but that's another story).
But growing up, this is what I saw every day. This is what I thought was normal. To me, it was "okay." Well, it wasn't okay when I was thirteen, and it isn't okay now. I consciously battle every day to let Alex know I appreciate the little things he does for me, even something as small as saying, "thank you" when he brings me a glass of milk or loads the dishwasher - something I've seen and seen again that my mother doesn't do for my father, or for me, on the rare occasions we visit them. My parents' model of a toxic relationship had already destroyed one of my marriages before I even met Alex, back when I was young and unaware of the damaging effects of my mother's behavior. I'm older now, and hopefully wiser, and I work very hard to keep my mother's example from ruining another relationship.
If your parents have (or had) a bad marriage, you will need to do the same. And be aware, the influence never fully goes away no matter how old you are or how far away you live. Even a short visit, as Alex and I recently found out [see the Hub "The Best Ways to Say "I'm Sorry."], can be enough to push all of my mother's relationship-destroying behavior buttons that still live in me.
It's a hard thing to acknowledge the active or latent relationship-destroying tactics your family may be using on you and your sweetie. It's even harder to resist them. After all, this is your family I'm talking about here. The people that raised you, taught you how to ride a bike, comforted you when you were sick or had a nightmare - or maybe they didn't do any of these things, and that's part of the problem. But there comes a day in the lives of a lot of people, including me, and probably including you since you're reading this, when we have to choose between our families of origin - our parents, siblings, grandparents, and our families of choice - spouse and children. I can't tell you who or what to choose, but I will say this: