Dear Captain Awkward,
This has to be one of the most asked questions in the history of the world, but I don’t know what to do. I’ve been with my boyfriend for four years. Boyfriend isn’t even the right word, it’s closer to partner / husband. The only reason we aren’t married is that I don’t believe in marriage. I’m 28 years old. We were living together until a year ago until I had to move to a new city, and we’ve been maintaining a long distance relationship while he tries to find a new job down here. This is not a guy that is going away, in other words.
My family despises him. This hurts because my family and I are insanely close – my sister is my best friend, my mom and I used to tell each other everything, I went into the same field as my dad and am the apple of his eye. They’re all still very involved in my life, except for when it comes to Boyfriend – then, they basically will not even acknowledge him. They don’t want to know anything about his life, what I am doing when I am with him, what he gave me for my birthday, etc. They don’t ever ask about him, they shut down if I mention him. My mother maintains that if a wedding was to occur, it would be the biggest mistake of my life and they would not attend. She also claims that as my mother, she knows me better than I know myself. She’s convinced that I’m only with him because I am afraid to be by myself. He could jump in front of a bullet for me and her opinion of him would not change.
This is obviously awful, not just because it hurts me but because it hurts him. And to make matters worse, my mother has predicted their hatred will take a toll on him and poison our relationship. I’m worried that she’s right. It’s already incredibly difficult to have to split up for things like holidays, birthdays, etc. I can’t imagine how it will feel for him the rest of his life. Any attempt on his part to make them like him is met with a brick wall. I think the reason they don’t like him is that a) he is not as attractive as I am and b) his job is not something they view as “professional.” But after four years it’s evolved into totally illogical hatred. What can I do?
A girl who considers her partner a part of her family!
Dear Girl Who:
This sentence in your letter really struck me: “And to make matters worse, my mother has predicted their hatred will take a toll on him and poison our relationship.”
You realize that it means she deliberately wants to poison your relationship, right? She sees this as something that she can “win.”
This sentence also jumped out:
“I think the reason they don’t like him is that a) he is not as attractive as I am and b) his job is not something they view as “professional.””
You think those are the reasons. But do you know that those are the reasons? Are those reasons you supplied when you tried to figure out why they don’t like them (which means that’s how you see him through their eyes) or reasons they told you?
The reason I ask, is if my parents told me that they didn’t like a boyfriend for such superficial reasons, the next words they might hear are “Fuck” and “Off” possibly followed by “Forever.” But if they sat me down and said “We don’t like how he treats you” or “You seem less happy when you’re with him” or “You were out of the room, but he said some really toxic stuff at Thanksgiving last year that made us really uncomfortable” or “When he gets angry, he breaks things, and that makes us worried for you” or “He was feeling up the bridesmaids at your cousin’s wedding” or “Why is he always drunk?” I’d at least hear them out and then I’d check that perception with my friends and other people I trust. When a relationship is toxic and/or abusive, sometimes the people close to you draw boundaries by saying YOU are always invited but S/HE is not because we can’t stand how s/he treats you.
I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, but I wanted to put it out there. Sometimes we hate the people our family members and friends choose to love for really good reasons.
I also want to put it out there that if your parents are insisting on separate holidays, birthdays, etc. that it is a choice they are making, and you don’t have to play along. You can invite them into your life, and it’s on them to choose whether they show up. If you keep going to their events without your partner to keep the peace, you’re playing their game and participating in marginalizing your partner. You can get away with this now while you’re long distance, but once he’s living with you again you need to figure out how to reset the relationship.
Here is what I suggest you do. Nothing here is easy – think of it as lancing a boil so it has a chance to heal – but it’s necessary.
Sit your folks down all together, face to face.
Say, “I know you don’t like ______ and wish I weren’t with him. This has been very painful for me over the years. I wanted to sit you down and ask you, straight up, to tell me the reasons you don’t like him and give you a chance to fully state your case. Can you tell me, as completely and honestly as you can, what your worries and objections are?”
Take notes on what they say. I’m serious. Write it all down. You want a record of this. Plus it will give you something to do and a safe place to look while they talk.
And, this is going to be really, really hard, but don’t interrupt to correct or defend. What you want is their truthful perception (not what you want it to be, not what it should be, but what it is) of your relationship with your partner. And later, you want to be able to say that you heard them out completely. (Secret: This is called giving them “enough rope” – if they say ridiculous things, that’s super sad but also helpful in putting the argument to bed in the long run).
When they are done, say “Thank you for being honest. I don’t necessarily agree with all that you’ve said, but you’ve given me a lot to think about and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Then get yourself out of there so you can think about it. Take a good long time – a few weeks or even a month of radio silence with your family will do everyone good. If they get in touch with you, just say “I’m still thinking about what you said, I’ll be in touch when I’m ready.” Assuming there are no smoking guns of abuse, substance abuse, etc. and that it is the kind of superficial “We just wanted better things for you” stuff you suspect it is, the rest of this is about boundaries.
Boundary 1: Do not show this list or share these critiques with your partner. They aren’t his burden to bear – he’s not the one with an asshole family, and he shouldn’t have to try to “live up” to their expectations. Good audiences for the list are: Close friends (who can be trusted not to carry tales to either your family or your partner), therapist/counselor of some kind (recommended as you navigate this whole conflict). You do not pass negative things your family says about him onto him ANYMORE. Never again. Your mom can’t poison your relationship if you don’t pass the poison on.
Boundary 2: When you’ve come to some kind of decision about things (and for now I’ll assume it’s Partner Is Not Going Anywhere, You Guys), here is a script for communicating with your family. It can be in the form of an email or letter if that makes you more comfortable.
“Family, I know you love me and want the best for me. I know you don’t like (Partner). I’ve fully heard all of your concerns and talked them through with people I trust, and I’ve decided that being with (Partner) is what is best for me because we love each other and he makes me happy.(Then, if there are any things they said during your initial talk that are factually incorrect, take a moment to briefly clarify them.)
So this is what I need from you now:
- I expect that (Partner) will be invited and included in family events like holidays and birthdays and that you will be polite and welcoming to him. If he’s not included, I’m not included.
- I expect that you will not do or say anything to undermine my relationship. I’ve heard your criticisms – in fact, I wrote them all down – so there is no need for you to repeat them. If you can’t say anything nice about (Partner), don’t say anything.
I love you all and know that you want what is best for me. Now I need you to trust me and support my choice of partner. You may never like him or love him the way I do, which makes me sad, but I can live with that if you can show kindness and respect in day-to-day things and accept that he is part of my life. Can I get your agreement to try?”
So now we’re onto boundary enforcement. Which is hard. And takes time – nobody gets it right the first time.
If they make an effort to invite/include/ask about your partner? Reward them with kindness and attention and your presence.
If they say something negative about him, call them on it and change the subject (or end the conversation). For example:
Your mom: “Something insulting and negative”
You: “Mom, we talked about that – please keep your negative opinions to yourself from now on. How is work going?”
Your mom: “But I don’t understand why you…(more negative stuff about partner).”
You: “Sorry, I have to go now.” :click”
Turn off/unplug your phone, take a walk, go have hot sex with your partner, read a book you’ve always wanted to read. Give it about a week, then call her again like nothing has happened – be pleasant and friendly. End the conversation at the first negative thing she says about him. Keep doing this until she gets it. Maybe forever.
This is difficult and stressful, and I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. You’re basically retraining your parents to realize that you can live with their disapproval but you can’t live with their rudeness and unkindness, and the price of treating you like crap around this is that you will talk to them less and be around less. Which means you also bear that cost – you get less contact with people you love and want to be close to. When it gets hard, keep reminding yourself: They can choose to be kind. They can choose to make an effort. If they choose not to do those things? This is not some horrible thing you are doing to them, it’s a choice they are making.
Take strength from the love of your partner, and take strength from the fact that you are doing everything possible to invite them into your life and giving them every opportunity to do the right thing by you. Hopefully they will adapt quickly and love will win the day.