When we commit to someone, we are usually not only agreeing to commit to them, but to what and who they bring with them. Family members are usually part of what a partner brings to a committed, long-term relationship. Unfortunately although we can choose our partner, we can’t choose their family.
Building a relationship with a long-term partner’s family can be difficult for all involved. Everyone involved is adjusting: parents are trying to adjust to a new relationship dynamic with their child and build a relationship with their child’s partner. The couple is establishing and strengthening their own relationship and making their own life choices. If these choices conflict with what the parents wanted for their child, the parents may see this as a rejection. Parents who miss their child and want to have more of a relationship may seem pushy or over-involved to the child’s partner. There are also many other reasons that can complicate this relationship.
In my experience as a therapist, strained relationships with a partner’s family members is very common. If you find building a relationship with your partner’s parents to be challenging, or if you just don’t like your partner’s parents, the following tips and considerations may be helpful for you:
- Discuss the level of involvement you would like to have with your partner’s family. Do you want to see them every week or only on holidays. If you choose to have children, what type of involvement should they have with them? If you and your partner disagree, you can talk through the reasons and try to reach a compromise.
- Work on building a positive relationship and focusing on the good. It can be hard to relate to someone if you don’t know them well. Try to have more shared experiences and plan activities together. Try seeking advice on small things, like which tablecloth is best or what dishes to use at a celebration.
- This is a long-term relationship, so it is likely worth investing in. In most areas of life, it’s fairly easy to minimize contact with people we don’t like. However, in a marriage or other committed partnership, it may be worth trying to reach common ground.
- Not all events have to include all the members of the family. If it remains difficult—for whatever reason—for you to enjoy or even handle seeing certain members of the family, try instead to create (or allow) opportunities for them to see your partner or their grandchildren.
- Don’t force your partner or children to cut off their relationships. You may dislike your partner’s parents. But allowing your children to spend time with their grandparents may really benefit them (and their grandparents). Preventing your children from building this relationship can be a huge loss (unless you have reason to believe they are in danger). And if your partner wishes to spend more time with their parents (with or without you) and you prevent them from doing so, conflict and resentment often will take place.
- Set boundaries. Doing this early on in your relationship is likely to make the adjustment easier for everyone involved. Assuring your partner’s parents they are an important part of the family may help them agree more easily to the boundaries you set without feeling as if you have cut them off.
- Communicate clearly. If you usually only communicate with your partner’s family through your partner but find things often become muddled, try speaking directly to them instead. This can help prevent miscommunication and misunderstanding and will keep your partner from being caught in the middle.
Dealing with your partner’s parents is often one of the most challenging parts of your relationship, but if possible try to make your interactions with them as pleasant as possible.