Have you ever dated someone and it’s going well, you really like them, and you’re intrigued and hopeful about the future? An important next step is to meet their people, discovering the significant community in their life. As your relationship progresses, perhaps you meet their friends and find them lovely. You can see why they love your partner and why your partner loves them—similar energies, senses of humor, and values. Friends are the family you choose, after all. Maybe you also meet your partner’s work people. These are colleagues, not your partner’s best friends, so perhaps you gain insight to your partner's context, but they may not be a regular presence in your shared life. Then, the big one—you meet your partner’s family. And it's rough.
Families are the people who formed your favorite person. You expect they may be a lot like your partner, so you are excited and nervous—will they like me? Will they approve of us? But maybe, when you meet them, you find them to be unexpectedly unpleasant or difficult. It confounds you. Does your partner see this disconnect? How could these people be related to the one you love? How did your partner turn out alright and even wonderful when these people are so…not?
Not liking your partner’s family is troubling. It could lead down many a rabbit hole—should I break up with my partner because I can’t stand the family? How would being married work? They’ll become MY family? How will we do celebrations? Am I supposed to deal with them on holidays and family reunions FOREVER if I really can’t stand these people now? And they'll grandparent my children?
This is the conundrum of loving your partner and not especially liking their family. You are left wondering, "How can I commit to my partner when I can't stand the family?"
Before you simply react and dump out all of your negative impressions, pause, take a deep breath, and assume a posture of listening. Take time to listen to your partner and consider things from their perspective. How did they perceive the time you just spent with the family? What kind of history do they highlight? What is their relationship to their family? Spend some time hearing the family stories to appreciate the dynamics at play. Does your partner carry the same concerns you hold? How have they been managing their relationship with the family?
At some point, you need to share your impressions, both the good and the bad. Find things to admire along with the things that make you wonder. Speak the truth in the context of love (Eph. 4:15). Do be honest. Don’t be cruel. Don’t say "I can’t stand your family/mother/father/siblings," but rather name specifically what you experienced and why it bothers you. Own your own feelings and your narrative, giving room for other people to have other experiences and not to be responsible for what you feel. A way you can love your partner well is being open and honest and resolution-seeking regarding this, so it doesn’t become a pressed pain-point in your relationship.
Wonder where you may play a part in the not-getting-along. What chips did you bring in on your shoulder? Was it differences of opinions or personalities that don’t mix well? If your partner is the person you want to spend your life with but the family is the only thing keeping you from jumping fully into that commitment, ask yourself why that is. See what comes up for you.
When your emotions are provoked, it is valuable to ask why and explore what is getting hooked within you. Is some wound in you being irritated by these interactions? Those are things you can be responsible for within yourself. If you need help on the journey to healing a wise counselor can help you process past hurts and keep it from robbing you of joy today or hope for the future. Also, counselors are outside your relationship and can also speak objectively into your situation.
You have to be real with each other. You do not want to end up married and fighting over the same extended family dynamics. You may hope that these relationship challenges would just sort themselves out over time or once you were married, but they will not. Relationship issues do not sort themselves out; they persist until they are addressed.
When you marry someone, you’re each leaving your families of origin to join together and form a new family unit—leave and cleave (Genesis 2:24). But, it is false and naïve to think you do not both bring your families into your marriage with you. God calls us to honor our parents and care for our families. Your families are the very people and systems who formed you—they are a part of you. And you both will likely have and need interaction with your respective families in your lives together. They are support systems, confidantes, sources of love (and tension), and just people who will always be a part of you.
You can shape together what interacting with your respective families can look like, taking into consideration what each of you need to feel safe and be well while with family. If your concerns are things can you both manage and be hopeful about, you can find a way forward setting good boundaries for yourselves. Be sure to stay communicative with your partner about where you’re at and what you need in relation to interacting with their family—then there can be a way forward.
If the thought has occurred to you more than once that you might need to break up with your partner because you can’t stand their family—that isn’t something to brush off, nor is it something to act rashly on either.
Measure the cost and loss: would I prefer not dealing with this family and losing my partner? Is that what I choose? Or inversely: can I deal with the family because I choose my partner? Another way to consider it: is it more painful for me to lose my partner because I do not want to deal with their family? Or is more painful to stay with this person and deal with their family? Whatever you answer is your answer. Don’t judge yourself, just be honest.
If your partner intends to stay well connected to their family, you need to consider how your not liking their family (and therefore your needing some distance from them) will affect your partner and their relationship to their family.
Your partner will also have to sift through what they can and cannot live with in a partner who doesn’t want to be around their family. What will it be like if your partner can never speak about their family to you because you do not like them? What will holiday dinners and family gatherings and reunions be like if you really find yourself unable to cope with being around them? What about if you have children? How will you navigate your kids’ relationships to their grandparents and aunts and uncles? What will that cost them? Can you find ways to build relationships on some common ground? Can you both compromise in a way that still preserves your ability to be well in your lives and your relationship? If so, awesome. If not, that’s important to address.
In intimate partner relationships, especially ones where we are considering committing our lives to one another for the rest of our lives in marriage, it’s important to take stock and be honest with yourself, including regarding the potential in-laws. Every relationship requires give-and-take. And each person in a relationship needs to consider what they can and can't live with. It’s important to know ourselves and understand our limits. If you marry your partner, their family becomes your family. You will have to see them, even if just occasionally or a few times a year. Also, they are a part of your partner’s life.
If coping with being around your partner’s family is just not in your realm of possibility at this stage of your life, it’s fair and important to communicate that with your partner. Together, you can determine if there is a way to move forward as a couple or not.
Talk with God about your concerns. Where do you sense God is leading you? How is God inviting you in this season of your life? If it is to continue with this partner, then find a way to be with them and with their family. If this hesitation is a part of God leading you out of the relationship, then ok. Do that graciously. Addressing this now is much better than addressing it after you are married.
Spend some time with yourself and with God, and allow yourself to excavate and sit with what comes up. Hold it in prayer. You may not like your potential in-laws, but is there a way you can actively practice love for them? We can still love (verb, action) people we don’t particularly like. Jesus calls us to love one another, that’s how others will know you’re his (John 13:35).
If you choose to stay and commit and marry your partner, know that you are also choosing their family too. You need to figure out a way to love (action, not feelings necessarily) and be present with your in-law family in whatever way you as a couple decide is fit for you.
If you choose not to continue because you really can’t cope, that is where you are, and that is ok. Leave with grace.
In summary, communicate with your partner, seek to love, deal with your stuff, and listen to God's leading through the process. You will be ok.
Rev. Deb Koster
Rev. Deb Koster