Like it or not, both you and your partner bring your families into any long-term or serious relationship. Meeting the parents, seeing family on holidays, and navigating relationships with in-laws can be challenging even in the happiest of families; it’s even harder when your partner’s family is a toxic one, or a family they have a complicated relationship with.
Relationship with family is the longest and most permanent relationship most of us have; while your partner could leave a bad job or drop a toxic friend, it’s more complicated with family. How do you support them through this difficult part of their life while also dealing with the toll this can take on your relationship? Here’s what I recommend.
Listen first, and follow their lead
It can be difficult to balance active listening with offering solutions when anyone is going through hard times – it’s especially challenging with your partner, whose problems often impact you as well. Of course, you want to help them! And you likely have your own strong feelings about their family, both as someone who’s seen the impact of their actions up close and who may have had to interact with them yourself.
That said, it’s best to hold back from offering advice or trying to convince your partner to take a particular course of action unless they very specifically ask you to. Family is complicated, and no matter how poorly our family treats us, the emotions about it are never simple or clear-cut. Even though it often feels that as the outside observer, you have the most objective take on the issues at hand, the truth is there are layers that only your partner can know, and they need to be centered in this situation.
If your partner’s family is causing challenges for them, the first step is always to let your partner know that you are there to listen without judgment. Offer a safe and supportive space for them to express their feelings and process their emotions, as contradictory as they might be. Resist the urge to tell them to respond a certain way, set a certain boundary, or cut their family member(s) out. Even if you’re right and that is the only workable solution, that’s a conclusion your partner needs to arrive at on their own.
Set your own boundaries
That said, that doesn’t mean that you should or even can be a completely passive observer in the situation with your partner and their family, or that you need to support their decisions blindly. As someone who shares a relationship with them (and may live with them), you’re also impacted by their family and their relationship with them, and you’re allowed to have your own boundaries on the subject.
How does your partner’s family’s behavior impact you? Are they rude, disrespectful, or manipulative of you? If you’re in a same-sex relationship (or the queer or trans partner of a straight or cis person), your partner’s family’s views on LGBT people may be harmful to you. If you’re a person of color in a relationship with a white person, their family’s racism may be dangerous and dehumanizing. While you can’t force your partner to change their relationship with their family, you are allowed (and encouraged!) to decide what you want to do in the dynamic, and to step away when and if you need to. Examples of this could be:
“It’s really important to me to support you at your family Thanksgiving this year, and also for my own wellbeing, I’m going to have to excuse myself and go home if your mom misgenders me. Do you want to talk with her about it beforehand to try to make sure that doesn’t happen?”
“I’m really sorry your dad is going through such a hard time, and I know how stressful this has been for you; I really want to help you figure it out. But I’m not comfortable with him staying in our home because of how he talks about Black people and the racist beliefs he’s brought up in the past. I know you’ve talked with him about it, and I appreciate that, but feeling safe in my own home isn’t something I can compromise on. Can we brainstorm other solutions for you to help him through this tough period?”
Stay focused on your relationship, not fixing their family
The unfortunate fact of the matter is you’re unlikely to be able to really impact your partner’s family’s bad behavior; these are dynamics that take years of concerted work (and good faith effort from both sides, a rare thing) to make even small shifts in. Although it might feel like it would be a huge victory to see your mother-in-law call your partner by the correct name at a family gathering, or for your partner’s family to finally apologize to them, focusing on these outcomes can put you both on an endless hamster wheel of trying to control others’ behavior with little to no results
Instead, focus on what you can impact: your own relationship. As we talked about above, your partner’s difficult family can put a strain on you and your relationship dynamic. Depending on what kind of difficult family dynamic they come from, your partner’s family might be affecting your relationship in even deeper ways; patterns they learned at home for how to relate to others, deal with conflict, repair, and communication might be showing up in your relationship too, even if your partner doesn’t want them to. These are the places you can actively make a difference — notice what patterns your relationship is falling into, identify where you want them to change, and charge both of you with doing the work to make it happen (including going to therapy).
And even if it isn’t the intended effect, having the power to transform toxic dynamics in their own relationship may be the most powerful motivator for your partner to change how they show up in their own family dynamic.