Hardly anyone I know can say that their families don’t have “issues” of some kind or another. This is just part of life for most of us – navigating through our family’s overt or covert drama.
For some of us the complications in our families of origin are far more intricate and obvious than for others. For those lucky others, things are pretty peachy without too many old skeletal bones rattling in the closet. Regardless, we all deal with our own situations differently.
What if your partner has a decidedly more difficult family than your own?
What if, by default, you’re expected to engage with people who leave a sour taste in your mouth and for whom conflict is as much a part of their daily lives as your sleepy morning shuffle to the coffee pot is for you?
Many Couple’s Seek Counseling Because of “In-Law Issues”
One of the things couples seeking counseling often struggle with is just this – difficulty and frustration around navigating through the subculture of their partner’s family.
I call it a “subculture” because families operate with their own roles, rules, expectations and homeostasis. Many of us can relate to the feeling of nervous anticipation prior to a family gathering with another’s high-tension family. It can feel a little like walking on a tightrope to get to the other side – or into the car in which to make your getaway!
In this article, I will not go down the road of the decision-making around whether or not you should engage with your partner’s family. I will continue with the assumption that the decision has been made that you feel it’s necessary to learn to deal with the family in question.
Also, “difficult” will here be defined as common issues addressed in couples counseling where partners’ families are concerned, such as frequent arguments, acceptance by family, jealousy, alcohol use/abuse, etc. I am not including extremely serious issues like physical, sexual and emotional abuse as the presence of these concerns have far more implications than I’m addressing here.
Walking into the subculture of the other family requires a combination of skills, some “partner” centered and some “you” centered. Here are six tips to help survive your difficult partner’s family.
6 Steps To Help You Deal with Your Partner’s Difficult Family
1) Use Active Listening Skills
This is the first step in good communication in any situation but is particularly helpful in a potentially problematic exchange. Listen carefully to what the other has said then carefully reflect back, to assure that you heard them right and they feel understood.
If you have something to say that might illicit defensiveness by the other, begin your statement with “I feel” followed by an emotion, preferably one that will have a disarming effect.
For example, “I feel sad when I try to make conversation with you and it appears you’re ignoring me.” You can’t control what the other’s response will be but you can decrease the chance of escalation.
The idea is to listen, reflect, validate and empathize with the other.
In an ideal world, both people use this communication tool together – but at least you can try to do your part to avoid getting dragged down the rabbit hole.
Remember that there are many people who will still try to drag you down there.
Simply smile and say, “I can see this is upsetting you,” or “I can see we’re not communicating well and I’m sorry about that – enjoy your coffee cake…” Do your best not to further engage in a conversation that will likely turn ugly, no matter how much active listening you attempt to use.
2) Stay Focused on Supporting Your Partner
Your mate is very likely aware of the pitfalls of his/her own family. It possibly has caused a lot of frustration, headaches and possibly heartaches in his/her own life.
For this reason, try to remain focused on supporting your partner. Many people believe that “family is family” and you accept them no matter what. The idea of being cut off from one’s family is sometimes more painful than just “dealing” with them. Stay tuned into how your partner’s feeling and be supportive – regardless if the idea that slowly scratching an ice pick down a chalkboard sounds more appealing than spending the evening with them.
3) Activate Your Personal Force Field
As “Star Trek-esque” as this sounds, this is a great self protection tool that only requires a little visualization.
If you have a lot of emotional reactivity that comes up around the idea of spending time with your partner’s family, the day of the planned meeting, begin imagining a force field that encircles you in a protective bubble and can be activated at any time.
This bubble is invisible to others but you know it’s there and has the ability to deflect negative energy, criticism, hostility and any other irritation that fits for your situation when it comes to your significant other’s family.
Make it an inside joke of your own – you could even whisper to yourself, “force field up” when it’s needed or just think it in your head. You might determine a particular spot on your body that is the activator button. As silly as this may sound to some, this type of visualization can be extremely useful – and the humor around it makes it an automatic stress reliever. Force field up!
4) Avoid Triangulation Between Family Members
Bowen Systems theory states that when there is anxiety between two people, a third person will often be triangulated in to reduce the anxiety.
Don’t get caught in the middle between your partner’s family members.
You are a visitor to the family system (until you’re welcomed and accepted in) and you are asking for trouble by letting a member whisper in your ear about another person. If someone attempts to triangulate you into a situation, let them know you’d rather not get involved. If the person persists, politely excuse yourself. Danger Will Robinson.
Whether you’re practicing your active listening, trying to remember to remain supportive of your partner, activating your force field or avoiding being triangulated between two family members, the skill of breathing effectively will ease you through it all.
With proper breathing technique (deep in through the nose, all the way down to the belly and slowly out through the mouth), your physiology has a much better chance of remaining unaroused – your calm place. If you have moments of frustration, irritation or the like, step outside or excuse yourself to the restroom to spend a moment taking a few good deep breaths. They’ll take you a long way.