I am so lucky that I love my mother-in-law and my mother-in-law loves me. It may help that my husband’s family lives in Colorado while we’re here in Georgia, and they’re not across the street or anything, but I hear so many horror stories from others about their in-laws. It’s bad enough to have a rough relationship between spouses and families, but navigating your own family and your partner, and having to choose between the two is a nightmare. How in the world do you navigate that and keep everyone happy while also keeping your sanity and mental health in tact?
This scenario is not uncommon, says clinical psychologist Carla Manly. “Family members sometimes don’t find our partners likable and sometimes our partners simply don’t like some or all of the people in our family of origin. When a partner or family members don’t like each other, the relationship can suffer in the long run due to the grating, sandpaper-like nature of the friction,” she says.
How To Talk To Your Partner About Getting Along With Your Family
Depending on how often you and your partner see your family and the level of the dislike, different coping strategies may be needed. For example, if you see your family very infrequently and the level of dislike is fairly low, you and your partner can work to show up as a secure, positive team.
“When partners focus on being loving and team-oriented, feelings of dislike tend to feel less abrasive. However, if you see your family frequently and strong aversion is obvious, it’s important to address the underlying issues to prevent harming the relationship with your partner and the relationship with your family,” she says.
Manly provided the following steps to lead you toward understanding — and possibly healing — the cause of the aversion from your partner toward your family.
Talk to your partner privately about any feelings of dislike and try to understand where their feelings of aversion are coming from, Manly says. “For example, a partner may dislike certain family members because they are controlling, rude, or unwelcoming. Listen without judgment; the goal is to understand your partner’s thoughts and feelings.”
She says you should work with your partner to address the issues. “For example, if your partner is concerned about a parent’s abusive nature or alcoholic tendencies, it’s important to take steps with your partner to create emotional, mental, and physical safety,” Manly says. But if your partner’s concerns are focused on less obvious and tangible issues, like not feeling good enough or feeling excluded, Manly says it’s important for you to work with your partner to create “emotional safety” within your intimate partnership that can help counteract any negative energy from family members. “And, if a partner is simply being critical or negative without any cause, it’s absolutely appropriate to ask your partner to ‘show up with kindness and respect’ for the people you love,” she says.
Manly also suggests working as a team to create tools to help you navigate family situations together. Partners usually just want to feel safe and loved, and by working with your partner and offering them genuine reassurance, a partner’s feelings of being rejected or disliked by family members becomes a nonissue, according to Manly. “When a partner’s well-being is put ahead of family dynamics, a partner will generally feel much safer and secure,” she says.
How To Talk To Your Family About Getting Along With Your Partner
If you’re working with your family who doesn’t like your partner, Manly says to talk with your family openly and honestly about why they dislike your partner — without your partner present. “The goal is to understand the genesis of any negative feelings,” she says. “For example, family members may dislike a partner for a variety of reasons, such as being abusive, low-achieving, disrespectful, or generally ‘not good enough.’ Strive to listen objectively to understand the nature of your family’s concerns.
“Without being defensive, talk with your family about their concerns,” she says. “For example, if your father is worried that your partner is not financially stable, it’s important to express why this concern isn’t valid or important. In general, family members are often highly protective of their loved ones and may not like a partner for very valid reasons.”
But Manly notes that in other cases, feelings of dislike are based on inappropriate, unhealthy personal judgements and bias. “If family members register valid concerns, it may be worth considering their worries. If, however, family members are being highly critical and judgmental, it’s appropriate to request that they act with kindness and respect,” she says.
How To Deal With Guilt & Judgement From Your Family & Partner
“As each of us know, there are people we like and people we don’t like so much. Because you like someone doesn’t mean someone else will, even if they love you,” says Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
“Recognize you can’t control who likes who, but you can ask them to keep their opinions to themselves if it’s hurtful to you, and you can ask them to stop endless criticism. You can agree to disagree, rather than having a running painful litany of guilt and judgment. You ask them to do this in the name of preserving your own relationship,” she says.
Manly says it’s not your burden to carry. “If feelings of guilt and judgement arise, imagine putting them aside like a heavy backpack that doesn’t belong to you,” she says. “As hard as it can be, it’s important to have strong boundaries that clearly state, ‘I have done my part to create peace and positivity, but if you’re not willing to be kind and peaceful, I’m stepping back from the negative dynamic.’”
Tell your family members you and your partner are a team and that their aversion to your partner is causing you stress, Manly says. “Assure your family that you are safe and happy within your relationship; this reassurance — especially if it’s genuine — will often reduce family members’ concerns.”
How To Set Up Boundaries To Protect Yourself
“Ultimately, it’s important to create sanity-saving boundaries that allow you to feel safe and loved,” says Manly. “If partner-family dynamics continue to be negative even after healthy resolution attempts have been made, it’s absolutely appropriate to call a mental health timeout.”
This can include telling your partner that it makes you sad and stressed that they continue to dislike your family, and that it may be a good idea for them to make other plans when you see them. Also tell them that you hope they’ll come to a place where they can embrace your family out of their love for you.
Alternately, if the family members are the source for the dislike, Manly says it’s appropriate to tell your family you need a break. Tell them you’re hurt that they continue to be unkind to your partner, and that you’ve let them know how much it stresses you out. Then say, “Until you are able to welcome my partner into the family with kindness, I must take a step back for the sake of my own mental health — and my relationship,” Manly says.
What To Do If You Don’t Like Your Partner’s Family
“You may not like them, but they are your partner’s family,” says Saltz. She suggests being kind and respectful — but don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of or treated badly.
“If there is no harm going on, and you are just not a fan, realize that interacting is important to your partner and that we all do things for our partners in the name of the health of the relationship. It’s the only family they get, and criticizing them only hurts your partner,” she says.
Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist, advocate, fear specialist, and author of Date Smart and Joy from Fear.
Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.