We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. Now, onto today's topic: tips for talking to your partner about your family.
Q: “My fiancee comes from the perfect family — no seriously, I love them almost more than I love him. They are so awesome. I love my family too, but my parents are way more crazy. For one thing, they're divorced, they can be toxic and manipulative, and generally require a lot of energy. We're moving back to where we're both from, so our parents will be in our lives a lot more in the near future. My partner is really great with my parents, but sometimes he makes comments about how crazy my parents are that hurt my feelings. It's great to have someone understand, but it's a hard line to walk. How do I talk to my partner about dealing with my parents moving forward, and the way he talks about them around me? I don't want him to censor himself, but I don't want to resent it either…”
A: Thanks for the question! This is such a sensitive issue to tackle, and it’s only made more sensitive by the fact that the two sets of parents are so different. Nonetheless, it sounds like all of your parents are going to be in your lives a lot more, so it’s important to make sure you and your partner are on the same page about how to deal with them. Here are eight guidelines for talking about your parents in your relationship.
1. Know That This Is Hard For Everyone
First of all, I just want to offer some validation that this is a tough topic for pretty much anyone who has parents. Talking about parents is so tricky, especially between partners in a relationship. Hearing bad things about your parents is so triggering, regardless of how much you love your parents, how good of parents they are, or even how accurate the smack-talking is. Your parents can drive you insane, but there’s a huge difference between personally talking about how crazy they make you and hearing someone else describe their insanity. Hearing your partner talk badly about your parents is almost guaranteed to make you feel defensive, even if you agree with everything that person is saying. Your partner could parrot back the exact same sentences you’ve said, but you’re still likely to take it personally and get triggered.
This is just one of those hard things in life! In general, the advice I usually give to my clients is to avoid saying anything negative about their partner’s family.
2. ... And That Your Partner Probably Means Well
That being said, there are definitely strategies for dealing with your parents in healthier ways. I think it’s most helpful to recognize that your partner doesn’t enjoy talking badly about your parents. He’s not saying something nasty just for the sake of being cruel. What he’s trying to do is show you he understands and sympathizes with you.
For example, let’s say your parents threatened to cut you off because you’re not going to be spending Thanksgiving with them. If your partner says, “your parents are insane,” what he probably means is something along the lines of, “it sucks that you’re in this situation. It’s not fair. I’d be upset too. I’m sorry.” Similarly, when you tell your partner about crazy things your parents do, you’re simply looking for support. You want to know that your feelings make sense, and that you’re seen and understood. (Don’t parents have a funny way of making us feel like we’re 12 years old, even as adults?)
3. Frame It In Terms Of Support
This distinction is a great way to open up a conversation with your partner. The basic idea is that you want to ask him to support you, but without saying anything negative about your parents. You’re right that this can be a really tough line to walk at times. It sounds like your partner does a pretty great job most of the time, but there may be some moments where he gets wrapped up in wanting to make you feel better. He might end up commiserating with you and joining in on the negative talk.
Start off by telling him that you really appreciate how wonderful he is with your family. Maybe there are even specific situations that you can point to where he’s handled a situation with your family better than you did. Also make sure to tell him how much you appreciate his parents. Let him know that sometimes it’s hard for you to hear anyone talk ill about your parents because it makes you feel defensive. Say something like, “it’s even harder for me in our relationship, since I’m always thinking about how much more I love your parents than I love my own. I get jealous, and that makes me feel on-guard.” You want to let him know that any sort of negative talk about your parents makes you defensive.
From there, let him know that what you need in those moments is just to have support. Say something like this, “I already know all the shitty things about my parents, so it doesn’t help to hear them again. What I really love hearing from you is just simple words of support. Letting me know that you understand, and you sympathize. Just stuff like, ‘that sounds really tough’ or even, ‘I’m so sorry babe.’ Does that make sense?”
4. Tell Your Partner What You Need In The Moment
You can also give your partner this sort of talk in the moment, to help set him up for success. Before going off on a rant about your parents, let him know what you need from him. For example, say something like, “I gotta tell you this ridiculous story about my parents. Can you just listen? I don’t want you to join in on the parent-bashing. I only want to vent. Is that OK?” You’re not going to be able to have this level of emotional maturity every single time (parents are triggering!), but it will really help in the moments that you can do it.
5. Allow For Exceptions
For run-of-the-mill arguments and annoyances, it’s best for a partner to take a back seat and not making any negative comments. That being said, there may be some times where your partner does need to clue you in about some family dynamics that you may have blinders to. For example, if your family members taking advantage of you, or even abusing you, then your partner absolutely should speak up.
6. Remember: Everybody Has Their Battles
Just a quick reminder that no relationship is perfect. No family is perfect. It’s really unfortunate that you’ve had to grow up with toxic parents, but you’re definitely not alone in the dysfunction. I’m sure there are certain ways that your partner’s parents drive him crazy too.
7. Share The Good Stuff
Similarly, I’m sure there are good aspects of your family. As much as your parents may drive you crazy, you may also know that they’ll always be there for you; maybe they’ve always supported you in your relationships or your career path. Make sure you share the good things with your partner too — or even ask your partner what he likes about your parents.
8. Give Your Partner A Better Outlet
Your partner is undeniably going to have his own reactions to your parents, and his feelings deserve to be heard. At the same time, it’s usually too hurtful to hear him talking bad about your parents. Here’s a simple but really effective solution: tell him to talk to his parents about your parents! I’m sure that seeing some of your family’s craziness has made him appreciate his family in new ways. He can vent to his parents, and let them know how much he respects the way they treat the both of you. He gets an outlet, and you get spared from hearing him talk badly about your parents. Plus, his parents get some well-deserve love and appreciation! If that feels too embarrassing or triggering for you, suggest he vent to friends or a therapist.
Wishing you the best of luck!
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