First Comes Love, Then Comes the Difficult Family?

So you’ve met the perfect person for you, and you’re starting to plan the rest of your life together. What’s the problem? Lots of couples have to deal with opinions, unsolicited advice and negativity from family members about their wedding plans, and sometimes even about their relationship itself. But for many interracial, interfaith or same-sex couples, such conflicts involve far bigger issues than seating charts and guest lists. If you’re struggling with family opposition, or close friends who may not support your relationship, here are a few tips. 

Keep things in perspective, but don’t pretend the issues don’t exist.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “‘Til Faith Do Us Part,” reminds interfaith couples dealing with family conflicts to keep things in perspective. “If you go back 50 years ago, it’s amazing just how much people’s day-to-day lives were affected by this kind of opposition.” While interfaith, interracial and same-sex couples certainly don’t face the same kind of obstacles they used to, conflict can still arise, particularly with family members who may not be as accepting as others. Ignoring such issues won’t make them go away, and it’s important to work through them as a couple.

Respect your partner’s wishes when it comes to his/her family.
“Whenever you’re going into meeting a new family, meeting your future in-laws, you’re always dealing with a different set of traditions, a different way of communicating,” Riley says. Such differences may well include how supportive your respective families are of your relationship. If you are the one whose family is more accepting, you may feel like you need to work overtime to convince your partner’s family how wonderful you are. But don’t force the issue. As former therapist Pamela Milam writes in her book “Premarital Counseling for Gays & Lesbians” (2012), “Families are configured in so many different ways, and each one constitutes its own tiny culture with private sets of rules, norms, and customs.” Let your partner–as the native inhabitant of the family culture–set the pace, and be patient.

Not all family concerns can be dismissed as prejudice or intolerance.
If you’re a mixed-faith or mixed-race couple, you can’t erase the differences between you, and you wouldn’t want to. They’re probably part of what you fell in love with about each other. Still, these differences can cause tensions around some very important issues–a hard reality your family members may be more willing to face than you are. For example, more than half of the interfaith couples Riley surveyed for her book didn’t discuss which faith they would raise their children in before marriage. Don’t shy away from talking about the hard stuff, even when you know you and your partner may have differences of opinion due to your family or cultural backgrounds. “Marriage is going to be lots of these discussions,” Riley says. “I don’t think avoiding the important questions is a good way to start off.”

Don’t make assumptions–talk about it together.
“If you catch yourself making assumptions about any aspect of your upcoming marriage,” Milam writes, “then you’re already treading into dangerous territory. You’ll be ahead of the game if you check your assumptions with your future spouse.”  Your future life as a married couple will most likely look a lot different than your lives now. Even if you have a vision of what that life will look like–where you’ll live, whether you’ll have kids, whether you’ll be part of a religious community–that vision might come as a surprise to your partner. Don’t assume that you’re on the same page without talking about it, especially if you’re also dealing with family conflict. Instead, make talking about future issues something you do to learn more about each other. “The more details you can imagine about your life in the future, the better,” Riley says.

You’re not only born into a family–you can build one for yourself.
There’s no doubt that family is one of the most important parts of life. But if your family members refuse to accept your chosen partner, you’re going to have to accept that they probably aren’t going to be in your life as much as you might wish. Even if you’re at odds with your family, you and your partner can surround yourselves with people who love and support you and your relationship.

It’s worth repeating: Be patient.
Sometimes time is what’s really needed to work through people’s issues. Tensions run high during wedding planning, and some issues can seem like bigger deals than they end up being. As Riley puts it, “The wedding really has a tendency to focus people’s irritation and their anger. People act crazy around weddings.” Keep the lines of communication open, and don’t cut yourself off from the possibility of future reconciliation.

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