Families are incredible things. They influence, frustrate, support, and nurture everyone to varying degrees. No one can hurt us like our family can, and then sometimes they are the only safe haven in this cruel world. If you have a close family whose opinions, time and support you value, then chances are good that they are a big part of every important thing in your life. But is there such a thing as a family that is too close? If her family is causing problems in your relationship, how can you get that across to your significant other without alienating them (and her) entirely?
No matter how close you and your significant other are, her connection to her family is always going to be stronger, with more history. The influence of a family is such that even being in the room with them will change the dynamic of your relationship with your girlfriend and possibly change her personality. As much as we all try to fight it, no one knows how to push your buttons better than your family. And when a family gets together, the dynamics and relationships always seem to revert back the roles that have been played since time immemorial.
The question becomes where you fit into the equation. Someone who is confident and assertive in her day-to-day life can become a pushover in the presence of a dominant sibling or parent. It may be difficult to watch, but there is little you can do to reverse the decades of programming that have taken place. What can you do when you feel that her family and their influence start to infringe on your relationship?
The thing about close-knit families is that they are very protective and they think that they know what’s best for their own. They feel as though they have known her longer, and until you prove yourself otherwise, you are someone who could potentially hurt someone they love very much. Once you are around for long enough, you will eventually develop your own role within the family dynamic, and you will experience some growing pains along the way.
Chances are good that in a close family, your first few encounters with them will be pleasant. You are on your best behaviour and they are one theirs. In a sense, you and the family are courting each other at first and it can seem rosy and ideal, just like any relationship. And you should treat it as such. Try to remember any bit of etiquette that your mother ever taught you to show your girlfriend’s family that you have the utmost respect for them, and they will assume that you will respect their daughter/sister as well.
As you get to know your girlfriend and her family better, however, you will start noticing the things in their relationships that your girlfriend loves them despite of. If you are getting the feeling that one of the family members doesn’t like you, for instance, ask your girlfriend about it. If it is a particularly close sibling, then the problem could be that they are slightly jealous of time she is spending with you that she could or would have been spending with him or her. If need be, try to include them as much as possible in doing stuff with you. Also, be respectful of the fact that they still need to spend time with their families on their own, without having you in tow all the time. Don’t take this personally, and don’t think that it has anything to do with you. The truth is that having a significant other in the room always changes the dynamic of the experience and sometimes close siblings need time to spend indulging in their private jokes and “remember whens” without feeling badly that they are leaving you out.
This is not to say that you should be excluded from every family or sibling event. You need to share in some of the times in order to establish your place in the family and your inclusion in remembering past good times. You will find that a woman who loves her family will feel more confident of her decision if her family’s opinions support her own.
If her family is close-knit then they will be used to discussing everything from little tiffs with you to big decisions in their lives with them. This may cause you some discomfort when you start to realize that every bit of your relationship is aired at the family table and you have little control over it. When a family is too close (or “enmeshed” as they say in therapy circles) is when your girlfriend is relying on them for things you feel that she should be relying on you for. For example, if she is used to going running to her father to fix things or she spends all of her time and too much of her money bailing a sibling out of trouble, it can cause a rift between you if you feel that she avoids relying on you for support by always turning to them. Chances are that she won’t even realize that she’s doing this, but you have to be very careful when you approach her about it.
Before you do so, examine why you feel it is damaging to your relationship. If you simply go up to her and tell that her relationship with her family is weird or unhealthy, she will probably think that you are judging her (or worse, her family) and start off on the defensive. Make sure that you have specific examples of how her behaviour affects your relationship and avoid generalizations or judgments like, “You’re always bailing your sister out—she’s just taking advantage of you.” Figure out how it affects your relationship directly and approach it from that angle. For instance, instead of calling her a spoiled princess, tell her that when she needs help and advice, that it would make you feel really good if she could come to you and the two of you could work things out together. Let her know that she can depend on you as well as her family as a source of support and that you think it would make you feel closer, more like a team.
Often, when a family is meddling in affairs that you feel are none of their business, they are doing so because they love and are trying to protect their own. The best way to stem this is to build a relationship with them so that they grow to trust you will take care of her. Family bonds are strong and if you cannot find your place within the family and encourage your significant other to trust you and let you build a family between you that can include them, then you may learn the hard way that family is not expendable, but you might be.