Family matters in my relationship

Reply Tue 31 Aug, 2010 09:25 pm

I am in need of some advice about my relationship. I'm not sure if an online forum is the best place to seek it, but I look forward to your replies all the same.

So here's the issue: I have been dating this guy for a little over a year. We met online, and things were great for a long time. We have been very much in love and even were considering marriage. We hoped to get engaged in August, but put off that decision because things just haven't been right for a while. Essentially, things have become very difficult due to strenuous situations caused by our differences in upbringing and families. I am of the opinion that we both are bringing baggage into the relationship, but sometimes my baggage seems to be bigger than his in some ways.

I come from a family of addicts, alcoholics and enablers. My mother is a crack addict, my father and my aunt are both alcoholics, my sisters have struggled with drug use but have been clean for a while, and the rest of the family has just gotten worn out over the years and puts up with this behavior.

My boyfriend has at times been very compassionate, but then there are times when he expresses a deep dislike for my family and exhaustion at the constant drama that they produce. He comes from a mostly functional Christian home. His mother is a bit overbearing, but all in all, he received a great deal of love and support, and he's never endured the chaos that I have.

So here's the issue: I am incredibly loyal to my family. Even though I'll be the first to admit that many of them have screwed up royally, I see the good in them. When my boyfriend and I talk about the possibility of marriage, we've talked about dealing with my family as well. It seems that in some capacity, he would expect me to stand by him before my family, especially if there were to be any circumstance that could put our potential children in harm's way. I, of course, would want to protect my children. But I still hate that this means basically choosing between the family I will create with my future husband (whether it is this boyfriend or somebody else) and the family I was born into. This is especially painful when I think about my father, who loves me very much in spite of his many problems.

Recently, there was a family party that my boyfriend did not come to because there had been some serious tensions between some family members and me and he was afraid that he would do something he would regret (cuss my family out, accuse them, get in a fight with a particular individual). I knew that he was uneasy about going, so a few days before the party, I told him it was up to him if he came or not. In retrospect, I should not have said that because in my heart I really wanted him to come. The hard lesson I learned was that if you want something, you should be willing to say you want it. Perhaps I was playing a passive-aggressive game without being aware of it.

But here's the thing; I still can't help but feel like he did not support me in this situation. He knew how difficult the party was going to be for me. But he could not come out of exhaustion from the constant drama of my family, and a desire to protect himself and prevent himself from doing something he'd regret (I don't honestly thing he would have done anything he'd regret; maybe subconsciously he just wanted to have a reason not to go).

So two basic questions:

1. When a person comes from a dysfunctional family, to what extent should they expect their partner/spouse to be willing to participate in said family?

2. Is it controlling for the partner/spouse to expect limited interaction with this dysfunctional family? Should I expect him to be present sometimes since on holidays and at parties, they are for the most part well-behaved?

Thanks for any advice you can give.
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Reply Wed 1 Sep, 2010 05:57 am
Everybody comes from a family that is, to some extent or another, dysfunctional. Given this, then there is couplehood.

Spouses/SOs should not be expecting anyone to make a choice between family and themselves. That is a devil's bargain -- nothing good really can come from it, I feel. Of course, if there are children involved then you are going to choose whatever is safest and best for them. But sometimes that's not going to be the SO, yanno?

I think this guy is trying to hedge his bets, by pushing you to essentially choose him no matter what. It's like you have to put him on third base every time he's up, whereas your family has to swing from home plate. It's not, ultimately, fair, even if your family has been doing things that are holding them back.

I am also concerned that your family is being treated like a monolith. Surely some are better than others in terms of being less addicted, more reliable, etc.

Anyway, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you were being a tad passive-aggressive about the party, but it's not like he's not being passive-aggressive about other things.

The answer, like it often is, is to talk. You're both going to have to set expectations going into marriage, if it comes to that. You cannot be expected to completely abandon your family. At the same time, he needs to be assured that you will stand by whatever newer family you make with him, and that of course that the health and well-being and safety of any potential children would be Job One. But there are no children, so that is speculative right now -- what is going to happen right now between the two of you? You need to try to work that out, and a compromise needs to be forged -- and that means on both sides, not just yours. He is not going to get off scot-free, without the need to compromise at all, or at least you should not set the precedent and let him do that.
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Reply Wed 1 Sep, 2010 07:01 am
Just some thoughts off the top of my head:

You should expect that your boyfriend will be civil and polite to your family even if he doesn't like them. You should not expect him to like them any more than you would expect him to like someone else he barely knows. You should state your needs clearly (I need you to support me at this family event) and not expect him to read your mind or worse, to realize that you are telling him one thing but mean another. Should you have children together, you must realize that his legitimate concerns about the safety of the children cannot be whitewashed by your loyalty to your family. (My children will not be unsupervised with someone that I think might use drugs or abuse alchohol while they are there.) That said, he has to have legitimate concerns, not predudiced or ill-informed ones. Should you get married to this man, the two of you are forming a new family. I wouldn't let the "drama" of your old family ruin the stability of your new one. That doesn't mean you can't be there for your family in times of need but it does mean that you may have to take some actions to distance yourself from all that "drama" if it substantially interfers with your relationship with your husband. Easy to say, tough to balance, I know. It concerns me that you feel you need emotional support to go to a family party and feel that your boyfriend might go off on your family in your defense. Are things that bad? Maybe you can redefine some of your interactions to make them less stressful. Perhaps more one on one meetings and less big group events where other people's personal problems with each other tend to spill over to everyone else. I would also evaluate your role in that drama. In a drama, there needs to be a crowd to play to. Don't let yourself be in the audience. Some of these issues are not between you and your boyfriend, but you and your family.
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Reply Wed 1 Sep, 2010 08:08 am
Good points made by both Jes and Engineer; very good points.

I'd like to add something, too.

I don't feel it's necessary for everyone to like each other and get along. What is wrong with him not liking some of your family members? I think we should all respect how the other feels. I wouldn't want to hear my family being criticized too often, but if he doesn't want to go to the dinner because he has to sit beside someone he can't stand, fair enough! He doesn't know or love them the way you do so can you try to see it through his eyes?

One way to deal with this dislike of his is to introduce him gradually, one-on-one to the members in your family. Have Lisa over for dinner by herself. Then go bowling with Mark. Often we just need to get to know people better.

Maybe all this dysfunction is scaring him - you need to separate them all so he can see it's not one big ball of dysfunction but little, separate ones.

As for the party you went to, you did say he didn't have to go and he was being honest by not wanting to and not going.

I have a similar situation going on where my guy makes derogatory remarks about (but never to) one of my sisters and her husband. I just asked him if he can't be open-minded enough to get to know them then to not say those things in front of me. Years ago I would have been upset at being with such a closed-minded person but now I am more tolerant and think it's his loss. My sister does live like trailer trash, her friends are drunks and rather uncouth, but she's got a heart of gold, is hard-working, and is loyal to the core - and I love her to bits. Too bad he can't see that good stuff, but oh well. He doesn't need to see and feel what I do.

I also think that when you have a family, they come first, whenever possible, and that includes your man. You didn't choose your family, but you did choose him.

You sound like a really rational person; I'm sure you'll find a way to either deal with this or accept it. What he's doing and feeling is quite normal and to be expected - he didn't grow up with these people and they are alien to him. I think being patient and understanding would go a long way.
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Reply Wed 1 Sep, 2010 08:18 am
YOU should be distancing yourself from dysfunctional persons, family or not, for your own sanity. (Why do you keep entering the lion's den and then are so surprised that you get scratched?)

If you are really serious about this guy and considering marriage, then HE should come first.

See your family on your own time on your own terms, but don't bring your future husband and children into the squirrel's cage.

BREAK the cycle!!!

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Reply Wed 1 Sep, 2010 08:27 am
And one other thing: whether they are well-behaved or not, if he doesn't like them or just doesn't feel like going, why should he? I think all this pressure to have spouses/partners fully participate in the other's family events is unwarranted.

I don't do birthdays or holidays and I don't, as a rule, attend the never-ending round of birthday parties in Alex's large family. I have no interest in sitting around watching people open presents, or in celebrating the fact that somebody was born. Big deal. So I rarely go to these things, but will see them on non-event occasions. They think I'm weird but they accept this. And I know Alex would prefer I go with him, but he seems to be okay with me not going. He doesn't have a choice, anyway - I'm not going! lol And likewise, I don't expect him to go with me to things he doesn't want or feel like going to.

You can go on your own. What's wrong with that?
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Reply Wed 1 Sep, 2010 08:35 am
Good points by everyone - I've been nodding along. Mame, though, said what I would have in her two posts.
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Reply Wed 1 Sep, 2010 08:51 pm
Thank you all for your input. I think it seems like it's just a fine balance between respecting his right to stand up for his own needs and between seeking the support I might occasionally want from him.

The family situation this particular time was very tense due to an argument I had with one of my family members (I lived with her at the time). I called her out on some things. So it was more tense than usual. It's just so hard because sometimes it's easy to get caught in the trap of believing that because somebody loves us, they owe it to us to be there all the time.

I don't think my boyfriend genuinely wants to separate me from my family. He isn't trying to isolate me or anything. But whether or not he can handle them is the question. And then...do I respect that he might not be able to handle it?

I know in some ways that there will be natural distancing from some people in my family. There already is. But when I put it into words and acknowledge that this might have to happen, it seems a little bit more challenging. That's all.
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Reply Thu 2 Sep, 2010 06:49 am
You have to ask yourself whether you would put up with any of this behavior from any other person, not in your family.

Just because someone is "family" does not give some special power to be abusive or unhealthy for us.

The main tactic for keeping sanity and survival for adults of alcoholics? Distancing yourself away from the sick ones. Consider moving away when you get married. Also attend Adult Children of Alcoholics groups to see how others deal with unreasonable family members.
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Reply Fri 3 Sep, 2010 08:06 pm
Everyone has dysfunction in their family and as you have displayed some more than others. In every relationship, there is give and take, in your situation it sounds like it might be a good idea to start a new way of living, do you want to raise your children in close association with your family? Would you have your mother watch the kids for a weekend? If this guy is the guy for you, he is everything you want, need, love, and forever want to be with; I see no other choice but to start a new life with him. See your family at weddings or an hour or two at Christmas then go home to your family; your husband and children. Now if you don’t want to give up your family and this fellow does not like your family I can assure you this relationship will not last. I also know if you want to find a man who will fit in with your family, he himself will be an alcoholic or addict.
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