Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: My partner and his family don’t exactly get along. There’s no drama, but he’s just not close with his siblings or parents and doesn’t feel a need to connect with them like I do. I come from a big family and we’ve always been super close. Is this a big deal? Will it affect our relationship down the line?
A: Your question, “Is this a big deal?” tells me that the answer is, “Yes, definitely — at least for you.” It seems that you’re longing to have a discussion with your partner about your and his relationships with siblings and parents. He doesn’t feel a need to connect with them, but you come from a big family that has remained close; maintaining this closeness sounds like a core value for you. Your ability as a couple to dialogue through this difference will determine the answers to your questions, “Is that a red flag?… Will it affect our relationship down the line?”
Ask your partner if you and he could discuss this difference between the two of you. In long-term love, trust is a foundational component that grows stronger every time we experience our partners demonstrating that what matters to us matters to them, so hopefully he will be open to talking about this, because it’s important to you. If your partner is unwilling to discuss a difference like this in your relationship, then I would consider that a “red flag.” By contrast, if he’s open to talking about this topic, then that is a good sign of his care for you.
While you are obviously concerned about this difference between you and your partner regarding your relationships with extended family, your differences do not necessarily have to become divisive between you. You’ll want to fully explore and understand your partner’s reasons for the boundaries he has established.
What do you know about his growing-up years? Many people experience tumultuous upbringings due to family members’ challenges such as mental illness or drug and alcohol addictions. Once surviving such childhoods, healthy and resilient adults often must maintain strong boundaries with family members in order to have stable and peaceful lives as adults.
Assuming he’s agreeable to talking, try asking your partner questions like, “What was it like growing up in your family?” “Who did you go to for nurturing or empathy when you were little?” “How did your family deal with conflict?” “Is there a difficult memory or were there emotionally painful experiences you lived through that make you want to keep a distance between you and your siblings or parents?” Try listening from a place of curiosity. You’ll notice the kinds of questions I’m suggesting are about seeking understanding, rather than trying to get at solutions.
You will also likely want to feel understood and accepted for your values about keeping in close contact with your family. When you discuss this with your partner, I encourage you to share proactively your own answers to the kinds of questions above. It is important to share what matters most to you about this part of your lives together and that you feel your partner’s interest and empathy as you talk.
The two of you will want to postpone compromise and problem-solving until you each feel understood about what is most important to you on this facet of your life together. (See this article about why it is unwise to try compromising too quickly). As long as you keep the dialogue going and are each able to feel understood and accepted around staying connected or keeping some distance with your extended families, then this can become a difference you learn to live with.
More from Asking for a Friend here.