I think a lot of times what gets lost in the conversations about relationships, partnerships and moving into a (possibly) lifelong relationship with someone is how your relationship with your parents and your immediate family is forced to change. How do you transition from your parent(s) being your primary relationship to your partner? How do you re-negotiate boundaries with family along the lines of a new family member joining in, especially when you now have to consider your partner’s family as your own as well?
As we approach Passover, your question is quite timely. Many people may bring a partner home or go to a partner’s family for a seder next week. Alternatively, some people may be separating from their partner this holiday, deciding that each person will be spending time with their own family. Still others, for so many different reasons, are without their family of origin, perhaps connecting with beloved chosen family. Everyone has a different relationship with their parents or childhood caregivers, but I’m responding to your question, and you identify your parents as a key primary relationship for you, so I will move forward with that premise.
How do you transition from your parents being your primary relationship to your partner?
Our relationships are constantly shifting; we just don’t always notice it in the same way. Our relationships with family shift just as much as our relationships with our friends and even with our partners. Having a partner can add to your life, but it doesn’t have to take away from it. Partnership should not be isolating. Don’t worry about creating a hierarchy of who is primary and who is not. To whom do you look for advice and comfort when you need it? To all of them! And it’s even OK if your parents’ advice carries more weight on some issues, or if their comfort is more effective in some moments. Your best friends (or chosen family) might also be primary in some ways for some things on some days. All these people have very different roles in your life; let each of them be a rich source of joy and support.
How do I bring my partner into my family, as well as join my partner’s family?
With time. And space. And acceptance. Our partner and our parents are separate people who start out as strangers and are launched into very intimate settings with one another quite quickly. Even if they like each other, they will not feel or act like “family” immediately, because they’re not. Let them connect on their own terms. Your partner is not there to be a copy of you—that’s not the reason you chose this person. You chose this person for his/her uniqueness. Give your parents some time to experience that. And if your partner gets frustrated with your parents, you need to acknowledge the ways in which they can be challenging. Same thing if your parents get frustrated with your partner. Avoid the instinct to deny the very real limitations of the people you love. They are not perfect, and they don’t need to be. On a practical note, if your partner spends time with your parent one-on-one, that may help them get to know each other as individuals and build their own relationship.
How do you re-negotiate boundaries with family?
I find a balance of partner-included and original-family time to be really helpful for everyone. You’re going to want some time with just your family of origin, and that’s OK. You have a strong connection with those people, a connection that does not need to be replaced or threatened by your partner. You’re also going to want some time with your partner and your family. Your partner might be more comfortable in those moments with the understanding that he/she can come and go as he/she needs. It’s not fair to expect that your partner will be present as long as you’re hanging out with your family. Again, your partner is an individual, not a copy of you. Similarly, you have the right to opt out of time with your partner’s family. The first step to negotiating boundaries is making it common knowledge that these boundaries exist, and that they matter.
Readers, what other advice do you have for negotiating relationships among parents and partners? What stories, experiences or further questions do you have to offer?