What to do if your parents disrespect your partner, according to experts
You’re madly in love with your significant other. You’re building a life with them, you’re both making plans for the future, and, naturally, you want to introduce them to your family. However, your dreams of having cozy and idyllic Christmases and Thanksgivings with your folks and new love are quickly dashed when you realize your parents don’t like your partner.
The revelation might be jarring, especially as an adult. It’s one thing for your parents to critique your love interest when you’re a teenager; however, their disdain for your current sweetheart can be especially hurtful when you’re a grown-up. After all, you want your parents to respect your choices in life, but you also want them to love and respect the person you’ve chosen to be with.
“I have worked with many couples who have navigated dating or marrying a partner against their parents’ wishes. I won’t sugarcoat the stress: It’s taxing, frustrating, and downright [exhausting],” Nicole Arzt, licensed marriage and family therapist, tells HelloGiggles.
So how do you deal with your parents disliking your partner?
The first step, according to Arzt, is adjusting your expectations. “Most people assume their parents should be happy, that this should be a time to celebrate. We want the picture-perfect wedding with the overjoyed mother and proud father. We want the TV family. Unfortunately, this may never be the case,” she says. Instead, Arzt says it’s important to work towards “a place of acceptance, even though that can be a lengthy process.” Part of that process includes establishing boundaries with your parents.
“A lot of times we have messy boundaries with our parents, so they do not know what is appropriate and what is not,” says Tracy Crossley, a behavioral relationship expert—which is why she says the more you treat yourself with respect, “the more your parents may choose to respect you, too.” Ultimately, it’s not only about making a commitment to yourself but also trusting your own decisions. You can convey to your parent(s) that you love and respect them, but you need to do what works best for you.
Adds Arzt, “Boundaries can be whatever you need them to be, but they should honor the integrity of you, your partner, and your relationship. To uphold boundaries, you may need to set limits in what you choose to share with your family. You may need to walk away from the scene if they start insulting your partner.”
Communication also plays a vital role, particularly between you and your partner and especially if you’re the one who isn’t being accepted by your partner’s parents.
“Having an open and honest discussion with your partner is key here,” Cheryl Muir, a dating and relationship coach, tells HelloGiggles. “Talk about your concerns with being disliked by their parents. Talk to them about their childhood. Did they always have a solid relationship with their parents, or has it been fraught? How much weight will they give to their parents’ approval or disapproval of you? And, finally, do their parents have legitimate concerns, and, if so, does your partner agree with these fears? Ultimately, you will reach a decision about whether or not you both feel this is something you can overcome together.”
Because as much as you might want to think that love conquers all, parental disapproval—including the fallout—can last for many years if not properly attended to and communicated with your partner, with or without the aid of a therapist.
“You do need to engage in open conversation as often as possible,” says Arzt. “Couples therapy can help navigate some of these obstacles; you can learn how to communicate more effectively and gain insight and tools for managing stress.”
Managing the stress of disapproving in-law is something that Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, a psychologist and trauma specialist, knows too well. Having lived with the disapproval of her husband’s parents for a number of years, she tells HelloGiggles that the rejection will deeply hurt those whose parents are rejecting their partner. “Parents and immediate family are primal, evolutionary, hardwired concepts in our brain (e.g. we need to be approved and accepted by them or that means we won’t survive).” While she adds that you will ultimately survive, your value system of what worked before may not.
“It’s important to be future-focused, no matter how much guilt is used to tie you back to your family of origin,” Dr. Singh Bais says. “Your partner or spouse is who you might marry, may have children with, and who will most likely outlive your parents. [I believe] it’s better to have an unhappy parent than an unfriendly spouse. If it’s too toxic, be prepared for emancipation. Otherwise, enforcing boundaries is effective.” For example, Dr. Singh Bais suggests not attending birthday parties, not exchanging holiday email greetings, and limiting visits to certain times and places.
If conflicts arise, Muir says it may be worthwhile to have a face-to-face, sit-down conversation between you, your parents, and your partner.
“It would be key for one or both parties to have some experience with healthy conflict resolution and to act as a mediator—ideally, this would be the partner who has the disapproving parents,” she says. Also, setting ground rules—what type of language and behavior is and isn’t allowed—would be another key factor, as well as allowing each person to speak for a set amount of time.
“In the end, the mediator will find some common ground and ask whether the parents and partner feel they can work through their differences,” Muir says.
However, it’s also important to remember that the sting of disapproving parents might never wane. “It took me a while to realize that there is a difference [between] respecting a right versus liking or loving someone,” says Dr. Singh Bais. “It is perfectly okay not to like or love someone, but respecting a person’s inherent right in life is important. Reframing it as such provides liberation and is like a breath of fresh air.”
She adds that “it is fine to be incompatible with other people, including parents. It’s not a rejection but rather a reflection of different wavelengths. If inclined, one can toggle between the two, all the while knowing that as an adult, you’re the architect of your destiny.” This means you get to decide what is and what isn’t acceptable in your life, and, most especially, who you choose to love.