When we’re dating — having fun, discovering our sexualities, and getting a dopamine kick — the last thing on our minds are our parents (in fact, thinking about them can be quite the mood killer). That is until things get more serious, the holidays approach, and they start asking questions about our love lives.
At that point, getting your family’s opinions on a partner or having them meet each other becomes a whole thing. And while we may claim we don’t care what our parents (or parental figures) think, somewhere deep in there, most of us do — whether we should or not.
“You seek your parents’ acceptance from the moment you’re born,” says Emily Gabelman, LCSW, marriage and family therapy associate. “It’s something that’s ingrained in us. We still seek that approval, even as adults.”
When Your Family Isn’t On Board
Tension mounts when your parents or other family members don’t accept your S.O. We’re not talking dislike, but rather full-on don’t think you should be dating them. This can happen for a number of reasons, including a difference in values, personality, or lifestyles. Or, even messier and more precarious, your family doesn’t accept your S.O. for their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.
“Growing up in a small town, my mom couldn’t grasp the structure of a poly relationship and did not understand how I could be part of one,” she says. “Dad, on the other hand, doesn’t fully know my sexuality and always questions my ‘closer-than-close’ girlfriends.”
In situations like these, Gabelman leans on the classic argument technique of using “I” statements. “For example, ‘I feel upset when you say these things about my partner.’ They can’t argue with how you feel,” she says. “Try to come at it in a way that respects their beliefs but emphasizes how important your partner is to you. You should also allow anyone to walk away and cool off if things get heated, then reconvene.”
Madeline followed this advice with her parents and periodically sent them happy photos of her and her then-partner together. She also praised her then-partner and emphasized their success and positive attributes in family texts. After a few months, her parents began to warm up.
Things did not turn out as well for Cassidy*, 29, who is white, from the south, and has an ex-boyfriend who is black. Her parents were “very upset” about this relationship and, even after its two-and-a-half-year span, never came around.
“[The whole time] they were convinced I was ruining my life, that I would lose jobs, and that everyone would think less of me,” says Cassidy. “My mom told me my dad said he felt like he could never be proud of me again.”
Cassidy still has not made peace with her parents’ disapproval and calls it one of the most painful situations she’s been through. At first, she tried to speak with them about it, but when that proved too difficult, they reached an agreement to just not talk about it.
“If they’re not willing to listen to you or reconsider at all, then you may need to let go,” Gabelman says. “You don’t have control over people. At that point, it’s about working on accepting that that’s their stance.” In order to cope, she recommends talking with friends and your partner, seeing a therapist, joining a support group or talking to others who’ve had similar experiences, journaling, and practicing positive affirmations.
Sharing With Your Partner
Cassidy, for one, spoke openly with her ex about the situation very early on. She wanted to give him an opportunity to walk away if her parents’ bigotry wasn’t something he was up to dealing with.
“I felt terrible about it,” she says. “He was understanding at first — he thought they would come around eventually, and so did I. As time went on and they didn’t budge, he was very affected by it. It became something we fought about a lot.” Their relationship eventually ended for unrelated reasons, but the conflict it created was never resolved, either between her and her ex or her and her parents.
“I’ve had to work in therapy to forgive my parents because, at the end of the day, they’re the only family I have, and I always want to have a relationship with them,” she says. “We have done a lot of healing and they have apologized, but I’ll never look at them the same way again.”
On the receiving end of familial disapproval is Jack, 30. He is Vietnamese-American and spent six years with and got engaged to a Dominican-Mexican woman.
“Her family would say, ‘He’s not one of us, he’s Asian.’ Even years into the relationship, they would make insensitive comments.”
Jack wasn’t around to hear these comments, but his girlfriend repeated them to him. He was not invited to her family gatherings and didn’t try to communicate his feelings to her family. As a hip-hop artist, he instead channeled his frustrations into his work.
“I can’t change people overnight. So I figured I’d just write about it in my music,” he says. “[They came around] in the last two years of the relationship. I imagine it’s because they could see I have a voice that I express through my music, and saying things to separate [my ex and I] or racist things to upset me was not going to [change anything].”
Should you bring up your family’s feelings about your partner to them, though? According to Gabelman, it depends. “You can talk to your partner about this and get their emotional support, but it could hurt their feelings,” she says. “Or you can deal with it yourself, but [risk] feeling like you’re hiding something from them or that you [have to] go through it alone.”
If you do speak to your partner about what’s going on, be clear that you do not agree with your family’s behavior nor do you think it’s OK. Not being accepted for your identity can be a dehumanizing and traumatizing experience. If your partner makes it about them, which, of course, in some ways, it is, try to reframe the situation by saying something like, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about them and their prejudice.’”
Prioritizing What Matters
Ultimately handling this type of unfortunate situations comes down to what matters to you most. You might stick with your partner and ignore what your parents say, side with your parents and leave your partner, or choose to stay with your partner and try to communicate and compromise with your parents.
That being said, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for wiping out prejudice or changing your parents’ minds. But, as with most things, time can be healing. Therapy can expedite the process of a family coming to an understanding or you prioritizing what matters to you and feeling at peace with your choices.
“A lot of times, parents see how happy their [child] is because of their significant other,” she says. “Maybe when they first hear about the person they have these negative ideas and attitudes. Sometimes they think the relationship is temporary and don’t bother trying to work through their issues with that person. But once they see [the relationship] is not going to end and how happy it makes their child, they may come around.”
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.