As Christmas approaches, we answer a reader question about integrating a partner into your family’s holidays traditions when there is some resistance. Have a question about faith, sexuality, or relationship from an LGBTQ perspective? Submit your own question to our Mailbag.
My partner and I have been together for almost a year and a half. We grew up pretty differently — I am very close to my family, which lives about 10 minutes from us, whereas she is not. Despite my parents being relatively conservative, they are very kind and welcoming, and my mom is really one of my best friends. We are going there for Thanksgiving, and my family is very tradition-oriented (we wake early to watch the parade while drinking cider and having Thanksgiving lunch, etc). My partner is coming and offered on her own accord to bring a dish. However, she was less than enthused (grumpy) about waking early and spending most of the day with the family. She has told me previously during a conversation about family that she has a hard time getting close to family. This is strange to me because she has admired a close friend of ours closeness to her family, which her partner is part of. I just wish we could have that too. My mom always invites her to functions. I want to be patient but this also hurts me. Any advice?
For many of us, the holidays can be stressful just facing our families on our own. Adding a partner into the mix can complicate the festivities exponentially, especially if there are members of your family who are not affirming. As the bridge between your family and your partner, it’s important to be sensitive to these dynamics.
First, I think it’s reasonable for you to want and ask that your partner take part in important traditions your family has established. If you two have chosen to attend the family festivities, then you’re electing to participate in whichever way the family celebrates. When you accept an invitation to attend a celebration, it’s polite to yield to the hosts’ plans, even when it doesn't sound fun. Otherwise, it may be better not to go at all. To participate, but only on one’s own terms, might send the wrong message. Being a good sport is especially valuable when someone is forming new relationships with a partner’s family.
Having said that, your partner will be yielding a lot to you by doing something that she doesn't want to do. Spending long periods of time with a partner’s family can feel vulnerable and scary. It’s important to recognize the sacrifice she is making and be willing to respond in kind. If she agrees to participate fully in your family’s holiday traditions (with a good attitude!), perhaps you can offer to do something she wants to do later on, either that weekend or on some other upcoming day. Or, maybe next holiday you give her the decision about what to do — maybe you two spend the day with friends or do something else together by yourselves. There may be times in the future when you need to decline your family’s important events in favor of doing what your partner wants to do. That’s what effective compromise in a relationship is all about.
More important than solving your particular holiday dilemma, however, is understanding the feelings behind your partner’s resistance. Gently ask her what her feelings are about, without trying to fix them. I doubt her real reason is that she doesn't want to get up early; it's likely something deeper than that. For example, does it feel like too much work or pressure to spend a whole day with your family? Does she feel uncomfortable or anxious around them, despite their welcoming nature? Does she have trouble knowing how to navigate and belong in a family that is close? Does she feel jealous of what you have, or feel like she doesn't belong? It sounds like she loves the idea of a close family, and her offer to bring a dish shows a basic desire to be a “good sport.” But it also sounds as if something internal is getting in the way of her working toward greater closeness. In a loving and nonjudgmental way, initiate conversation about her resistance to going — not just to solve the issue around the holiday, but in an effort to know and understand her better.
She herself may not even know what her resistance is about, so it may take some time for her to process. But if you can create a safe space for her to discover/articulate her feelings and share them with you, you may be better equipped to develop ways to mitigate that resistance. For example, perhaps spending a whole day with your family makes her anxious. As a solution, maybe you can promise that sometime during the day the two of you will take a break and go on a long walk alone. Or maybe you will promise not to leave her alone with the family, or you’ll commit to protecting her from one family member she feels especially uneasy around.
Building relationships with a partner’s family is a universally nerve-wracking experience. Give each other a lot of grace as those relationships develop. Commit to talking about family interactions, both before they happen so that you can set expectations, and afterward so that you can share feelings about how it went.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019.
Photo by Ryan Anger, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
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