Meet the In-Laws: When LGBT Couples Visit Families of Origin

handshakeIn any couple, navigating your relationships with families of origin can be tricky. When you were growing up, your family had a set of rules—sometimes explicitly stated and other times unspoken. Your partner also had this experience, except that the rules were different. As a couple, you are creating a new unit that will have its own customs, rituals, norms, and expectations.

As long as you remain connected to your family of origin, you must navigate between these two separate systems and sets of rules. As you get to know your partner’s family and become a part of their family system, you will have yet a third set of rules and customs to learn, adapt to, and interact with.

What do I mean by rules? Much of it we don’t even think about until we try to integrate someone new into the mix and then experience his or her reaction. When at your parents’ house, are you expected to sit down for dinner at a certain time? Are doors expected to be open or closed? Is it OK to tell friends and acquaintances about problems and struggles, or are you expected to keep the family’s business private? How does the family connect to religion and spirituality? Who goes where on holidays? These are just a few examples.

Throw in LGBT identity and a same-sex or queer relationship, and the issues become more complicated. One or both partners may not be out to their parents. One or more sets of parents, or other members of the family, may not be accepting of LGBT identities.

It May Not Be Easy

Old wounds may be present, and they may rise to the surface when with family. You may find yourself triggered in ways your partner does not immediately understand. Something your uncle says may be very upsetting to you because of its context or your history with him, while your partner may have no idea that anything unusual has happened.

Old wounds may be present, and they may rise to the surface when with family. You may find yourself triggered in ways your partner does not immediately understand. Something your uncle says may be very upsetting to you because of its context or your history with him, while your partner may have no idea that anything unusual has happened.

Like everyone else, you and your partner probably have imperfect parents. You and your partner probably have unresolved issues from the past. You have had to learn to accept the reality of your family, with whatever you have gotten from the family of origin and whatever you wish you had received but never did. For your partner as well—this is the family he or she has been given.

That said, making decisions about whether and how to involve your family of origin in your life is important to your well-being and to your relationship.

Give Boundaries a Name and Image

You or your partner may have difficult relatives who don’t always respect your limits. Sometimes a visualization exercise can help you keep your feet on the ground and feel strong in your sense of self. Try giving the boundary between you and another person a name and a physical representation. Perhaps you imagine a long sheet of aluminum foil between yourself and that difficult mother-in-law. Rather than piercing through the aluminum foil, allow her inappropriate comments to be reflected right back at her.

Above all, remember that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Know your values and your limits. Be willing to gently and compassionately say no when something you are asked to do does not fit.

Maintain Compassion and Stay Skillful

Maintaining a lens of compassion is a useful technique to keep anger levels in check. You may start to feel angry when a relative or in-law says something hurtful or does not seem to understand your perspective or experience.

Pay attention to how you and your partner handle conflict. You and your partner must be a united front when any conflict arises with families of origin. Appoint a spokesperson—generally, this will involve each partner managing the lines of communication with his or her own family.

Your visit to the in-laws will happen for a period of time and then you will return home and readjust to your usual daily roles in your relationship with your partner. If things get tough, remember that this is temporary and you have skills to work through it.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy Schwartz, LCSW, LGBT / Gender and Sexual Identity Issues Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Mark

    April 14th, 2015 at 8:47 AM

    I fail to see how meeting the parents in this instance is going to be any different than meeting the parents if youy are a hetero couple. I mean, it is always going to be stressful, but surely if you have gotten to the meet the parent part, then they know your life and re willing to at least meet your partner that you are choosing to be with.

  • jimmie

    April 14th, 2015 at 12:29 PM

    Start small, and what I mean by that is meet the mom and dad first and then eventually you can go for the extended family.

    I don’t think that I would make a family reunion the first meeting time :/

  • Nia

    April 15th, 2015 at 8:33 AM

    It would be good to give your partner a little bit of the back story before throwing them to the wolves, you know? If you have a contentious relationship with this relative or that one, don’t you think that they deserve to know this ahead of time? And always let them know who the allies in the family can be, because that is also something good to know. You can’t prepare them for everything and every dynamic that is going to be hit upon, but giving them a little something to work with can go a long way into making the first meetings as successful as possible.

  • kyle

    April 15th, 2015 at 2:41 PM

    Remember, this might not be the easiest situation for anyone. Maybe the parents or family is having a hard time coming to terms with your sexuality. That doesn’t give them the right to be hateful to you, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to outright accept everything wither. Give them time, they will come around, but just like any relationship, this might have to be one that is nurtured for a while before it becomes when you would like for it to be. They could still be getting accustomed to something that they never thought that they would face, so everyone could need a little chill time to acclimate to what is.

  • Anne

    April 16th, 2015 at 5:30 AM

    Even after all these years, my husband and I still have roles that we play with our different families… basically it’s to let him be the spokesperson so that I don’t feel the need to run my own mouth every time there is a family member exhibiting what I consider to be stupidity!

  • Deanna

    April 17th, 2015 at 5:05 AM

    Well I would assume that by the time you are taking someone to meet the family then you know them pretty well and they have had time to get to know you as well. This is not the time to spring new stuff on them- have them well prepared for any little oddities before the day of the big meeting. I think that the more you can prepare them for who they might meet then the easier the day will be. Also just remember that if this is someone who cares for you and loves you, then they are going to continue to do that no matter how weird the family is!

  • Betsy

    April 19th, 2015 at 6:45 AM

    This happened recently in my family when my brother brought his new boyfriend home to meet all of us. Yes it was a little awkward but I have to feel that in the end we all did everything the right way. And his partner? Such a pleasure to meet. And I think that by having it happen the way that it did, we all wish them nothing but happiness as they see where this new relationship takes them!

  • baylor

    April 20th, 2015 at 1:59 PM

    For people who identify as bisexual I think that there could be even more confusion and misunderstanding because there are going to be those people in any family who may not really care but they will say things like pick one side or the other or something ridiculous like that.

    If you are with someone who understands you though they can do a little forgiving of the misinformation that other people may have about your relationship.

  • Kiah

    April 21st, 2015 at 10:49 AM

    In a world where LGBT couples can be so openly trounced upon, it is no wonder that meeting that family of your significant other can feel like navigating a mine field for many couples.

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