How would you describe your guy’s relationship with his family?
Do they fight all the time but love each other like crazy?
Are family gatherings picture-perfect on the outside and simmering with resentment on the inside?
Has he come to terms with what happened to him all those years ago?
The next time you go to one of his family get-togethers, pay attention. Notice how he behaves around the family members that trigger him most, the ones he just can’t stand.
And file that information away in your brain. You may need it someday. Especially if you get married.
It’s a big fat myth that all that matters in relationships is how good you are together.
If you’re compatible in every way, if you have tons of fun together, if the sex is mind-blowing, then you’re a match made in heaven, right?
But long-term relationships don’t founder on a lack of fun.
They fall apart because of conflict.
How you fight matters. Because someday—maybe in a few months, or after years of marriage—you’re not going to be able to stand one another. The very sight of him will irritate you.
And what you do then says everything about what your relationship will become.
We learn our first lessons about relationships in our family of origin. Our parents showed us how to treat one another appropriately through the way they behaved. Every single thing they did and said let us know, “This is how a family acts. This is how family members treat one another. This is what’s normal.”
Those early lessons implanted themselves in your brain. They became part of your operating system. Not even rejecting your family values or years of therapy could erase them completely.
For most people, that’s not a problem. Life goes on. They grow up, get out into the world, meet new people, date. They put their past behind them.
But no man (or woman) is an island. You bring your family history with you wherever you go.
That old programming lies dormant until the moment a relationship gets serious. He’s no longer the new guy in your life; he’s family.
And then all hell breaks loose.
We don’t treat family the same as everyone else.
Family gets special treatment.
You don’t have to put on false airs around family. You can be yourself. You can let it all hang out. Maybe you have to treat strangers with courtesy and respect, but you can abandon politeness the moment you slam that front door.
When I was a kid, I used to think that it was a sign of closeness to yell at someone. It showed you considered them family. You were choosing authentic irritation over fake politeness. They should feel privileged.
Luckily, I spent my early twenties living with various host families. I saw lots of different family configurations, some healthy, some not. And I realized it was possible—not easy, but possible—to practice authentic kindness with everybody.
It wasn’t that healthy families didn’t have conflict. They still got irritated with each other. But they didn’t let their personal feelings change the overall atmosphere of respect and kindness. Disagreements didn’t grant a license to act nasty.
That was a revelation.
Authentic kindness comes easily in the early days of a relationship. He treats you like a queen. You treat him like a king. You can’t wait to move in and start your lives together.
Then it starts happening.
Just little things at first. A hurtful joke. Eye rolling. Forgetting something that was important to you.
Then it gets personal. You should stop being so sensitive. You should get over yourself. You don’t own him.
Maybe your relationship has gone to the next level.
You’re no longer the new woman in his life.
This is where your observations of his family life will help you.
What does being a family mean to him? How has he learned to deal with conflict? Does he shut people out when he doesn’t like what they’re saying? Or is familial love unconditional?
Those answers apply to you now.
He’ll treat you the way he’s learned to treat those closest to him. It’s not even conscious, most of the time.
Can he change? Absolutely. It’s not his fault if he grew up in a less-than-perfect family, but he’s an adult now. He can learn to act in healthier ways.
Look for these clues:
- That he is learning to forgive his family for not being perfect.
- That he keeps trying with his family, even when it’s hard and it feels like he’s not getting anything back.
- That he makes sure his own behavior is polite and respectful, even if no one else’s is.
If you find such a man, hold him close and never let him go.
He’ll forgive you for not being perfect. He’ll keep trying, even when it’s hard. He’ll do his best to be polite and respectful, even when he’s mad.
That’s what families do.