As we approach the holiday season, you may be spending more time than usual with your family of origin and with your partner’s family. Whether you’re in a new dating relationship or a long marriage, you can use the holidays as a chance to learn more about your significant other.
In a dating relationship, you’re looking for insights into how well this person fits with you. Since most people are different with their families than with a date, observing the interactions can give you a load of information. At the holidays, you get to see your date with the people who’ve known her the longest.
Here’s what to notice:
How does your partner act with her family? Is she loving? competitive? needy? playful? irritable? welcoming? supportive? This gives you a hint about how she’s likely to be with you if you stay together long-term.
How different is your date with the family than when he’s with just you? Most of us slide back a little bit into old roles when we’re around our families. But if the difference is dramatic, that indicates an area for personal growth. Mature people are fairly consistent from one setting to another.
How does the family you meet compare to what she’s told you? Is her “obnoxious” brother really that bad? Is her father hypercritical–or is she hypersensitive? If she’s talked about how happy her family is but you experience a lot of tension, is she in denial? or are you maybe missing some key information?
How are his parents together? Do they seem happy and respectful, or bitter, distant, or angry? What his parents modeled in their relationship is likely to be hardwired into his expectations for relationships (unless he’s done a lot of personal growth work).
All this information can give you clues to your partner’s temperament, relationship style, and expectations. After the holidays, be sure to talk together about your observations.
In an established relationship, you already know the players and the dynamics. But there’s always more to learn—about the family, your partner, and yourself. You might even talk to your S.O. before the holiday about doing a joint “research project.”
What are the sore spots for your partner? Relationship problems from our childhoods are hard to get over. Does something happen when your partner is with his family that brings out the worst in him? That’s information about an area where he could grow—maybe by getting a different perspective, or letting go of an old hurt, or speaking up if he tends not to do that, or learning to accept that someone isn’t going to change. Be supportive about what’s hard for him. If he’s willing, strategize together about what might help.
What are the sore spots for you? If your in-laws really get under your skin, what’s going on for you? Does your getting upset make things harder for your S.O.? What do you need to let go of or manage differently? Do you need to take care of your body (taking a walk, having a snack, getting to bed early)? Do you need to accept that your in-laws do things differently from your own family, and that’s okay? Ask your partner to consult with you on what might help.
Can family history provide some perspective? There’s usually a reason difficult people are difficult. Ask relatives about their early lives. What was it like for Aunt Bea growing up? How did Uncle Barry’s time in the military affect him and the family? What was it like for Cousin Barb to follow her beautiful sister Betty? Understanding more about people’s stories can help you feel more compassionate toward them and more tolerant of their faults. Listening with sincere curiosity to people’s childhood stories is also a great way to connect with them on a different level.
What are the positives? Especially if you or your S.O. tends to focus on the annoying aspects of other people, instead make an effort to notice the many terrific things about your partner’s family.
What strengths and joys do you see? Who has a quiet sense of humor or interesting insights you might have overlooked? Who keeps things going behind the scenes? What new, interesting activity is some relative pursuing? Who is behaving more maturely or more kindly than they used to? Even with people you’ve known for years, there’s always more to learn. Make a point of looking for more to love.