I've been with my girlfriend for three years, and it's only getting more serious. I'm the first girl she's ever brought to meet her very conservative parents, and though they never said they don't approve of our relationship, they're always notably curt with me when I see them. We're going to her parents' house for Thanksgiving, where I'll be meeting her extended family. How should I act around them to ease the tension?
Dr. Erica Hyatt, DCSW, LCSW, MBE
"Congratulations on reaching three years of commitment! It isn't easy to get to where you are, so I understand that as you two are getting closer to possibly becoming family, you want to feel welcome with hers. First, take comfort in the fact that you've been invited to Thanksgiving. Since it’s a family holiday, it bodes well that they want you there. Second, I'd like you to stop paying attention to the negative little voice that’s telling you that if her family doesn't approve of your relationship, they don’t approve of you. After all, it might not even be about you: It would be nice if every time someone came out, their family’s response would be so over-the-top with love and acceptance that they painted a rainbow on the front door. But, unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and in this one, it could be that the family is still coming to terms with their daughter’s orientation and, regrettably, taking it out on you. While their process is understandable, their rudeness is not. Resist the urge to respond similarly because first, you’re better than that, and second, it would put your girlfriend in an even more uncomfortable position, and that’s not fair to her.
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"My recommendation would be to ignore their bad behavior, as hard as it may be, because the more you pay attention to it, the more self-conscious and resentful you’ll become, and it’s inevitable that those feelings will spill over into your relationship. Instead, try to ease the tension by focusing outward and exuding a warm, polite demeanor: Observe the formality of bringing a gift for her mother, do your best to make small talk with the cousins, and offer to help with dishes. Finally, with the help of your girlfriend, think up a few conversation starters focusing on her family that demonstrate true interest in who they are and keep some solid jokes on hand — having a plan to avoid awkward silences will help you feel less out of place and more in control. It can be hard to stop focusing on yourself and your own reactions, but the more you try to turn outward, the more impressed with you her family will be, and you may be surprised to learn that they won’t be as resistant to the relationship in the long run. I wish you the very best of luck and a Happy Thanksgiving!"
"That’s a tough situation, for sure. But, given that you and your girlfriend have continued to make visits to her family together, despite how you’ve been treated, it sounds like trying to improve (versus avoid) this family relationship is important to you — and that’s a great place to start. Remember that you can never control how other people act or react, so all that matters is that you and your girlfriend are supportive of each other and don’t let the negativity of others weaken your bond. That said, even though you should present a united front when dealing with them, this is your girlfriend’s family, so she should take the lead in handling it.
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"If you’re this uncomfortable, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that your girlfriend initiate a conversation with her family prior to the visit. Letting her family know that the two of you are a couple, and that for the visits to continue and be more enjoyable for everyone, you both need to be treated with the same respect that you are showing to them. You have certainly taken the high road in your attempts to continue and respectfully engage with her family, despite not receiving the same treatment in return. We can hope that eventually her happiness with you will rub off on them, but even if they don’t eventually come around, just trust that you’re a class act and deserve nothing but love and respect."
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