Dear Carolyn: I love my significant other, but I also love my family, both nuclear and extended. We are a tightknit group in which everyone shares a similar quirky sense of humor, and as immigrants (and children of immigrants) we have supported each other through many hardships. They are my village.
My significant other does not understand this, as she comes from a more traditional American family in which young adults are encouraged to launch and distance themselves from the family unit. I am worried about how this will play out over the years.
We are not going to have children — and by the way, we're both women — but I can see it's going to cause conflict. Do you have any suggestions for preempting those conflicts? Is it possible for one half of a couple to remain part of another family unit without sacrificing the primacy of the relationship?
— Family vs. SO
Family vs. SO: You’ve made a false causal connection here, and you need to break it before you make a significant mistake with your life.
Your partner fails to understand AND comes from a more traditional American family. She doesn’t fail to understand BECAUSE she comes from a traditional American family.
Being of one thing does not prevent the understanding of, embrace of, encouragement of or even just lovingly-passive-and-mystified acceptance of something different. A partner raised in a “launch” culture is still quite capable of seeing the merits of a culture that encourages generations to stay close. In fact, finding the launch ethos a bit frosty can drive people raised within it to partner across cultures with someone more family-centric. And vice versa, as the overly enmeshed seek some air.
So don’t see your partner as culturally unable to support — or, even better, to adopt and take part in — your family’s tight knitting. Instead, see the full truth: that she prefers her ways. She sees your ways (maybe not fully, but that can be willful, too), and prefers her culture of origin.
Just as you see hers, clearly, and prefer yours.
Why does this distinction matter? Because seeing her as unable to understand makes it a thing neither you nor she can really control. It’s an invitation for you to tell yourself, “Oh well, she doesn’t get it, I’ll have to work harder to balance couple time with my family time.”
See it as her clear-eyed choice, though, and the work ahead shifts — appropriately — from you alone to both of you: “We both understand the differences, we both prefer our own way of handling family. So are we both willing to let the other do what comes naturally, without expecting, bean-counting and guilt-tripping?”
In other words, will she love that you remain devoted to your family of origin, or will she pressure you to see them less?
Will you resent her for skipping a lot of your family stuff? Will you pressure her to join you?
Will you both always be grateful for the differences between you, for the benefits they afford? Or will each of you always be wishing the other were more like you?
If you talk to your significant other about this, openly, owning what you want and won’t budge on — then you won’t preempt all conflicts, of course. But you will catch the avoidable ones before they age into regrets.