“I don’t mind,” I responded, hoping to ease their obvious concern. “I want to hear the end of this story.”
That night, my boyfriend’s mother sent me home with fresh brownies she’d made just for me. Affixed to the top of the Tupperware container was a sticky note thanking me for my patience and kindness, along with a sweet salutation that had me smiling the whole way home.
This is what it should be like, I remember thinking. This is how you know your relationship is going to work.
At first glance, my relationship seemed perfect. I was dating a guy as liberally minded as myself; he was the son of an esteemed attorney, and his mother worked with refugees. We spent weekday nights going to bingo at the country club, and weekends grilling and playing cards at his family’s beach house.
The relationship looked good from the outside, but I was missing a deeper connection. He and I had vastly different hopes for where we wanted to live one day. He wanted a boatload of children, while I wasn’t quite sure I even wanted one. Worse, when we were hanging out one-on-one, I felt like I was hanging out with a brother — not a boyfriend.
That summer our relationship fizzled, and I remember being more upset about breaking up with his family than I was about breaking up with him. I had developed a rapport with his parents, who adored me, but I realized that the real rapport had to be between me and my partner.
I have since found that sense of connection and partnership with my fiance. Whether we’re at a charity event, a party with friends, or sitting in the living room discussing the news, we always have a great time. It is the antithesis of my previous relationship; however, my fiance’s family and I don’t have a relationship.
I never hit it off with his family, and their reasons for disliking me at times have ranged from me having different values to their disdain for our relationship dynamic. I don’t wish to villainize his family or insinuate that they’re inherently wrong. Instead, it simply made me realize that we all have perceptions about others’ relationships — and preconceived notions on the type of person our loved ones should be with. Like it or not, those opinions don’t always carry as much weight as we’d like them to. And rightfully so.
When thinking about the bingo nights and beach days we’ll likely never have with his family, I get sad. Instead I look forward to much smaller pleasures, like spending quality time with his siblings or those times when I receive a simple text from one of his relatives. It’s not my dream scenario, but it’s what my fiance and I have chosen to accept since we want to build a life together.
Planning a wedding is tough when your relationship with your significant other’s family is essentially nonexistent. Planning a family? We’ve decided that’s pretty much impossible. And although that used to cause frustration for both of us, it’s now largely an afterthought. I often reassure myself that having my in-laws approve of me doesn’t mean nearly as much as having a great relationship with your partner — so I choose to focus on the good.
I grew up with a nuclear family. I lived with my mom and dad, in a double-income household in a suburb, with a little brother and sister. In many ways, we were picture-perfect. But in other ways, I desired more. I wanted a big family with tons of aunts, uncles and cousins that I could see whenever I wanted. Just like I’m sure people craved the stability and comfort of my small, nuclear family, I wanted the noise, chaos and spontaneity of a giant extended family.
Of course, as I got older I realized that was ridiculous criteria. Although I was well-intentioned in my desires, creating subjective criteria like “warm, fuzzy family” essentially made me no different than my friends who made a big deal about a suitor’s height. Partners can’t choose their families any more than they can choose the genetic makeup influencing their height. Why should they be punished for that?
While I may have dreamt about a family that would be like a bigger version of my own — loud, affectionate, openly adoring — many people dream of the opposite. They want in-laws who will leave them alone, not badger them with invites to family parties. It wasn’t until I was having drinks with a friend that I realized that if our own biological families weren’t perfect — and let’s be honest, no one’s is — why would we expect anyone else’s to be? We acknowledged that our relationships with our partners needed to be independent of our feelings toward their families. We acknowledged that our love between ourselves and our partners would be enough.
As a society, we romanticize in-laws. We create special cards for them in the greeting card aisle and we take special photos with them at our weddings. Even the tired movie trope of the overbearing mother-in-law is symbolic for the importance we place on our partner’s family. But there’s something wrong with all of that. Finding a partner you love and are compatible with is tough enough! Expecting our partner’s family to love us just as our partner does is unrealistic.
When I realized that I was wasting my time pining after my fiance’s family and daydreaming about their acceptance, it hit me that I was essentially trying to date 18 people at once. I had to court each of them with their own unique interests, feelings, personalities and hope that they’d warm their hearts to me. But while talking with my friend, we realized that our partners — and our own little nuclear families — were enough.