Is Your Family Dysfunctional? Your Partner Sees It
Why fresh eyes can be crucial in identifying longstanding family dynamics.
Posted October 30, 2019 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
In Lisa Jewel’s novel The House We Grew Up In, main character Rory braces himself to bring his girlfriend Kayleigh to his mother’s home for the first time. His mother suffers from a hoarding disorder.
It was a moment he’d been both looking forward to and dreading. Looking forward to bringing these two enormously important elements of his life together, dreading the shock of objectivity that this would bring about … he did not want to know how his family and their peculiar home would appear to someone who had not grown up there and seen how things had come to be that way.
As expected, Rory is forced to see his home through new eyes.
“Christ,” said Kayleigh, following Rory through the house, “this place is pure chaos. How can you all live like this?”
Rory looked around and sighed. The delicate, tissue-thin layers of his own lack of objectivity were being ripped apart, just as he’d known they would be.
Bringing a Partner Home
Bringing a romantic partner home for the first time is a right of passage for many. In that act, a person decides to merge the family that created them with the family they are creating for themselves. But bringing together those two realities can be messy.
Like Kayleigh, the introduced partner sees the family through fresh eyes. They enter the home with fewer preconceived notions and they take nothing for granted. Their judgments aren’t shaped by thousands of family conversations, arguments, and patterns. They simply observe. And in observing, they may note things that the family member takes for granted.
These observations may sound like:
- “Wow, I love how much joking around there is here.”
- “It seems like people in your family don’t really hang out together.”
- “Man, your mom is the butt of every joke.”
- “Your house is very tense. I feel like I have to walk on eggshells.”
- “Why doesn’t anybody knock before entering each other’s rooms?”
Fresh eyes add fresh perspective to a family that has likely operated a certain way for years. Those positive observations – noticing the way the family connects over meals, laughs together, and seems to get along, can create renewed appreciation for things their partner has been taking for granted.
Discomfort may arise when the newcomer points out longtime issues and invites new scrutiny and questioning. Their partner may look with fresh sadness at the years of tension caused by parental arguments. A lack of privacy may start to feel absurd and intrusive, and the jokes at Mom’s expense now just seem hurtful. The individual who has put their family on display may feel torn by their partner’s observations.
On the one hand, they may hold some truths. On the other, they may feel defensive and loyal toward their family’s way of coping with the world. They may feel compelled to add context to their partner’s observations (as in, “We used to be close, but ever since dad died, we stopped hanging out together as a family”). They may also struggle with the reality that something the family had conspired to view as normal has been outed as an issue.
You Act Differently When You Are Home
Another form of uncomfortable scrutiny occurs when fresh eyes notice how someone acts when they go home to visit family. These observations may sound like:
- “When you are around your dad, you stop standing up for yourself. You immediately give in and sound defeated. What’s that about?”
- “Why can’t you be honest with your family that you don’t eat those foods anymore?”
- “Why do you laugh along when your aunt says something racist? You’d never put up with that from a friend.”
- “You work really hard to keep the peace between your parents when they fight. Has that always been your job?”
These comments pinpoint the ways that a family reverts into certain familiar dynamics even if they no longer fit the members’ personalities. Perhaps an otherwise assertive person learned never to stand up to Dad because Dad would grow violent when confronted. Maybe the family member learned that they would not be accepted if they didn’t eat the way the family eats or laughs at the jokes the family finds funny, so they conform to the family’s expectations, even if it feels terrible to do so. When a family member’s partner comes home, they are often given an uncensored view of the family dynamic, enabling them to point out those discrepancies in their partner’s behavior.
The issue of acting different at home is a common one. Going home tend to bring old selves to the forefront. We sleep in our childhood bedrooms, get into old arguments with our parents, enact family traditions, speak about familiar subjects, and reminisce about childhood. When a person moves out of their parents’ home, they may be able to shed older parts of themselves that no longer serve them. But new beliefs, habits, and ways of being may be challenged when the family member returns home. It is easy to fall into an expired version of self.
The family member must then decide how to receive the feedback – will they hear their partner defensively or will they thoughtfully engage in what that’s all about. They may examine how they came to become the peacemaker between their parents and how that coping skill may no longer serve them. They may explore the ways they make concessions while at home to keep the peace and take a deeper look at what sorts of compromises feel appropriate and which do not.
A difficult outgrowth of this process – bringing a partner home and having them notice and discuss uncomfortable family truths, is that any resulting changes may be blamed on the interloper.
After having a conversation with their partner, a person may insist that their parent knock before entering their room. They may stop automatically laughing at jokes made at Mom’s expense or may decide to speak out against their aunt’s racism. They open up new and uncomfortable conversations around tensions in the family or choose to create more distance with the family as they come to grips with the reality of home.
These shifts may lead to backlash. When one family member starts new conversations, sets new boundaries, and calls out patterns that may be hurtful, the family may rally together and point fingers at the romantic partner. That new boyfriend? He must be the reason you’ve changed. He must be the reason you come home less or you’re not participating in our family traditions the way you used to. That feedback, coming from a place of love and fear, is the response to change that feels threatening. Unless the partner is genuinely a negative influence, the feedback is more likely a reaction to “this is different and scary” and “why are you rocking the boat when we’re fine?”
Families can navigate these changes in family composition and interactions with grace by inviting new types of insight and conversation and deciding for themselves what behaviors and dynamics feel integral to the family and which are better left behind.
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Jewell, L. (2013) The House We Grew Up In. New York, NY. Simon & Schuster Inc.