My boyfriend of one year and I recently made a trip to his hometown for the whole Thanksgiving thing. I had spoken to his parents briefly on the phone and met them in-person at my guy’s sister’s wedding, but this was really the first time that I saw his family in a more substantial way. In short, I was horrified. There was some pretty heavy drinking from the get-go and his father spoke down to my boyfriend in a way that some would classify as verbally abusive. While he seemed irritated with his parents at moments, it otherwise seemed totally normal for him. I left his family feeling exhausted and protective of my guy. He struggles with his self-esteem but has never spoken about his family struggles nor about their impact on him. What do I do?
One of the gifts of having a partner is that, in that person, you hopefully find an ally. Your observations and related concerns, in many ways, can be a gift to your partner who may not be able to have the more objective perspective that you, as an outsider to his clan’s dysfunction, can offer. However, this is tricky territory as your man may be reluctant to see his family’s imperfections and could resent you for criticizing the only family he’s known or will ever have.
While you may have found a way to navigate your own family’s sore spots, it can feel disempowering as the boyfriend in this situation since you don’t really have the leeway to speak up and call shit out. If you are truly going to be a supportive partner, you’ll need to collaborate on what kind of support he would really find valuable. But before even thinking about chatting with your man, make sure you are checking in with yourself first — mindfully reflect on whether the recent turkey fest is stirring up any of your own family baggage. This way you’ll have a shot at soothing your angst before trying to learn about his.
One of the safest ways to communicate in a relationship, or in most challenging interpersonal relationships, is to focus on impact. Specifically, this means expressing how torn up you felt by witnessing your sweetheart in the midst of his family circus. To share that you felt sad to see him be degraded by his father is a way of showing care without the risk of him feeling judged by you. The final nugget I can pass along is this: Stay curious. It’s easy to jump to conclusions, but your best bet is to ask questions about your boyfriend’s perception of his family and learn about his accumulated coping strategies — after all, he’s had way more boozy feasts with his family than you.