You’ve probably figured this out by now, but no family is perfect. Even a household that appears to be nearly flawless is probably dealing with their share of internal arguments, ongoing tension, mental illness, addiction, or divorce fallout. If there’s something stressful in your own family, you might be feeling ashamed — but you shouldn’t. It’s common, and it’s something you should share with your partner, if you haven’t already.
Liz Colizza, head of research for relationship counseling app Lasting, says there are several advantages to getting into these conversations with a significant other, even if it feels overwhelming and scary at first. Doing so can help you set better expectations for future interactions with your loved ones, give you new insight into your partner’s own family history, and can further bond you as a couple.
“You are practicing vulnerability, which opens the door to increased emotional connection,” Colizza says. “It also allows you to rely upon your partner in new ways by turning toward them as an ally within potentially challenging dynamics.”
Want to see how a discussion of big, possibly ugly family matters can help your relationship evolve? Check out these expert tips.
1. Make sure you’re ready to talk about it. “One thing to consider when approaching difficult discussions about family situations with new significant others is where you are at in your process of metabolizing the situation,” licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Carly Claney says. “If the situation is fairly recent and you have yet to process, grieve, or reach a sense of peace about it, it may be harder for you to explain it to someone else because you yourself are still working through it.” Remember: You’re under no obligation to share personal details right away. Chances are, bae would prefer you wait to have this kind of tough discussion until you’re fully ready for it, anyway.
2. Approach the conversation from a place of calm. If you approach any situation already stressed and anxious, the situation itself is bound to escalate. Licensed marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind encourages you to ensure that you’re calm and relaxed before you bring an issue related to family drama or illness to your significant other. Set yourself up in an environment where you’re comfortable to keep those calm vibes going.
3. Turn off your cell phone. You’re probably sick of being reminded to shut off your devices in high-stakes situations… but we’re doing it again. Celebrity relationship expert Vikki Ziegler emphasizes the importance of a phone-free environment for this kind of discussion. The last thing you need is a distraction that will take you out of the zone of honesty and vulnerability.
4. Explain the boundaries you’ve already set. Assuming the issue at hand is one that requires some boundary-setting with family on your end — a toxic relationship with one of your parents, for example, or a feud in your nuclear family that often leaves you stuck in the middle of two people you care about — you might want to consider telling your partner upfront about how you’ve already made those efforts. “If there is potential for family drama, your significant other is going to be relieved to know you can set healthy boundaries and not let the family toxicity seep into your relationship,” Healing from Hidden Abuse author and certified trauma therapist Shannon Thomas tells us.
5. Pay special attention to matters of mental health. If part of the conversation at hand has to do with a family member’s struggles with mental health, Families for Depression Awareness co-executive director Valerie Cordero suggests you slow down and really take the time to explain. “There are a lot of misconceptions about mental health, so it’s important to prepare your partner to meet a family member who has been diagnosed with, [for example], depression or bipolar disorder,” Cordero says. “Be sure to include details about who your loved one is outside of their diagnosis and encourage your partner to ask questions.” Come to the conversation ready with any facts that will help your S.O. better understand what they can expect.
6. Resist the urge to take responsibility. It’s not up to you to be accountable or take on blame for difficult matters that are going on in your family, and you don’t need to explain it away for your significant other’s benefit. By the same token, your sweetie shouldn’t require you to take on an unnecessary level of responsibility for the news you’re sharing, and any aggressive reactions may be a red flag in the relationship. “No one is responsible for anyone else’s actions or beliefs,” couples consultant and coach Lesli Doares says. “Being able to talk through these situations in a calm, respectful manner is the way to be successful.”
7. Remember that your S.O. probably has some experience with family drama too. When you’re going through tough stuff with your own fam, it can be hard to maintain perspective about how common these dramas and difficulties can really be. Licensed psychologist Robyne Howard encourages you to bear in mind that many people — your partner included — have experienced loss, mental illness, divorce, and more in their own family. As a result, your sweetie will bring their own history, emotional baggage, and (hopefully) empathy to the table.
8. Don’t overthink it. “If you don’t make it a big deal, [your S.O.] won’t,” intimacy expert Allana Pratt says. “Let go of any significance you have that they respond a certain way, give them the freedom to experience your news themselves.” Try to eliminate any expectations about the reaction that’s coming your way. In all likelihood, your partner will match your tone and intensity in the conversation, so try approaching the issue the same way you would want them to approach it.
(Photo via Getty)
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