Savvy Minds: Ask Dr. V ~ Thanksgiving With My Girlfriend’s Family

Dear Dr V ~

I’m going to my girlfriend’s family’s for Thanksgiving this year. I’ve met them before and like them just fine. I guess what’s bothering me is that it seems like she’s got a perfect family, at least compared to mine: my folks are still married but I can’t ever remember them being loving to each other, both have substance abuse problems and my two brothers have their own insanity. Meanwhile, my girl’s folks seem to have loving marriage, great kids, and a beautiful house. I can’t help feeling resentful and envious. And I also wonder if there’s any hope for my family to be “normal.”  Are the people who yell about the breakdown of the American family right? What’s wrong with us?


Dear Bryan,

I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve seen who often have a similar issue. I can assure you, your girlfriend’s family is not “perfect.” That’s not to say they may not have an empathetic, self-aware and relatively functional household, but if they are humans (and I hope they are, otherwise you’ve got bigger concerns then feelings of familial inadequacy), then they are by definition flawed.

I do have a suggestion or two for you on how to handle this, but there’s something you brought up I’d like to hit first:

I think you pose an interesting question when you ask if THE FAMILY UNIT is in fact breaking down  (I feel the need for all caps when we’re talking about it in this context).  Do we hear more today about child and spousal abuse, unfaithful husbands and wives and a skyrocketing divorce rate? Absolutely. Does that mean these problems and their causes simply didn’t exist earlier? Of course not. However, many in our culture seem to be less tolerant of dysfunction, and therefore seek alternatives to living a life of hidden shame.

This isn’t to say that all families grapple with such heavy-duty problems, but as we grow as a culture and learn to recognize dysfunction as we see it, I think we are less apt to allow ourselves to exist in a state of mass-denial where we view imperfections in a family are aberrations, rather than simply as problems and issues that need resolving.

I don’t think your girlfriend’s family exists in some kind of Stepford Wife Autocratic Nightmare. I do think it’s possible that, having grown up in such an extreme familial environment yourself, your sensors might be tweaked a bit too much in one direction. So when you encounter a family that is (Let’s not say “normal,” let’s say “closer to the median average of function/dysfunction,” How’s that for politically correct?), you find yourself closer to the average, perhaps the contrast is so sharp with your own family stuff that you can’t help but be reminded of how “wrong” you feel your family is. Which they are not. They are simply who they are, and you are you: the two are not one in the same.

Which brings me to my next point. You also asked if there was any possibility of your family ever being normal. If I trafficked in bullshit I’d say yes and blow all kinds of smoke, but that’s not the case. In all likelihood, your parents will remain locked in their unhealthy patterns. Whether the same holds true for your siblings will depend on their own self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

That being said, the one person you can have an effect on and who does have more than a fighting chance of resolving all this, at least for himself, is you. You cannot save or change your family. You can however, accept and love them unconditionally. At the same time, you owe it to yourself (and to your girlfriend, especially if she should ever become your wife), to maintain appropriate emotional boundaries when it comes your family’s shit (let’s call it what it is, eh?). You are responsible for learning to break free of whatever role it is you’ve learned to play in that dynamic, and also for learning to undo whatever rotten programming might be hiding inside from the faulty education you got. This is something you can begin on your own through simple introspection, conversations with your partner or good friends, or if you feel the need, perhaps even a discussion with a counselor. Don’t get me wrong here, I’ve never been an advocate of “parent-blaming,” but it would be naïve to think the people who raise us and teach us how to be in this world don’t create echoes of their own behavior in the adults we mature in to. Again, no blaming here, just recognition of the possible cause of a certain condition, and a suggestion on how to reverse its possible effects.

For the moment, have you considered talking to your girlfriend about this? The circumstances are obviously causing enough of an emotional reaction to motivate you to write in to me. From my experience, talking about and sharing emotions with a romantic partner usually strengthens the relationship and, in the best of all worlds, resolves the problem, or at least begins the process of resolution; it’s something you do together. Also, your girlfriend may get a good laugh out of your impression of her “perfect” family, and be only too happy to fill you in on some anecdotes from their imperfect past. I think so long as you broach the subject in such a way that shows you feel resentful and jealous of the situation, but not her (or her parents) personally, it will go a long way in making sure the dialogue is conversational, rather than confrontational.

Either way, offer to help with the dishes after dinner. That almost always goes over well.

Dr. V

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