First, keep in mind that family dynamics are largely out of a single person's control, so a tricky dynamic isn't necessarily reflective of how a person treats all people in all relationships. “Families are powerful entities, and one member of a family is often powerless to the overall dynamic of a family,” says clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. As a result, he says, someone can get sucked into good and bad family situations without having much ability to do anything about it.
With this in mind, it's not necessarily a red flag if your partner doesn’t have a great relationship with their parents—but there are a few things to be aware of in this case. First is that even though you need not run for the hills because a fling doesn't get along with their parents, do know that the reality may well impact them in a way that could factor into your relationship. “Just as your own personal family dynamics will impact your relationships, that is true for all of us,” says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Clinical psychologist Karin Anderson Abrell, PhD, agrees, noting that a person’s relationship with their family has a “huge and profound” impact on how they’ll act in other relationships, whether they like it or not. “That includes the good and bad—including dysfunction,” she says.
How to gauge whether a partner's rough relationship with their parents means bad news for your romance
“It’s only a bad sign if they don’t have a handle on [their family situation], aren’t aware of how they are being affected by it, or are in denial about or often justifying it,” Dr. Durvasula says. “Many people come from really toxic families but have done the work and are actually more self-aware than people from healthier families.” So, what are signs of each of these scenarios, so you can better understand what you're dealing with?
“Many people come from really toxic families but have done the work and are actually more self-aware than people from healthier families.” —clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD
If your partner is in denial about their negative family dynamics, it’s an issue, Dr. Durvasula says. Signs of such denial might include refusing to interact with their family without offering up a reason to you or otherwise communicating with you. Dr. Abrell adds that the only time complete emotional cutoff and disengagement from one's family makes sense is when rampant toxicity is present. "But, when that’s not the case, it’s not the most emotionally mature response,” she says.
As far as how you can know a partner's relationship with their parent might not be worrisome? If your partner deliberately puts distance between themselves and family members after realizing that their family dynamic isn’t a healthy one for them, Dr. Abrell says, this can make sense: “They may say, ‘I had to create boundaries for my own mental health,’” she says. “That’s different from just cutting people off because they disagree with you.”
With these situations in mind, it follows that communication is a crucial component of teasing out where your partner's specific situation falls. “Get details,” says Dr. Mayer. “You must find out why.”
But beyond the "why" of your partner's relationship dynamic with their parents, your primary concern is likely how it may impact their ability to be a positive partner to you. To this end, Dr. Abrell recommends talking to them about how they plan to approach this role. In some instances, it may involve therapy to help them work through certain issues. “Ultimately, their awareness of the situation and how it has impacted them is important,” Dr. Abrell says.
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