Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Topic of the Day: When Does Your Your Partner Get Treated Like Family?

An article in The Atlantic this week explores what it calls “a uniquely modern phenomenon”:

how the boundary between being treated like part of your significant other’s family and being treated like an outsider has been made unclear in recent generations since sex, cohabitation, and parenting outside of marriage has become much more widely accepted. “Add in the fact that older relatives, whose ideas of what’s acceptable might date back to an earlier era, often play gatekeeper at family functions, and the end product is a holiday-season headache for a lot of dating and engaged couples.” If you’ve ever been in a serious relationship outside of marriage — maybe you lived together, are parents together, or were even engaged or simply in a very long-term relationship — you’ve likely faced some kind of gatekeeping by someone in your respective families, especially when it comes to holiday inclusion.

Maybe the most significant of this kind of gatekeeping is whether or not you and your partner get to share a room while visiting family out of town. For a lot of families, this is a nonissue, but still for many the idea of unmarried adult children sharing a bed is controversial, either because of their own morals or because of not wanting to upset the 90-year-old grandparents. I know this is even more fraught for people who fear their partners may not be accepted by older generations in their family for things like sexual identity, race, and religion, and when special privileges like bedroom-sharing and holiday- or vacation-inclusion is granted, it can be seen as a big step for the relationship, like a stamp of approval granted by the family:

“It’s kind of like when partners have a ‘define the relationship’—or ‘DTR’—conversation,” Janning added, “but this time it’s the entire family deciding whether to officially recognize it. This is the DTR in the family, and a couple probably doesn’t want anybody else involved, but by virtue of [the couple] having to go to their house, they have to be involved,” she said. “That is not an easy situation for couples to be in—or for their parents, or other family members.”

The family-inclusion (or exclusion) can add another layer of drama to a relationship when couples aren’t on the same page for how and with whom they spend holidays and special occasions (like, “Hey I spent thanksgiving with your family, why are you not willing to spend Christmas with mine?!”), or when one person’s family is much more accepting of the relationship than the other person’s family. One may discover, for example, that being with someone whose family accepts your relationship early and includes you frequently is of great value and that not having that might be a dealbreaker.

What are your thoughts on all of this? Would it be a dealbreaker for you if you were dating someone whose family didn’t include you in family events or made you and your partner sleep in separate bedrooms? Have you experienced very different levels of acceptance from various families/family members? Is there a point — engagement, living together, parenthood — when a couple’s marital status is irrelevant when it comes to being considered part of the family?

18 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Miss MJ December 19, 2019, 10:07 am

    I tend to think that once you’re living together or engaged, it’s time for the family to treat you like a unit, marriage certificate or not. That’s the way it’s generally worked in my and my husband’s families, anyway.

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    Allornone December 19, 2019, 10:59 am

    I agree with the living together/engaged benchmark. That’s when you are a unit. Bless my mom, though, she treated me and my partner as a unit almost immediately after we started dating. Three weeks into our relationship he was invited to a large family event (why he agreed, I have no idea; brave boy) and we slept in the same room. He’s been a son from day one. It’s different with his family- we barely see them (and we’d NEVER stay over) and there’s some language difficulties (his mom doesn’t speak English and my Spanish is lacking), so while they are perfectly pleasant to me, even after five years, it’s kind of awkward. Eh.

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  • Copa

    Copa December 19, 2019, 11:17 am

    I’m inclined to agree that once you’re living together or engaged, the couple ought to be treated like a family unit.

    Most of my boyfriend’s family lives in the same general area as us (most are within a 1.5 hour drive), so I’m included often and have been since fairly early on. It’s nice to be part of a close and happy family, but as someone who didn’t come from that, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of obligations it can come with.

    He has come home with me (to another state from where we live) once in the 1.5-ish years we’ve been dating — maybe 7 or 8 months in. He was the first guy I’ve brought home in my 30s, and I was curious if the sleeping situation would be the same as when boyfriends spent the night when I was in my 20s. Nope! My mom made him sleep in another room. I think it’s ridiculous — I’m early 30s, he’s late 30s — but he didn’t say anything about it.

    We spent Thanksgiving with his mom and stepdad in Florida, and his mom seemed kinda offended that I didn’t invite him home with me for Christmas. I may have, if Christmas with my family were fun. But it’s not, there’s a lot of dysfunction, which he knows about, but I don’t think he can understand it without living it, and I don’t want him to live it because it’s awful. Who knows what the future has in store for us, but I feel like *I* will be the one keeping him at arm’s length from my nuclear family. In any case, I think he’s glad he’ll be with his own family this year.

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    • avatar

      ktfran December 19, 2019, 11:32 am

      The husband and I still spend Christmas apart and that won’t change any time soon. Especially since there will be no children.

      We both enjoy our respective nuclear families Christmas celebrations + he’s an only child and I want to see my nieces/nephew. To top it off, my middle sister doesn’t have to contend with her husband’s family because he’s Jewish. My little sister lives in our hometown, as does her husband’s family. In summary, we are all always present for Christmas.

      Really, I say to each their own. Not spending Christmas together doesn’t mean you love someone less. In my opinion, we’re comfortable enough in our relationship to be a part for a few days, even if it’s a holiday. Plus, it extends Christmas!! The husband and I exchange gifts when I return home.

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  • avatar

    gym5ive December 19, 2019, 12:36 pm

    This is something I really relate to! My parents are Indian immigrants – Indian cultural norms and expectations around dating/marriage and family are quite different from the US:

    1. Traditionally, when a woman married, she was considered part of her husband’s family. She and her husband would live with his parents.

    2. My parents had an arranged marriage (not a forced marriage!) where both my mom and dad were looking for spouses. They both met a bunch of people and didn’t like any of them, but they both liked each other when they finally met. They married within a few weeks of meeting – turns out, they had gone to college together and vaguely knew some of the same people.

    All of this to say: my parents REALLY don’t understand dating. To them, the only point of dating is to find a spouse, which means you only date people who have a strong potential to be a life-long match, and you only start dating once you’re ready to get married.

    During an arranged marriage, all the requirements are laid out up front: will the couple have children, will both spouses work, will their respective cultural traditions (e.g., religion, vegetarianism) match. Family is a HUGE part of an arranged marriage, because parents are supposed to be a predictor of how a young person will evolve over life. This means whenever I brought a guy home to meet my parents, they were much more concerned with their parents than the guy himself.

    All of this to say: the idea of integrating a potential spouse into my family was something I started thinking about well before I started dating. My generation is the first one to start marrying non-Indians (all of us grew up outside of India in the US), and my parents struggled with understanding at what stage they should stop treating my boyfriends as basically non-existent (because they didn’t approve of non-marriage focused dating) to a potential son-in-law (who they wanted to integrate into our family as much as possible).

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  • avatar

    Fyodor December 19, 2019, 12:46 pm

    BoF* and I met in our early 30s and neither of us came from conservative or traditionalist families. Even so, for the first year we were dating both sets of parents insisted on us sleeping apart at their homes.

    In her parents’ case, they wanted to visit our city with her brother and asked her to stay with me so that they could stay in her apartment at which point she insisted that they couldn’t on one hand have her stay with me for their own convenience and then require that we sleep apart.

    *Bride of Fyodor.

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    • avatar

      Fyodor December 19, 2019, 12:47 pm

      In my case, I was the eventual beneficiary of arguments my siblings had with my parents over this issue.

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    • avatar

      SpaceySteph December 19, 2019, 1:48 pm

      Good for her! That double-standard is nonsense.

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  • avatar

    Fyodor December 19, 2019, 12:49 pm

    More generally, my parents were outraged that I was single at 30 and BoF was the only girlfriend that they were permitted to meet. Once they met her (we had been dating for four months) they aggressively treated her as a member of the family mad badgered us to get married.

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    • avatar

      Allornone December 19, 2019, 1:34 pm

      I have kind of the same thing. My partner and I met in our 30s and while they all had met one previous boyfriend, current bo was the first one in about ten years. My mom started sending me pictures of wedding dresses just a few months in. I feel kinda bad for her because five and a half years later, we still haven’t gotten hitched, but I think everyone (including us) just assumes we’ll get around to it eventually.

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  • avatar

    SpaceySteph December 19, 2019, 1:47 pm

    I think either living together or becoming engaged (for couples who aren’t living together) should be the benchmark.
    My husband and I didn’t live together before marriage. We each owned a house and we didn’t combine households until after marriage (literally 2 days after we got married, we moved my husbands clothes to my house as the official “move in”.. the rest of his stuff followed — or went to the curb– over the next several months) although we spent a majority of nights together up until then.
    So engagement would have been the benchmark for us. Its also when my parents let us start sharing a room at their house; my in-laws didn’t allow it until we were officially married. Prior to that, when we visited his parents I stayed in a separate spare room– and one time had to share the room with his snoring 60-something year old Aunt (who I’d only met once before– awkward)! We went to 2 family weddings when dating and both times we got a hotel room which we stayed in together since they wouldn’t let us stay together in their house. So silly, we had 2 houses back home to have sex in… what’s the difference?

    But I think there’s another question here, which is when does their family start treating you like family. We’ve been married almost 7 years, have a child and another on the way, and I still don’t quite feel like ‘family’ vs ‘the in-law.’ Idk, does that ever go away?

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    • avatar

      Allornone December 19, 2019, 1:56 pm

      It depends on the family. Like I said above, my mom treats my partner like a son. My dad isn’t quite at that level, but he likes him a lot and is always extremely welcoming (especially since partner always fixes his tech devices). Yet to my partner’s family, I”ll probably always just be “la rubia” (the blond chick). Families are weird.

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    • Copa

      Copa December 19, 2019, 2:37 pm

      I agree it will vary by family. I feel like my boyfriend’s family already treats me like family, and it’s nice, though I’m unsure how long it’ll take me to feel I am truly part of the family. My boyfriend and sister have a nice relationship so far, but I don’t think my parents will ever treat him like he’s their son.

      My dad’s side of the family tends to “other” the in-laws. It’s usually in small ways, but it doesn’t go unnoticed. For example, if we’re taking photos, one of my aunts will always suggest one of “just family” and kick the in-laws and SO’s out. My mom always HATED this! Any time I go to a family wedding, I joke with whomever is marrying into the family that it’s the only day they won’t be kicked out of family photos.

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    • avatar

      snoopy128 December 20, 2019, 12:00 am

      I think you hit the nail on the head, the bigger picture than just sleeping in the same room together is when/if you graduate from ‘the in-law’ to ‘family’.

      My family/parents have whole-heartedly embraced my husband as their family. To the point where they are sad when only I come visit because they wanted to see ‘our whole family’.
      On the other hand, I feel like family to my MIL, maybe partly because she has three boys and loves having other women family around for immediate family things. But my FIL treats me like ‘the in-law’ and I’m not sure it will ever go away. It’s to the point where he will message my husband things to ask me or will only refer to my husband when talking about things that both of us are privy to or are involved in. In the group chat between my husband and my MIL and FIL, my FIL will literally start a general ‘us’ question with “Husbandsname blahblahblah” even though both of us are able/required to answer the question. His loss since my husband has to ask me half the time because he doesn’t have the answer or it’s something that I normally handle in our household.

      I think some people have just different views of what family is, especially when it comes to their children’s partners. It just reminds me of the circle of trust in Meet the Fockers. For some, their children’s spouses never make it to the inner circle…likely as a self-protective mechanism.

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  • avatar

    ron December 19, 2019, 2:13 pm

    Didn’t really feel like part of my wife’s parents’ family even after over 30 years of marriage. Although, in many ways, neither did my wife and her sibs. The parents were emotionally cool academic-type snobs who thought of themselves as British and Canadian and weren’t really down with most things Americans. Her father was concerned where his daughter was sleeping a couple days before our wedding — strangely he was there when all her furniture and bed were moved to our new apartment. No problems with my parents.

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    Another Jef December 19, 2019, 3:19 pm

    I guess it never occurred to me once I moved out and started paying my own way that I wouldn’t just do what worked for me. I don’t need a free place to stay enough to sleep apart from my partner…so if there had been a problem, we just would have stayed in a hotel. Maybe knowing they didn’t have that leverage prevented either set of parents from making a fuss one way or another.

    AJ

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  • avatar

    Ange December 19, 2019, 4:16 pm

    My family is very lax about all these things (as are most families here that aren’t religious) so it would have been super weird for us to have been forced into separate rooms while we were dating.

    On the flip side my family is quite insular so while you’ll be treated as one of them the second you fall out of line or cause trouble they close ranks and you’re gone. My mum was married to my dad for 25 years and she always said she felt like her acceptance into the family was entirely conditional.

    These days with peiole moving further away from their family of origin I’d imagine there’s a lot less communal living and feeling of being ‘family’ that living in close proximity would give you. My husband has probably only met my dad a dozen times in 8 years and I’d be the same with his parents. It’d be nuts to consider them family in the traditional sense of the word.

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  • avatar

    allathian December 23, 2019, 5:00 am

    I had been dating my husband for about three weeks when he met my parents for the first time, and about six weeks when I met his mother. His parents are divorced and we had been dating for nearly a year before I met his father for the first time.

    We all live in the same town, so overnight visits have never been an issue. By the time I met my husband, I was financially independent and in my early thirties, so even if overnight visits had been on the cards, we could’ve stayed in a hotel if necessary.

    All that said, how many couples actually consider having sex under their parents’ or their in-laws’ roof, married or not? I would simply feel too awkward, even if some might find it titillating, I suppose.

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