By Nina TracyI’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea that when you choose to become involved with another person intimately it is somewhat like two people from different countries (or in some cases different planets) coming together to create a new country or planet. This metaphor was shared with me by my clinical supervisor, Dr. Emily Cook, and it has made a big impact on my outlook both personally and professionally. Each person comes into the relationship with their own culture, language, way of interacting with others, value system, and many other things that are personalized from their past experiences. Each partner is responsible for helping to teach the other their language and nuances of their family of origin while at the same time creating new ways to interact that mesh both individual’s pasts into one cohesive “new” language and country.
It can sometimes be tricky navigating through the murky waters of building your own family when each person brings so much from their past and their family of origin. It can seem impossible to bridge the gaps between your understanding and world view with those of your partner. While it may be more difficult for some than others, there are several important things you can do. There are some things you should keep in mind that take work and dedication but can help make your relationship stronger, creating a foundation for you and your partner to begin growing and building your own family with its own unique values and language.
Techniques and Tips:
- Be open minded
It is important when learning and growing as a couple, that you are open minded to the differences between what is normal for you and what is normal for your partner. Being open minded to these differences will help you be able to understand them better or at least accept that it isn’t your “normal” but it may be for your partner. For example, if your partner is used to sharing food at meals with friends or family but you never liked to share or sharing was never something that was a part of your experience, be open to at least trying to share. Or vice versa, if you love sharing food but your partner doesn’t or is uncomfortable with it, then try not sharing food or better yet, decide between the two of you how you would prefer for meals to be, maybe sometimes share and other meals don’t. Compromise is important and incorporating both peoples’ preferences is a key component to building a strong foundation.
- Don’t make assumptions
This is something that I think I write about and talk about constantly. Assumptions are dangerous. Don’t assume that your partner is able to understand or interpret what you or your family are saying the way that you intend it to mean. We base our interpretations and assumptions off of our past experiences. Therefore, it is easy to get that mixed up when we are entering a new family or merging two people from different families of origins. Some assumptions may be correct but (look to the first bullet) be open minded that the situation may not be what you assume.
- Be patient
Patience is a key part of creating and building a new family together. You can’t expect your partner to understand or accept your ways of doing things right away (if at all) and they shouldn’t expect that from you either. Learning the intricacies of someone’s past and their ways of interacting with family, friends, and the world takes time and hard work. You are responsible for being patient, helping your partner learn as well as being patient learning about your partner. If frustration arises, which is common, talk about it rather than holding it in. My guess is your partner will appreciate it and also probably has some similar feelings. This can be a bonding experience that draws you closer to one another rather than pushing you apart.
- Ask questions
Sometimes we don’t ask enough questions because we either think we know the answer, don’t want to offend someone by not knowing, or are embarrassed (there are probably many more reasons we don’t ask enough questions). However, if you think back to the metaphor I explained at the beginning about us coming from different countries and helping our partner understand the language and ways of our country, then doesn’t it make sense that we would all have questions? It would be like visiting another country without knowing much about the area you’re visiting or the language and then not asking questions or for help understanding your new surroundings.
Sometimes seeking therapy or a little extra support even from mutual friends can be helpful if this process seems to be causing a lot of tension for you and your partner. Being open minded, not making assumptions, patience, and staying curious can all help in navigating this new family that you and your partner are creating and can strengthen your understanding of yourself, your partner, and your relationship. Remember, it is your responsibility to help your partner understand you and your family of origin better if you want them to be a part of it.
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.