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How should families deal with a significant other who isn't liked?

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

Jason Morris and his wife, DeeDee Cayetano, with their three children, Tijhanni Cayetano, 5, left, 14-month-old Josiah Morris and Tazah Cayetano, 13, at home in Evanston. Three years after her marriage to Morris, DeeDee Cayetano still struggles to get along with her in-laws. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

DeeDee Cayetano didn't meet Jason Morris' parents or siblings until a month after she married him — so her relationship with her in-laws was strained from the start.

The couple quickly married after a year of dating when Cayetano, a nanny, discovered that Morris was still living with an ex-girlfriend and demanded that he prove his love to her. So they didn't have time to make family introductions.

But her relationship with her in-laws has not gotten better since their wedding three years ago. "They say one thing in front of you, and they say another thing behind your back," Cayetano said. I used to cry because I'm a family-oriented person, and I would get upset because he didn't confront them."

Now, Cayetano said, she's still trying to have a relationship with her in-laws, but she's getting tired of proving to them that she's worthy.

It's a common situation: The in-laws don't approve of a partner, putting a strain on all sides of the relationship. In some cases, the in-laws point out perceived flaws, ultimately leading to a split in the family. When it comes to choosing a partner, should parents or siblings have an opinion? And if they do, should they share it?

"Proceed with caution," warned Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and marriage counselor. While you don't want to completely ignore your feelings about your family member's new partner by saying nothing, you also don't want to alienate the family member by rejecting the partner altogether.

"You can speak your concerns to your family member from a loving, concerned place, and then respect their ultimate decision in the relationship," Fisher said.

It's also a good idea to ask your family member if he even wants your opinion about his partner, said Tracy Ross, a licensed clinical social worker, specializing in couples and family therapy.

"If the answer is 'no,' they have to watch the relationship unfold and hope that the values they hold dear have been instilled in their adult child, and they will reach their own conclusions," Ross said.

If you continue showing resistance to the relationship, it usually backfires, she said.

"If family expresses distaste for the partner, they're setting the stage for conflict at best, estrangement at worst," said Tina Gilbertson, psychotherapist author of "The Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children."

Sometimes, however, the conflict between the partner and the in-laws rises to the surface, and there's no way to avoid it. In that case, the in-laws will have to make more of an effort if they want to save their relationship with their child.

Gilbertson recommends that in-laws ask their relative if there's anything they can do to make the partner feel more comfortable.

"I would invite the couple to spend time with my family and encourage efforts to forge a more positive relationship with the partner during those times," she said. "Any other approach would likely make things worse."

Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent," says a couple should figure out how to act if a family member confronts them or isn't nice to one of them.

Should your partner speak up for you? Should you leave as soon as something is mentioned? How will you handle an explosive moment?

"If your parents sense a split between you and your partner, they will triangulate, meaning they will put themselves in the middle and place a wedge between you and your partner," Walfish said.

In Cayetano's case, she would get upset because her husband didn't confront his family, as she thought he should do. After each incident, he'd call family members and explain to his family why she was hurt, and they'd apologize through him.

"But then it would start over again," Cayetano said, explaining why she still doesn't get along with her in-laws.

In a scenario in which a partner continually feels she is not liked or accepted, it's up to her significant other to have that difficult conversation with his family members about the importance of his partner in their life.

"Let their family know that they will be in the picture in the future," said Anna Marcolin, a psychotherapist in private practice in Highland Park. "If the family doesn't like it, then that's too bad."

That's what happened with Lori and Aisha Ellis, who live just outside Chicago.

Lori Ellis' family didn't accept Aisha because she is a woman and the same-sex relationship went against the family's religious beliefs.

"I wanted him to know about our relationship because I didn't want him thinking we were just going to go away," Lori Ellis said, explaining why she told her father about Aisha.

Her father stopped talking to her after hearing the news. The couple soon got married and had their first child without her father's blessing.

The father met the child when the baby was 3 months old. Lori Ellis said her father came to the realization that the relationship wasn't going to dissolve and that he had to accept it or lose his daughter and his grandson.

"I think that when he realized that this wasn't going away, that this was something serious, he started to accept (Aisha), but he'd still prefer a son-in-law," Lori Ellis said.

In some relationships, family members might have good reason to dislike a partner, but it's better to see if the situation resolves itself, says Ross.

"If the family has remained respectful, their family member may begin to question the choice on their own," Ross said.

"If they break it off to please the family, not only will there be resentment, but they will likely choose another partner with similar characteristics."

By Danielle Braff

Chicago Tribune May 03, 2018 at 10:30 am

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