Tuesday, August 4, 2015

How Do I Get My Relatives to Accept My OSO as Part of the Family?

Dear Viny,

I'm poly, married, and struggling to integrate my boyfriend of four years ("Ben") with my blood relatives. We don't really talk about things in my family. My parents and siblings were pretty accepting when I came out about three years ago, but they've been resistant to treating Ben as a partner on similar footing with my husband ("Harry"). They mostly pretend Ben doesn't exist.

We do a big family trip with spouses/SO's every other year. During last year's trip, I mentioned to my dad that I'd like to bring Ben to a family gathering, possibly but not necessarily Christmas. He said they'd have to think on it, because it would change the dynamic, and that I should remember he and my mom get a say in who comes to their house. I thought maybe they'd talk offline and get back to me, but it's been radio silence since and I'm too chicken to bring it up. When my parents visit me they hang out with Ben, and Harry's girlfriend too, and it's not even that awkward. But when we talk on the phone and I mention something that Ben and I did together, they don't respond.

Now we're planning next year's trip and I want Ben to come but I'm not sure how to bring it up or how much to fight for it. I know he'd like to be included, but that he's not going to push me one way or the other. And that it'd be completely awkward. I get pissed off just thinking about it because his family has always been nice to me, and even included Harry in their Thanksgiving last year like it was no big thing. I think if I was gay, or fostering a troubled teen, or had a baby, or broke up with Harry and was seeing someone new, I wouldn't be getting nonsense about the "family dynamic" and it makes me angry.

Help! Am I being horrible to my boyfriend by not including him in my family stuff like the life partner that he is? If so, how do I get my parents to be comfortable with him? What do I say to my brother and SIL who are concerned about their grade school age kids' reaction?

Vacillating Vacationer


Dear Vacillating,

No, you're not being horrible. You're being sandwiched: between the crustiness of conventional morality – which allows you to have ONE partner, and ONE partner only – and the moldy misery of raining on the family picnic with your poly weirdness.

Like you, I have a sincere desire to do right by ALL of my family members, and like you, I have some family members who would be offended if I had the audacity to insist that they treat ALL of my family members with equal respect and consideration. We have every right to be angry, you and I: we know that introducing a new family member ought to be cause for celebration. And we also know that your dad's mealy-mouthed excuse about not wanting to change the family “dynamic” is garbage – after all, the very word “dynamic” implies change, rather than stasis, and healthy families end up weathering all kinds of dynamic changes, good and bad, without coming unglued.

Unfortunately, our righteous indignation isn't going to get us anywhere. Most families have very static ideas about what kinds of changes are a normal part of family life, and any overt attempt to change those parameters will be met with resistance and resentment. As far as our folks are concerned, showing up to the family reunion with two partners is like showing up with two heads: super freaky. Don't try to tell them it's normal. It offends their sensibilities.

In order for your parents to invite Ben to the next family gathering, one of two things would have to happen: either you would have to force their hand (e.g., by refusing to attend unless both of your partners are invited), or you would have to somehow convince your entire family that basic decency demands they treat Ben the same way they treat Harry.

The first approach has some advantages: it's quick and dirty, and it immediately puts the ball in someone else's court. It also has some potentially serious disadvantages. Best-case scenario, your parents give in and invite Ben as well as Harry, and all three of you have to endure the awkwardness of feeling like unwelcome guests. Worst-case scenario, you and your family end up permanently estranged from each other.

The second approach – getting your family to re-define “normal” – is impossible, for reasons I've already outlined above.

My advice, then, is to give up on the project of getting your parents to invite Ben on next year's family trip, and to focus instead on the real prize: making it possible for your family to recognize Ben as someone who belongs. And to win that prize, you're probably going to have to sneak him in through the back door – verrrry, verrrry slooooowly.

I am currently in the process of sneaking Cam, my boyfriend of several years, in through the family back door. I expect it will be many more years before he's officially recognized as a family “insider”, but we are definitely making progress. Just two days ago, Cam showed up at a family reunion of all the relatives on my mother's side of the family – uninvited, I might add – and he was treated with courtesy and kindness for the entire thirty minutes he was there.

The keys to our (admittedly modest) success? Patience, peer pressure, and plausible deniability.

Let me explain. I came out as poly to my parents nine years ago, and it was a pretty traumatic experience. They made it clear that they had no interest in even meeting any of my “extraneous people.” So when I arranged for my parents to meet Cam, two years ago, I made sure it was in a context that felt as normal to them as possible. And I did not inform them of my plans beforehand. We were at a public park. My parents had joined me, my husband Parker, and our daughter on a little excursion; I texted Cam to let him know where we were; he and his wife showed up at the park with their dog; everyone said hello. It was all very spontaneous, and we did not discuss the meeting afterward. A few months later, Cam and I took my daughter with us on a trip to meet his parents (who are extremely sweet and accepting of me), and I made sure to mention to my parents where we were, and whom we were visiting. A few months after that, Cam stayed with me, Parker, and our two kids at my mother-in-law's house, and I made sure my parents knew about that visit. Since my parents and Parker's mother live in the same city, this visit afforded me the opportunity of inviting my parents to join me, my daughter, my mother-in-law, and Cam on a picnic one day. My parents wanted to see their granddaughter, so they accepted. The picnic was a success: everyone behaved, the conversation was pleasant, and no one pointed out how strange it was that we were all hanging out together. Then, my brother and his wife invited me and Cam to their house for tea, and my brother told me afterward how “surprised” he was to realize that Cam and I have a relationship that's “of the same caliber” as my relationship with Parker.

When Cam showed up at my Auntie Ell's ranch two days ago, he was on his way home from a backpacking trip. It was all very convenient. Yes, we had planned his trip knowing that it might give him a good excuse to drop in on my big family gathering – and this bit of maneuvering had the desired effect. He got to meet many of my relatives, but no one felt threatened by his presence. I did not “make a scene” by introducing him as my partner, but several of my cousins know who he is and how he's related to me, and they all made a point of welcoming him. My mother was downright friendly. As long as I don't embarrass her by making her admit he's part of the family, she's free to enjoy his presence among us. One low-key visit at a time, Cam is becoming become more and more familiar to my blood relatives. At some point, he'll be so familiar that it will start seeming weird not to invite him to our family gatherings. That's the hope, anyway.

It's okay to take it slowly. Just remember what your real goal is, and keep moving in the right direction.

Rice and Roses,

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