When it comes to the family you grew up with, you can probably list the most frustrating traits of every member. But when it comes to someone else’s family, be careful! Talking “smack” about family members is one of those hot-button issues that is loaded with landmines. It’s one of those rare social exceptions where it’s okay if they say something negative, but it’s a whole other story when you do. In this article, I will share why it is almost always a bad idea, but I will also share the one exception to the rule.
Most people are taught a cardinal rule when they’re young.
In most households, the cardinal rule is that you never talk badly about family, particularly to those outside the family. If you come from a home where parents would be openly critical of family members, you may think it’s normal or even acceptable to talk badly about your date’s family. However, you should avoid criticizing them at all costs. If you want a relationship to last, it should start easily and effortlessly. Introducing drama – not liking their friends or family, and so forth – usually causes too much stress for a new relationship to survive.
Your date will be afraid that they will one day have to choose sides between you or their family.
Good relationships work because each person’s primary emotional needs are met, and neither partner forces the other person to be someone they’re not. Each partner in a good relationship feels accepted and respected, and neither feels like the other person is trying to change them. If you start a new relationship and come out of the gate swinging – talking badly about or confronting their family for something that was said or done – you are going to make your date have second thoughts about whether the two of you could have a happy, drama-free union.
You will send a message to your date that it’s okay to criticize your family, too.
You’ve heard the expression: “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it.” If you talk badly about your date’s family, your behavior unleashes open season on talking badly about the people you care about, too. If you want your date to accept and get along with your family, you have to be mature and tight-lipped about any reservations you have about their family members. Similarly, by respecting such boundaries, if your date ever says anything negative about your family, you can politely point out that you show respect by not talking badly about their family and that you expect the same respect in return.
Your behavior tells your date that what matters is your feelings – not theirs.
You may be correct in summing up your date’s father as, say, a controlling ogre, or his sister as a selfish, entitled brat, but it’s not your place to diagnose their personalities. The goal should be to have a polite and functional relationship. By talking badly about your date’s family, your behavior says that you get so caught up in your own feelings that you can’t focus on anyone else’s.
What to do if your date’s family member says or does something completely out of line, inappropriate, or abusive…
While it’s inevitable that many of you will encounter family members of your dates whom you don’t especially care for, any family member doing something inappropriate or hostile will understandably upset you. When this happens, don’t address it in the moment or even the day of the transgression. A good night’s sleep helps people reduce impulsivity because we often feel less emotionally intense about upsetting events the following day. A day later, we have more perspective.
If your date’s family member does something that is seriously rude or uncalled for, run the issue by a friend the following day and consider broaching the topic with your date if your friend agrees that what happened is a problem. Try saying this: “I need to mention that I felt bad about something that happened with [insert family member]. I bring it up not because I want you to take sides, but because I want your help in figuring out how to move on from it so that I don’t hold a grudge. If it happens again, can you suggest something I should say or do?” Listen to your date’s response, and sit with what they say. The point of bringing up the issue isn’t to find a perfect resolution but rather to let your date know that you have boundaries and expect a certain type of treatment when you are spending time with their family. Make a mental note of the transgression and be on the lookout to see if it happens again. If you find that the bad behavior reflects a pattern, you may need to speak with that family member directly and suggest ways that the two of you can have a more respectful and functional relationship.
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.