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The following is an excerpt from the book Wake Up or Break Up
by Leonard Felder, Ph.D.
Published by Rodale; 2005;$24.95US/$35.95CAN; 1-59486-072-6
Copyright 2005 Leonard Felder, Ph.D.

Step Six

Dealing with Challenging People Who are Part of the Package

I'll bet you didn't anticipate when you first became attracted to your current partner that he or she might bring some challenging characters into your life. Maybe there's a mother-in-law or father- in-law who tests your patience. Or an ex-spouse or ex-lover who tends to stir up trouble. Or kids from a previous relationship who haven't fully accepted you yet. Or a troubled sibling or friend who keeps asking for money, and you're never sure where to set the limit. Or some family member or old friend you can't stand, but your partner feels obligated to see him or her often. Or a flirtatious co-worker or friend who simply won't recognize the TAKEN sign on your partner's heart.

When you fall in love with someone and want to spend your life with the person, one of the mysteries is how the two of you will deal with meddlesome or troublesome people who come with the package. In almost every relationship there are family members on both sides who may make things stressful at times.

As you think about the challenging people and situations that you and your partner have brought to the mix, do you recall some difficult moments in recent months or years?

  • Is there someone in your partner's family, circle of friends, or work life who seems to have so much clout with and influence over your partner that you wonder if your partner will ever stand up for you and your relationship?
  • Is there a troubled or hard-to-deal-with person on your side or your partner's side who needs a lot of attention and understanding?
  • Is there someone in your partner's life who seems determined to paint you in a bad light?
  • Are there times when your partner says yes to a family obligation or social invitation and you aren't given a chance to say what you might prefer?
  • Is there someone that your partner flirts with or has sexual chemistry with, and is it beginning to get on your nerves?
  • Are there times when your way of doing things and your in-laws' ways are in opposition, and you feel caught in the middle?
  • Is there an old friend, a co-worker, an ex-spouse, an ex-lover, or a family member who has never quite accepted that you and your partner are meant to be together, or who treats one of you with disrespect?
  • Is there a child, teenager, or young adult from your current or previous relationship who is masterful at getting one of you to say yes to something for which the other partner has already said no?
  • Is there someone in your family or in your partner's family who wants to change your religious beliefs, political preferences, or basic core self, and do you sometimes wonder if your partner sides with this person and not with you?
  • Are there recurring arguments or debates between you and your partner because you disagree about whether to speak up or remain silent around certain relatives, friends, and co-workers who say or do offensive things?

A Problem That Cannot Be Ignored

If someone in your respective families or circle of friends is causing arguments or hurt feelings, don't minimize or downplay the importance of resolving these issues. I have seen hundreds of couples whose relationships were harmed or destroyed because they were unwilling or unable to come up with creative solutions for handling divisive individuals. It's essential that you and your partner have a heart-to-heart conversation about how you will sustain your bond when someone is knowingly or unknowingly doing things to split you apart.

There are three ways to make sure that your closeness and trust don't get damaged by others: plan ahead of time with your partner how you will deal with problems and stay united; listen to your partner's concerns; and end any flirtations you are nurturing -- now!

Plan Ahead for Dealing with Problems

Most couples wait until they're in the middle of a huge fight or a shouting match before they discuss how to deal with a situation that has been testing their unity and sanity. They wait until the angriest and least productive moment to talk about something that is better explored when they are calmer and more reasonable.

When you know you will be seeing a difficult family member at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Easter, Passover, a birthday party, a wedding, or some other event, you have two choices:

a. wait until you've been slimed by this divisive individual and you're so furious that you snap at your partner and say, "I hate your crazy family," or
b. plan ahead with your partner to figure out how you are going to deal with this person differently so you can support each other and stay unified no matter what the difficult family member does.

Even though most couples choose the first option, I strongly recommend you consider the second option. That means sitting down with your beloved partner or taking a relaxing walk in nature and saying, "Let's talk about how we can stay strong and unified even when your _____ tries to drive a wedge between us at the next family event."

The purpose of this proactive conversation is not to attack your mate and his or her dysfunctional family. During workshops and radio interviews for my earlier book, When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People, I often advised people not to get into arguments about whose family is crazier. It's a conversation that goes nowhere. In addition, don't assume that because your partner says harsh things about his or her family that this entitles you to say the same exact things about them. If your partner says, "I hate my self-absorbed father. He's a complete jerk," that does not mean you can call your partner's father a self-absorbed jerk. It means shut up and listen without putting your foot in your mouth, because in most cases your partner will get defensive if you bad-mouth his or her flesh and blood.

For some reason, we feel a sense of relief when we criticize our own relatives, but we often feel offended when a spouse or lover makes the same comments. Couples need to be careful not to criticize each other's less-than-perfect loved ones (even if the criticism is 100 percent accurate) because the goal in a relationship is to support one another in improving things, not to dissect or analyze how messed up your loved one's family might be. So instead of blasting your partner's family or calling them names, work together on ways to stay unified through the ups and downs of your close encounters of the family kind.

"I Thought by Now Your Kids and Your Mom Would Be More Accepting"

Arnie and Maureen are a perfect example of how important it is to have a productive planning talk before you're in a tiff and to choose carefully what you say about your partner's less-than-perfect loved ones. Arnie was only thirty-nine years old with three young children when his wife Josie died of ovarian cancer. Three years later he met Maureen at a volunteer event and they began dating.

As Arnie recalled, "I was very nervous at first to introduce Maureen to my children because they were not quite ready for someone other than their mother to be with me. I also was concerned that my own aging mother, who's an extremely opinionated and demanding person, might be hesitant to welcome someone else into our family, especially because she liked Josie a lot. Yet I knew that I'd found in Maureen a wonderful partner, and after several years of being alone I had to get on with my life."

According to Maureen, "I knew within a few weeks after we'd met that failing in love with Arnie was going to have some complications because of his three children and his mom; they were very cold and rude to me the first few times we got together. At first I said playfully, 'How come your mom is such a bitch?' but I could see from the hurt look on Arnie's face that, even though he would call his mother the b-word, he wasn't comfortable if I said the same thing."

Maureen continued, "Then I tried to bite my tongue for several months and I put up with a lot of disrespect and harsh comments from each of the kids and from Arnie's mother. I told Arnie we needed to see a counselor, but he refused. I told him that I needed him to be stronger in letting his kids and his mother know that I'm a human being and that even if they don't love me they can still be decent and civil."

But Arnie just kept saying, "Don't worry, it'll get better with time." Yet after more than a year of dating Arnie and putting up with some very unpleasant family gatherings, Maureen couldn't keep silent any longer. One night her feelings just poured out as she said, "I don't think I can take this anymore! I thought by now your kids and your mom would be more accepting. But they're not making any progress, and you're not doing very much to stand up for someone you claim to love."

That started a painful argument where Arnie got defensive and said, "I can't believe you don't understand how hard this is for all of us" and Maureen replied, "I do understand that each of you worships Josie like she's some kind of saint. But let me tell you, I'm sure she wasn't perfect all the time, and this family has got to wake up at some point and realize that life goes on."

To which Arnie remarked, "Well, your family is just as screwed up, so I don't think you've got a right to start telling me what's wrong with my family."

Maureen responded sarcastically, "Well, excuse me! I was just repeating what I've heard you say. You've admitted to me that one of the problems is that everyone has put Josie on a pedestal because she's no longer alive. How come you can say that with no problem and yet when I repeat it back you look furious?"

Arnie was still fuming as he replied, "It's one thing if I feel like saying my kids and my mom need to stop living in the past. But I certainly don't want to hear that from you. And don't you dare start telling me how to feet about my wife. You've crossed a line you don't want to cross, do you understand?"

Maureen had tears streaming down her face as she said, "Oh, yes, I understand perfectly . . ."

A few days later, Arnie and Maureen showed up in my office because they realized that holding it all inside or criticizing each other's families was getting them nowhere. So we began to work together on having a productive planning conversation.
Like most couples, Arnie and Maureen had made the mistake of waiting until they were both furious before they tried to talk about the most substantial obstacle in their otherwise good relationship. So I told them, "Even though you both have busy lives, you need to initiate these important conversations when you're in a good mood and you're open to exploring creative solutions."

Copyright 2005 Leonard Felder, Ph.D.