Advice | Ask Sahaj: My boyfriend’s parents treat me like an outsider

Hi Sahaj, I’ve been dating a wonderful man for three years. I feel like an outsider when we spend time with his parents, especially since we moved away from our hometown last summer. It makes sense that they want to catch up with their son now that they dont see him every week. But how should I handle my discomfort? It is always most acute the first day, but if the visit is four days, they usually treat us both warmly by day 2 or 3.

He is their golden boy, their only son and youngest child, and when we see them it feels as if he is the most interesting man in the world and I am some random woman who wandered in off the street. Worse, my partner and I are in the same field, but I am in graduate school. I fear I will always be a less smart, less interesting version of him to them. I do not feel this way around his sisters and their husbands; they are very sweet, and we get along well.

In the nine months since he moved, we have spent close to 30 days total with his parents which included visits to our hometown for both Jewish (his family), Christian (my family), and secular holidays. We stay with them since they have a guest suite and my family does not have room for us. I am not very close with my family. We have discussed marriage, and it stresses me out to be stuck with a second family who is lukewarm on me, who will never be impressed no matter how hard I try to impress them. His parents apparently really like me, but they arent outwardly friendly people, though they are generally generous, patient and kind.

Should I say something to the parents? Or keep it to myself until were married, and then ask to be treated like family? Or is it normal for parents to love their child more than their child’s partner, and I should just limit my time with them?

On the Outs: Before you do or say anything, reflect on your feelings and experiences. On one hand you feel like “some random woman who wandered in off the street” and on the other his parents are “generous, patient and kind.” How do these two experiences actually coexist? I’m not denying you feel this way, but feelings are not always factual.

Consider what evidence is feeding this story you have of how they perceive you. How do you really know they think you’re less interesting or smart? Why do you struggle to believe that they like you? When you say you “try to impress them,” that indicates you’re seeking validation from them. Why? What insecurities are surfacing when you’re with them? How does your own relationship — or lack thereof — with your family exacerbate this issue. I wonder if there’s unprocessed grief around your own family and a sadness that your future in-laws are not filling that void.

Confronting these feelings can help you get clarity on what you feel due to an insecurity — and may need to heal on your own — versus what you may actually need from the relationship to feel accepted and acknowledged. Think about what specifically you want from them to feel included. Is it asking more questions about you? Is it including you in conversation? Feelings can be abstract so being precise can help clarify your needs.

It’s unlikely you will have the same relationship with your partner’s parents as he has. This doesn’t mean they like you less, it just means the relationship is different. This also doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to feel loved, welcomed and appreciated. Let go of the comparison to how they treat their son, and, instead, imagine what kind of relationship you can realistically have with them? In what ways can you nurture this relationship, too?

Then, you can have a candid conversation with your partner. Be honest about what you are feeling, what behaviors and actions you observe, and what you may need moving forward. Maybe your boyfriend can be more aware of bringing you into the conversation when you feel left out. You can also ask his siblings-in-law if they feel similarly to elucidate if it’s you or if your partner’s parents are just this way with everyone.

Finally, I hear a bit of resentment in your question. You are justifying the time you spend with them because you live far away now, because they have the space, because he is closer to his family. But what I hear is, this isn’t what I really want, or even, I am not getting what I want from this relationship. It may be time to have a bigger conversation with your partner to set some boundaries around how often you are with his family.

Family dynamics are not black or white. They can evolve. You just have to figure out what you are willing to tolerate, where you can give benefit of the doubt, and what you absolutely need to move forward.

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