Frame therapist Pauline Peck weighs in...
Dating someone from a different cultural background has its own set of unique challenges, like the family dynamic you are describing, as well as benefits, like exposure to new ideas and traditions. And yet, ALL relationships require work. Ultimately, you get to decide what work you are willing to do given the value of the relationship and the connection to the person.
I hope I can offer you some things to think through that will help you determine what is right for you:
1. Be gentle with the assumption that because you are not currently accepted, that you will never be accepted.
There is a lot here to be explored.
Let’s say the cultural difference is the obstacle here: having worked with many interracial and cross cultural couples before, this is not an uncommon experience when someone is the first in their family to date outside of their own cultural background. It’s part of our biology to respond to new things with fear, judgment, and hesitation. It can take time to work through those feelings and while there is no guarantee that her family will work through theirs, it is definitely a possibility that they may be able to process this unexpected news over time. I have seen some parents become estranged from their children for choices like this and others who have eventually welcomed this person into their family.
2. Be curious about the reason for their disapproval – not assuming that they are unaccepting just because of your cultural differences.
There might be lots of reasons influencing how her family is responding. For example, they might also be hesitant because they are not sure if the relationship is serious. Different cultures have different norms about dating than Western culture where dating may be looked down upon, especially if marriage is not on the horizon. Sometimes families who are weary of welcoming significant others during the dating process become more accepting once it looks like the relationship is more serious. Once they see that this is not a fleeting situation, they might be more receptive to learning about you. While I don’t know what is going on for them, leaving room for some curiosity might help you and your girlfriend figure this out.
3. As hard as it is, remember that this isn’t really about them rejecting YOU.
Not being accepted can bring up all sorts of feelings in us like rejection, hurt, anger, and insecurity. They don’t know you and seem to be hesitant to begin that process for reasons unknown to you and me and maybe even your girlfriend. It can be hard not to take this personally but I hope you realize that this is about them and not about you. Not personalizing this can help you leave space for possibly connecting to them in the future should this become an option.
4. Your girlfriend can play a critical role here.
This is a hard place for you to be because a lot of this is between your girlfriend and her family. I want to encourage you by saying that there are things that your girlfriend can do to help her family process this information – like having conversations over time that get to the heart of the matter. While her hiding this part of herself because of her fear of judgment is understandable, over time, hiding is not going to resolve the tension. Setting boundaries will also be important. Despite how important family can be in many cultures, she is choosing to date you and that choice deserves to be protected.
Check out my free translation guide for communicating with your immigrant parents as a resource. While I don’t know for certain whether they are immigrants, there are lots of communication tools and specific how-tos that could still be useful to her. The guide breaks down ways to navigate differences between adult children and their parents who might have a different cultural lens.
5. Your job is to communicate about your experience.
It’s actually very important that you both freely and openly talk about your experiences to one another throughout this process. Solid relationships are built on both parties being able to express themselves freely and if your relationship is going to withstand this external stressor, you will need a strong foundation built by the two of you through communication and intimacy. While her family (something neither of you have total control over) is influencing your relationship a lot, it’s empowering to reclaim some of your choice by focusing on creating the space for both of you to talk about your experience of this – although you’re in different positions. It’s not likely that this situation is going to resolve overnight and there are so many layers to what each of you are feeling so your best bet in preserving the relationship, should you want to do that, is to make sure that you both feel seen and heard and supported by one another. Make sure that she knows what this situation brings up in you and whether/when you need reassurance and support. Let her know that you are there to help her navigate the messiness of her love for you on one side and her love for her family on the other.
About the author: Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, M.A., M.M.F.T., Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in CA and NY with a private practice in Santa Barbara. Specializing in anxiety, life transitions, trauma, and multicultural issues, she works mostly with the children of immigrants and cross cultural couples to break patterns of intergenerational trauma and create the love, work, and lives they feel happy to call their own. If you would like to connect with Pauline, head to her Frame profile here.
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