Dear Carolyn: My girlfriend and I have been dating for three years, two long-distance. Now we are back in the same place and living together.
While my girlfriend and I were apart, we only saw my brother and sister-in-law at holidays. Now, however, we live nearby and see each other frequently, and the interactions are not as pleasant. My girlfriend is offended by my brother and sister-in-law’s sense of humor. It can be coarse and grating, relying on shock value rather than wit for a laugh. As such, she doesn’t want to be around them.
I feel defensive when she says that, and I am not sure how much of her feelings to communicate to my brother and sister-in-law. Should I be the emotional interlocutor? Should I suggest they talk it out? I don’t want to insist on a relationship between them all that is negative, but I would hope they could get along as I love my girlfriend, and we hope to be married soon.
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Wait a minute — you blew right past the most interesting part: how you feel.
That’s the crux of it, because this isn’t about them; if it were, they’d just avoid each other, boom, done. Instead this is about what you need from your innermost circle — and “defensive” says you don’t entirely agree with your girlfriend.
That, in turn, means you need to figure out what you’re defending and why, and where both your sympathy and loyalty belong. Whatever you choose to do here, it’s going to affect your relationship with one of the most important people in your life, which promises considerable pressure and a sense of loss. That’s why it’s so important to know your own mind before you attempt to navigate a conflict like this — to make the best choice for you, and to have the confidence to respond without lashing out.
To get there, please ask yourself: Do you object to this couple’s humor, or do you find it as funny as they do? Or are you between those two positions somewhere, objectively aware that it’s offensive but fine with brushing it off?
And: Do you think family trumps rude humor, or vice versa? Or, again, do you fall somewhere in between, believing answers are case-by-case and contingent on both the depth of the family bonds and the lows hit by the jokes?
And: If one party or the other forced you to choose a side, would you?
It’s almost impossible to take a clear stand, much less be at peace with it, when you yourself aren’t sure of your priorities — and that has its own consequences. If you think your girlfriend is overreacting, for example, but defer to her anyway because you think you’re supposed to or you fear losing her, then you’ll grow to resent her for complicating things with your brother. If you think she has a point but you won’t admit that to your brother’s face — not wanting to be his next target — then your visits to him will feel dishonest and forced.
Mixed feelings also help to put the “recurring” into arguments with your partner, which can wear your affection away. And these are just examples.
So figure out where you stand. Then, explain that to your girlfriend — plainly, just facts. Then say you’d like for the two of you to figure out an approach to the brother issue that gives each of you enough of what you need. Talk it, try it, tweak it, repeat till you see what works.
A life together would include dozens of adjustments like this, big and small; as hard as this one feels, it might be eye-opening for you both to go through this exercise now.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.