For the week ending 3 February 2007 / 15 Shevat 5767

Meeting the Family

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Stephanie
Dear Rabbi,
I have been dating to marry for a while. I finally met a guy who seemed like it could be it. We were serious enough to meet each other’s families. After I met his parents, he broke it off and told me that I didn’t act nicely around them since I kept putting him down in front of them. Now, it’s true that I was joking around with them a little bit at his expense, but is that any reason to break off an otherwise promising relationship?

Dear Stephanie,

You may have fallen into a trap that many of us fall into even after marriage, and it’s important for us to be aware of what’s going on behind the scenes in order to manage our relationships as smoothly and with as much blessing as possible.

Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us are insecure about ourselves and the way we relate with others. This usually comes across by our being subtly or even openly defensive without even realizing it. Sometimes, when we’re really feeling the underdog, we might be outright offensive in order to mask our feelings of insecurity or inferiority behind others’ “faults”.

A typical situation in which this occurs is with in-laws, or in your case, with potential future in-laws. Naturally, family relationships are very hard to break into since they are so strong and have developed over so many years. A newcomer feels so out of place, so unsure of where he or she fits into the family dynamic. With future in-laws, this is compounded by the feeling of being scrutinized by the family as to whether the newcomer is worth their child or not. Even if the people are the nicest in the world, judgment is taking place and it doesn’t feel good being judged.

A natural sub-conscious response to this situation is to jokingly put down the spouse to the relatives. This is a three-pronged tactic: 1] It creates a “wedge” in the relationship between the spouse and his family, enabling the newcomer a basis upon which to form a new relationship with the family, “without” the spouse. 2] It subtly “makes known” to the family that not only is the newcomer worthy, but that they are actually getting the better end of the deal. 3] It deflects the judgment and consequent need for defense from the newcomer to the spouse.

This brilliant pre-emptive/counter attack is extremely counter-productive and damages or destroys many relationships and marriages.

No family wants to hear their dear child being criticized, even “jokingly”, and they certainly are not interested in new relationships based on pushing their loved one out of the picture. In addition, instead of demonstrating the new-comer’s superiority over the spouse, this “innocuous” putting down only calls into question in the family’s mind whether the newcomer in fact appreciates, and is therefore worthy, of their child. Finally, rather than deflecting judgment, it makes the family all the more critical of the criticizing newcomer.

The correct way for potential/new members of a family to approach this situation is exactly the opposite – by praising the person to the family. We’re interested in this person because of a whole bunch of good qualities, and the family is aware of those qualities. Expressing and showing an appreciation of those qualities to the family creates an immediate common ground upon which to develop a relationship with them, with the spouse. Far from causing the family to question whether the newcomer is worth their child, praising the spouse only makes one more worthy in their eyes. Finally, there’s no better way to deflect negative judgment than to be positive, pleasant and supportive.

If we learn this simple and obvious truth, we’ll be able to foster healthy, genuinely fulfilling relationships with the people destined to be closest to us for a great part of our lives.

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