“Is your family keeping you single?” could be the title of a reality TV show these days. But the truth is, your relatives may actually have a bigger influence on your dating life than you realize.
Not only are there the obvious issues that crop up (i.e., if they don’t like your new love interest, it’s going to be harder to make your relationship work), there are subtle familial maneuvers in play that may also affect how you come across to potential dates — or how you view romantic relationships in general.
“Most families want the best for us, so the way they interfere is probably unintentional,” says Karin Anderson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Concordia University Chicago and author of It Just Hasn’t Happened Yet. “Typically, family patterns are passed on from generation to generation, so your parents’ intrusive behavior is likely very similar to what they experienced themselves when they were dating, so they think that it’s normal and appropriate.” But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with — or help you in your quest to find The One.
So how can you best deal with relatives who become over-involved in your love life? Gently, but firmly! Boundaries may be considered a bit cliché at this point, but they are imperative for healthy family functioning — especially for single, adult children. “According to family systems theory, healthy = very close and very separate, meaning I’m close with family, but I maintain boundaries that permit my separateness, independence and personal space,” explains Dr. Anderson. “For some adults, finding this balance will be quite tricky — but to the extent that one makes efforts in this direction, he/she can expect to see improved health in other relationships.”
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Check out the issues we’ve listed below to see if you need to have a boundary-setting intervention with your family while you’re looking for the love of your life.
Family Issue #1: “Are you seeing anyone?” is the only question they ask you anymore
It’s the first thing you hear when you pick up the phone or visit for the holidays: “So, is there someone special in your life?” This constant questioning about your relationship status can not only drive you crazy, it could also affect your psyche (as in, making you feel like a failure if you can’t answer “yes” to their well-meaning queries). “Constantly having to defend your dating status is exhausting, and it takes all the fun out of sharing what’s going on in your love life. And sometimes, you might hang onto a boyfriend or girlfriend when you know the relationship isn’t going anywhere just to have a date for Thanksgiving so as to avoid the barrage of questions regarding your dating life,” says Dr. Anderson. “Your family’s over-involvement in your love life puts an enormous amount of pressure on you — whether you realize it or not.”
How to deal with it: Don’t bring home a lukewarm date just to appease your grandmother; that’s not fair to anyone, especially your guest. “If it bothers you that your family seems more interested in your dating life than in any other aspect of your existence, gently (but firmly) tell them that you’d prefer to discuss other matters and interests — your work, hobbies, travels, etc. — and that you’ll be the one to bring up your love life if there’s anything worth reporting,” advises Dr. Anderson.
Family Issue #2: You’re expected to attend all family events, which leaves little time for dating
Does your family expect to see you at every family get-together without exception — including your third cousin’s daughter’s graduation from kindergarten? “Some families see neglect and betrayal at every turn,” says Dr. Anderson. “They expect single adults to attend family get-togethers with the same frequency as any other family member, and frankly, this is neither possible nor desirable.” The reality is that dating takes up a lot of free time and energy for most people. Whether you’re searching online or otherwise, assessing your potential connection with dating prospects can often feel like a full-time job. Your family needs to cut you some slack and recognize that you’ll be unavailable for less-crucial gatherings every now and then. Giving in to their guilt trips may win you the “Aunt/Uncle of the Year” award, but sacrificing opportunities to meet The One isn’t helpful.
How to deal with it: Again, this is a boundary issue. “If your family continues to pressure you to attend every last event, gently (but firmly) explain that while you love them very much, you also need to devote time and attention to finding your life partner and building your own family,” suggests Dr. Anderson. “Especially if your parents met in 10th-grade algebra class, they won’t understand how time-intensive dating is, and their expectations about your level of involvement will likely be way off.” Furthermore, single adults need to spend quality time with others who are also single and looking for love. Hanging out at family reunions every summer may contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness if you’re the only single person who’s there.
Family Issue #3: You still have unresolved emotional issues with your parents, and it’s affecting your ability to find a good partner
It sounds trite, but parents greatly affect the way people search for a life partner. “Typically, you’re attracted to dating partners in reaction to your relationship with an opposite-sex parent — or a same-sex parent, if you’re homosexual,” says Dr. Anderson. “If you’re lucky, this relationship was an emotionally healthy one and you’re looking to replicate these dynamics in an adult romantic relationship of your own.” Realistically, though, you’re often hoping to repair what wasn’t working with the relationship with your parents during adulthood. For example, a woman might say, “My dad was gone all the time and I never felt close to him, so I find myself dating men who are emotionally unavailable in hopes that this time around, I’ll get the intimacy I lacked with my own father.” Of course, this strategy rarely proves successful — and even if the lady in question were able to snag an emotionally unavailable man, would it make up for her dad’s lack of attention earlier in life? Furthermore, is it fair to burden any new partner with your unmet childhood emotional needs? Hardly!
How to deal with it: Identifying such patterns can prove extremely difficult — most people are too close to these issues to see them clearly without an outsider’s help. With concerns such as these, Dr. Anderson says that it’s best to get a recommendation from someone you trust and engage in some counseling, since there’s no better way to achieve personal growth and development. “Remember, you’re going to attract someone with roughly the same emotional health as your own; in therapy, we talk about water rising to its own level — meaning that in a relationship, one partner may appear to be the dysfunctional one, but ultimately, both are typically at about the same level of emotional health,” says Dr. Anderson. “So the healthier you are, the healthier the partner you ultimately end up with is likely to be.” In other words, work on your own issues if a happy relationship’s ultimately your goal.
Family Issue #4: Your family has set restrictive rules regarding who you can (and can’t) bring home as your date
Even in this day and age, certain families have rigid expectations about the people their relatives should date — and marry. “True story: One young man broke up with a girlfriend he adored who was of Irish decent because his Greek/Italian family insisted he marry within his own culture. He complied by marrying a woman of Greek heritage — and then divorced her after a miserable, 10-year marriage. Coincidentally, he ran across his former Irish girlfriend shortly after his divorce was final, and this time, he had the courage to follow his heart. Now he’s happily married,” relates Dr. Anderson. “Sounds like an old-school story, but such pressures are still alive and well in the new millennium.”
How to deal with it: All families have rules and opinions regarding touchy topics like your date’s religion, ethnicity, political affiliation or otherwise. Some families are quite permissive in their expectations of your future mate, while others remain rigidly stalwart. Dr. Anderson suggests paying attention to the messages your family members send regarding “acceptable” dating partners. Re-examine how these expectations have affected your dating life until now, whether it’s positively or negatively. For example: Are you ruling out prospects based on these archaic family rules? Do you avoid getting serious with someone because you know there’ll be hell to pay when you bring your date home for the holidays? “Remember, family members are responsible for their own happiness,” says Dr. Anderson. “It’s not your job to make sure everyone in your family approves of your partner.”
Family Issue #5: You’re estranged from your family and don’t interact with them at all
Are you emotionally disconnected from your family, for the most part? If so, you may believe that they couldn’t possibly affect your love life… but this isn’t always the case. “Oftentimes, people are still very much influenced by their family of origin, despite being disconnected from them,” says Dr. Anderson. “For example, you may unknowingly be looking for a substitute family, which could subtly affect who you desire to date.” On the other hand, your lack of contact with them could leave you with some relational deficits — especially if there was little communication within your family, even when you still lived at home. “You may never have learned how to appropriately attach to others or work through conflict in a healthy, productive way,” advises Dr. Anderson. “Also, psychologists who study families assert that if you’re cut off from your family of origin, aspects of your development will stagnate. So if you haven’t spoken to your family since you were 18, part of you remains ‘stuck’ at age 18.”
How to deal with it: It’s not fair, but people don’t choose their families — and some are dealt a doozy of a hand trying to deal with it. “Still, trying to stuff your dysfunctional family into a past that you’d rather ignore is a recipe for allowing your family’s lack of health to continue to plague you in the future,” says Dr. Anderson. “And remember, even if you’re able to successfully meet and marry someone, you’re likely to bring that untouched pathology into your marriage, thereby repeating the very patterns you’d hoped to leave behind.” This may be another case where professional help is truly the best course of action for you to take. Don’t let your family’s dysfunction ruin your chance at finding a happy, healthy, everlasting love, because in the end, it’s your relationship that matters most!
Kimberly Dawn Neumann (www.KDNeumann.com) is a popular New York City-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Redbook, Maxim and frequently online. A certified dating/relationship coach, she’s publishedThe Real Reasons Men Commitand is the founder of www.DatingDivaDaily.com.