Have you heard the saying, "When you marry 'the one,' you marry the family?" I have — and the thought makes me shudder.
I was one of those independent spirits with a "loose leash" from a young age. My family gets together for holidays, which works great for me, but you definitely won't see them imposing themselves or being so-called helicopter parents. We love each other, just sometimes from a distance.
When I met my boyfriend, Max*, it was clear we had plenty in common. He shared my interest in international cultures and travel, he was also in graduate school, and he, too, comes from a divorced family. By the time I considered his familial situation, we were already deeply in love. He remembers the moment clearly that he revealed the importance of his family. After informing me that he has five siblings — a biological brother, three step-sisters and a half-sister — he asked, "Is that a problem?"
I could barely wrap my head around all the names, but replied: "I think most people consider that to be a good thing." I had no idea.
I met Max's family within the first two months of dating, but it wasn't until we had moved in together that I realized the extent to which they monopolize his time. His presence was expected multiple times per week, and I was expected to join, which I did — for a time.
I value my privacy, but more importantly, I had just moved from New York, reveling in the epitome of total freedom and independence, to California. I love California, but I also loved my New York lifestyle: wearing all black (just because), ordering takeout, hiring a dog-walker, speed-walking lest I miss my train... and suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a place where people are friendly to your face and vicious behind your back. But maybe that's not just Orange County — maybe that's just the enmeshed family system I found myself in the middle of.
In this particular family, everything you do revolves around family time, well into adulthood. Say goodbye to privacy — if you want to keep anything a secret, you'll probably have to lie. And talk about idiosyncrasies, but if you've ever watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians and felt shocked to see grown adults hitting each other, well, then you might get a sense of how I felt upon meeting my one-and-only's clan.
Their constant gathering felt uncomfortable and intrusive. I discovered that Max had joined the Peace Corps and served 2.5 years abroad to escape their heavy-handed grasp of his life. They are the reason my social media accounts are deactivated.
There comes a time in life for us to naturally separate from our families; individuation is an important part of our development. (Can you tell I'm a therapist?) Family roles and dynamics are so entrenched that the older we get, the harder it is to develop a healthy, separate self. Siblings hit and roughhouse, screaming fights and tattling occur, but seeing this type of behavior continue into adulthood? That's problematic — as was the expectation that I conform to their family dynamic.
As much as I wanted to be open to this new lifestyle, I felt smothered by Max's family and pressured to attend family functions. It was hard to justify as an adult (particularly when I never had as a child), but I've never been uncomfortable setting my own boundaries and doing my own thing — except, this is not allowed within his family. I had no idea that the eventual assertion of my independence would be so problematic for his family, especially his brother, Boris*.
Boris is narcissistic — grandiose, inflated self-esteem, lacking in empathy — but the hallmark of his personality is his overbearing disregard for personal boundaries. Even his friends and family fondly acknowledge that he's a bit of an "asshole" and that he's "imposing," but what they mean by this is that he holds absolutely no respect for individual boundaries. Growing up, he often lied to get Max in trouble, enjoying the lifelong buffer of using Max as a scapegoat and developing a distorted sense of self as a result.
He also developed a flair for the grandiose, in a constant bid to out-do his older brother and to be the center of attention. Rather than developing interests of his own, he adopted Max's in a constant bid to out-do him. This personality type followed him into adulthood, making him a difficult character to tolerate, but also the type whom I've typically chosen not to interact with or befriend. Those of you from close-knit families must realize already that you can't choose not to interact with a close family member — and that's a memo I never got.
To give you some more insight on Boris, he married his wife, Heidi*, young, and she is perhaps as similar to him as any partner could hope to be. In the words of a mutual acquaintance, she is a true "Montana 10" — a big-hipped, thick-thighed, rugged cowgirl of a woman. She's the female version of Boris: beer-drinking, gun-packing, and, rumor has it, emotionally cold. But, she loves camping, sports, and they get along just perfectly. Together, they tend to stick to what they know, and she put forth tremendous effort in seeking his family's approval, or so I've heard.
Family dynamics are complicated — believe me I get that — but from an outsider's perspective, based on their behavior, they're bullies. Sure, behaviors take on a new meaning within a family system, but I'm a clinician and I'll call it like I see it: there are power bids, unhealthy and unexpressed resentments, a family expectation of denial, and the list goes on. I know that my partner feels the same way, and our relationship is different from the emotional climate of his family, but old habits die-hard; take the most evolved person in the entire world, put them back into their family system, and all their old childhood behaviors and dynamics will start to come back. It's a frustrating process for someone like myself, as I find emotional stress unbearable and toxic.
Anyway, back to Boris and Heidi: Deep beneath their attention-seeking personas actually lies the crux of any narcissistic personality, which is the debilitatingly low sense of self-worth and self-esteem from which their narcissistic injury stems. In order to keep this painful sense of inadequacy unconscious, they will go to great lengths to create their desired world-view in their present reality. For instance, having an inappropriately large wedding with at least 250 people who flew to Heidi's hometown in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was surprised at the extent of their overindulgence, even within the family, but no one felt comfortable telling them so, preferring to talk about it behind their backs. So great was their need to prove their relevance that Boris and Heidi even divided the wedding guests into opposing camps, for "Team Boris" and "Team Heidi." I was shocked that the groom demanded a five-day bachelor party in Las Vegas, in spite of the financial hardship this placed upon his best man and brother, whose time was already extremely limited due to working full-time and being a student.
The difficulty arose because I don't share the same values and interests as Boris, and because even when I succeed at holding in my feelings, let's just say that I have a very expressive face. I typically try to embrace difference, but I had simply never encountered the type of people who would joke about child abuse at the dinner table, or talk openly about the presumed "liberal agenda." I wanted to point out that, having worked in foster care, child abuse is no joking matter (and that there's a correlation between higher levels of education and left-leaning political stances). But I held my tongue out of "respect." And the feeling was mutual; I was simply unaccustomed to being pushed away for my beliefs.
I'm also emotionally sensitive and don't eat meat because the thought of animals suffering makes me sad. But they're hunters, and they even took me shooting once. It was all fun and games until I saw a picture of the dead deer — then I started crying.
My value system is so far from his family's, and I found it generally invalidated by the socially conservative environment. I found my calling while working with refugees in my late teens, and have been working in the field of Social Work ever since. Refugees opened my eyes: they're existentially homeless, fending for themselves in a global system where their state has disintegrated. On some level, I related, having derived my sense of security through my identity and individualism – a drastic departure from the close-knit security Max's family derives from its cohesion. But even this knowledge of our differences makes our value-clash unpalatable and often painful.
Needless to say, Boris and I don't see eye-to-eye on many things. He proudly admitted, "This might make me sound like an asshole, but I don't give a shit about anyone or anything other than my family." He's also been known to exhibit some major deficits in tact. When I lost a baby and had to undergo an emergency surgery, he told me he "pitied [me] for my depressed state," and that he cared "about as much as if a random person got hit by a car crossing the street." Charming, right? My boyfriend's response was that everyone knows that he's just not sensitive. But I just don't consider that an excuse; a lack of empathy is pathological, after all, and a known trait of a narcissist.
I stayed above the fray for about a year, at least publicly, even when Boris told me that he did not approve of my relationship with Max or think that I was good for him. My response was always impersonal and respectful: that it was Max's decision, and he should respect that. I was actually surprisingly detached, because I found it hard to take someone's juvenile antics seriously, but Boris continued with his personal slights and attacks, and I was on their turf, so it was a stressor I dealt with daily. I had never felt so disliked, so misjudged and disrespected; my self-esteem suffered tremendously and to this day, I still think back sadly on how much it hurt to be seemingly shunned, even by a family I wanted to stay as far away from as possible.
The low point came when I was disinvited from Christmas, which I spent alone with our dog, crying. Max tried to punch his brother that Christmas. Already unhappy, when I discovered how Boris orchestrated my exclusion, I was near-aneurysm. I had still never even expressed myself to this person who was bullying and defaming me, nor had I ever been subjected to personal character attacks.
He claimed to his family that a policeman informed him that I was a felon with a police record. The claims were completely untrue. I would be unemployable in my field were that the case; we receive background checks and fingerprinting for every position. Plus, clinicians are held to ethical standards that, if broken, can result in losing your license to practice, making his lies actual defamation. Behavior like this is illegal — but also, his family was enabling it.
Max cleared up the misconceptions with his parents, who rationalized Boris' lies by blaming the policeman. But I no longer felt safe there. Part of my job as a clinician is to help others recognize unhealthy environments, set boundaries, and learn to choose empowering paths that promote their wellbeing. So, I knew what I needed to heal.
The situation was toxic for me. I felt targeted and hurt, but had no intention of waging war or even defending myself — I was just too depleted and, franky, uninterested in engaging in something so pointless. What I needed was my own support system, not the challenge of adapting to someone else's. It was clearly not going to work if we stayed near Max's family.
Max's mother came to our home and moved his furniture out. I was blindsided and heartbroken by the jarring disruption. Heeding her other son's lies about me, she informed me that she was there "as a witness." And when I started to cry, she called me "scary." What the actual fuck.
The story doesn't end there, but my involvement did, because when you marry "the one," you don't have to marry his family. It is healthy and appropriate to set boundaries with them, and those boundaries should be respected. Families take varied forms; there is no reason why our expectations of marriage should not also evolve. As long as you and your partner can come to an agreement that is healthy and happy for you both, that's enough. True love need not be broken up because of an outdated misconception of family. We're all entitled to lives with our loved ones, free from toxicity.
I moved, and my life improved drastically. I was able to heal, Max moved with me, and we've never been happier. He still feels pressured by his family, but the pressure no longer extends to me. Most importantly, by setting boundaries with his parents, I became a better person and partner for it. I can even have civil conversations with his family members, although I don't find them to be particularly healthy or trustworthy people.
Setting the boundaries allowed me to reconnect with the Max I knew and loved - not the Max who is activated by his crazy (yes, pathological) family dynamics. We have an awesome relationship, two adorable little dogs, and a style of communication that I'm pretty proud of. Personal development is a process, so I'm happy to take each lesson as it comes and try to master it together, but when you throw a whole family into the mix, sometimes it's just not healthy.
Sure, he loves his family and always will, but seeing that freak show go down was like a horror movie in real life. I have never been more thankful for the unique lessons my own family taught me, in how to love and respect each other, even with space in between us. It's that space that allowed me to develop the individuality and freedom that I revel in to this day.
I know I'm certainly not the ideal daughter-in-law, who preferred to retreat rather than to win anyone's approval or step on anyone's toes, but even if Boris thinks he's won by getting the attention back on himself, I'm fine with that; it's a win-win situation.