A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: When friends and family don't like your partner

We might say our feelings are the only ones that matter but the truth is that our romantic connections are embedded in our broader social lives. Photo / Getty
Photo / iStock
We might say our feelings are the only ones that matter but the truth is that our romantic connections are embedded in our broader social lives. Photo / Getty Photo / iStock

We all tend to seek social approval - even if we say we don't. A career change, a new house, or the purchase of that rather expensive pair of shoes; it's nice when our friends and family approve of our "heart stopping" decisions.

But it pales into insignificance when the people we love, friends and family, actively disapprove of our partner.

Was it their sense of humour that was wrong, the accent, or maybe their past history? The way he held his fork, perhaps?

Or might it be that those who care about you love you so much that they feel your partner isn't good enough for you? Or are they jealous? Even if we say we don't care, the fact is most of us consider a battery of questions if we feel those we love don't approve of the one we love.

But think of Romeo and Juliet, those famous star crossed lovers with their feuding families.

Soliloquies on that famous balcony, two beautiful young people swooning, fatefully in love. Surely this is passion, compared to the rather dreary social awkwardness of the person you love being disapproved of by your friend, your parent, or your daughter?

The problem is that relationships don't occur in vacuums. And although we might say our feelings are the only ones that matter, the truth is that our romantic connections are embedded in our broader social lives. And when our friends or family don't like our beloved, it can be a tricky impasse to navigate.

And yet it is incredibly important that we are able to make choices in our lives, and to be on guard for the "people pleaser" inside us. Not having developed any sense that they are inherently worth caring for - that they are loveable - for themselves, "people pleasers" strive to make themselves loveable by becoming for others whatever they think might be wanted from them.

Many of us at some point in our lives will date, or even marry, a partner with whom our families are less than thrilled. And somehow we need to get that balance right. How much does it matter what other people think of our choice of mate? Quite a lot, it would seem.

Research suggests that our perception of social approval from social networks and/or family will lead to positive relationship outcomes, such as commitment and happiness for the duration of the relationship. And that negative outcomes (infidelity, divorce and break ups), are depressingly associated with social disapproval.

A large study reported in 2015's Social Psychology Quarterly, by psychology researcher H Colleen Sinclair and colleagues, revealed we are more committed and satisfied with our relationships, to the extent that we think our friends and family support and approve of our partner.

This effect was found to be far reaching across dating and marital relationships, heterosexual and same-sex relationships, age gaps and international samples. It seems however, that if our families disapprove, but our social network approves, then it is still less likely to negatively impact our relationship.

I was thinking about this finding, when recently working with a young woman in deep crisis. Her elderly parents were angry and distressed over her love for a partner who was not of her (immigrant) parents' culture.

Their accusations of her "betrayal" through her choice of partner were a terrible burden for her. Riven with guilt, she worked through her independent thought processes with self-compassion and awareness, and was able to differentiate between the unmet emotional needs of her parents, and her authentic love.

She has just emailed to tell me she is now engaged - and has never felt happier. Friends of the couple are joyfully receiving the wedding invitations.

The researchers tell us that this is about something called "independence reactance". It is a buffer to disapproval and very different from the "defiance reactance", that heady refusal to care about the views of friends or family.

Back in the 1970s, research labelled the "Romeo and Juliet" effect found that parental interference in one's romantic relationship could lead to increases in passionate love.

But this has been discredited, and supplanted, by new research, which suggests that there is a very narrow window between parental objection and the youngsters standing together. In other words, the promise doesn't last. In Romeo and Juliet, it only lasted five days - hardly the basis for a long and happy union.

Defiance and destiny tend to not be about growth. In these times of cultural merging and severing of boundaries, we can only hope for the courage of generations to break free of repressive strictures. This is about growth, not defiance. They are very different plants.

Approval from our social networks will cancel out the problems of family and its cultural disapproval. But if we are to believe the social research, we ignore disapproval from friends as well as family, both at our peril.

Perhaps Romeo and Juliet would have had a "happier ever after" if they had only had a robust group of friends, despite their feuding families, to support their choice of partner?

In the end we have to balance out our independence and our response to the social network. The need to be independent is very different from the need to defy.

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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