Life Hax: My boyfriend’s family is hiding our relationship

by DGO Web Administrator

I am a white atheist (raised Catholic), long-term dating a Pakistani American agnostic (raised Muslim). In general, there is cultural pressure for Pakistani people to marry other Pakistanis, or at least within the faith, with no American-style dating allowed. Many mixed-faith relationships take place in secret. From the start I told my man I’d be happy to date him as long as our relationship would be 100 percent out in the open. He promised he’d proclaim his love from the rooftops, so I was all in.His siblings and parents – who have become relatively liberal over the 40 years they’ve been in the U.S. – have welcomed me into their homes, even to religious celebrations, with open arms. I have grown to care deeply for them. They have even accepted that my boyfriend and I are moving in together, unmarried, and have offered to assist with costs.I was shocked, then, when my boyfriend casually told me about meeting a member of his mother’s Muslim community. He laughed about how he told the woman he was moving in with a “roommate” and his mother happily thanked him for the obfuscation. I immediately felt as if my being a part of the family’s life was shameful to them. Shameful enough to lie about.My boyfriend intended this as a lighthearted anecdote and did not understand why I was hurt. I understand there is social pressure involved when one goes against any widely accepted cultural beliefs. I am still very upset.He discussed my concerns with his family, who stated they would continue to obfuscate. I want to resolve this hurt, but I don’t want to seem ungrateful for their warmer-than-expected in-home acceptance and generosity. I love this man very much. I care for his family, but their decision about hiding me in public is hurtful. I just don’t know what to do.Not My Name

How about not being hurt?

Annoyed, sure. Or angry, or disgusted – but not hurt.

Because this is not personal.

If this family were hiding you, just you, then it would be. But everything you say here suggests they’d downplay ANYONE he was dating who wasn’t from their culture. As in, anyone who came from a culture of openly doing things their culture deems shameful.

So what this looks like to me is a busted deal – thus the license to be annoyed or angry. You dated your boyfriend with the understanding that you wouldn’t be a secret, and you equate “roommate” with secrecy, so feel free be as annoyed as you would with anyone who appears to have baited-and-switched you.

There is zero need for you to internalize this into a belief that you are personally being called shameful.

Nor does it make sense to be “shocked.” There are steep cultural pressures you knew about going in, you’ve been embraced beyond expectations by his core people, and you’re undone by a sidewalk fib?

If you’re going to achieve emotional escape velocity any time someone takes a shortcut to navigate differing cultural values, then you’re going to spend a lot of your life in outrage-orbit.

This is not to say you should just brush this off. Your boyfriend either promised something he never meant to deliver; promised something he misjudged his ability to deliver; promised something he believes he’s delivering in full because his promise applied only to openness with his family; or promised something only for himself and never intended to speak for his family.

You do need to sort out whether this is a misunderstanding, a privacy-vs.-secrecy quibble, or proof of an irreconcilable difference in your definitions of rooftops. And whether it will reconcile itself if you marry.

But that sorting-out will go a whole lot better if you acknowledge your wounded feelings, search them for any bigger messages – and then park them where they won’t cripple your ability to think clearly about what’s really going on:

“We had a deal. I took it to mean I wouldn’t be called a ‘roommate.’ Did you see it differently?” Listen, then decide where you stand.

Where do you draw the line between controlling behavior and wanting a relationship you are comfortable with? Example – I don’t want to be with someone who hangs out in bars on the regular. Am I being controlling by telling my significant other, “I don’t like it when you go out drinking with friends so much”? Aren’t I allowed to make that request and act accordingly depending on their response?Preference

You can mention it, sure, and see what comes of it, and act accordingly based on the response. That’s the easy answer.

It’s not controlling just to ask something once or on occasion; control involves a combination of requests and manipulation, including punishments for “wrong” answers.

I think there’s a subtler point to be made here, though.

Before telling your partner something like this, pragmatism demands some thought first to how much you’re asking and expecting a person to change.

To use this example: “I don’t want to be with someone who hangs out in bars on the regular.” That’s fine on its face, and it’s your prerogative. Your partner might well be happy to know this about you and happy to go out less because s/he could take or leave these nights out anyway.

But if your partner IS someone who hangs out in bars “on the regular” and really enjoys it, isn’t that who your partner will be, whether s/he is at a bar at the moment or not?

And if you speak up and if your partner agrees not to go out as much, will s/he be happy living that way from now on? Will it be OK in the near term but start to chafe over time? Will your partner revert to type when your relationship moves from new and magnetic to something more comfortable – where your togetherness takes more effort and commitment?

And what of the personality traits, social nature, values, etc., behind enjoying bars – those will be in place regardless too, and might be mismatched with your nature no matter what setting they’re in.

So, maybe this is all just other dimensions of the control issue, but maybe too it’s easier to think of this in terms of realism: Should a person who balks at going to bars even be with someone who likes to hang out in bars?

Either way, it seems fair – to yourself and to a partner – only to ask for changes on the margins. Wanting bigger ones suggests any changes should start with you.

And of course you need to accept the response, be it words or deeds or inaction, to any such request for what it is – then respond accordingly from there. Continuing to press for change that keeps not happening is misery for you, misery for the person you’re constantly trying to correct, misery for all the people you’re complaining to about your misery about this person’s refusal to change – because who in this situation doesn’t also complain? – and misery for anyone within earshot of your correcting, misery and complaining.

Carolyn Hax is a syndicated advice columnist for The Washington Post. She started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. Email her at [email protected].


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