I always think twice – no, make that five times – before talking to a guy I’m dating about the trauma that I’ve experienced in my family. Over the years, I’ve found that men who don’t understand the lasting effects of verbal abuse, financial control, and toxic masculinity within a household just don’t “get” why I have such a strained relationship with my parents and other relatives.
I grew up with a father who has anger issues, is controlling, and on occasion, gets violent. He makes racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic remarks, all of which simultaneously boil my blood and make me sick to my stomach.
Many relatives defend him to me and paint me as the problem. They say I have an attitude, or that I need to get over whatever issues I have with him.
In short, it takes a lot of energy for me to rehash my life experiences with someone I’m seeing so they can understand the context of my relationship with my family. And it doesn’t always go well.
Men I’ve dated in the past usually had little, if anything, to say in response to my home life. I’ve seen confusion and repulsion on their faces when I unapologetically announce that no one from my side of the family will be invited to my graduation ceremony or hypothetical wedding.
One boyfriend was shocked when I told him I avoid talking to my parents on the phone while at college, as it usually evolves into an argument or general chaos. A casual hookup said stupidly obvious things, such as: “But she’s your mother,” when I briefly described my at-times rocky relationship with my mom. I ended up shutting up and never sharing anything remotely personal with him again.
An ex-boyfriend complained about me riding his ass to pick up after himself and take the trash out, but I grew up in a home where my dad refused to lift a finger to help my mom with house chores, and I will not watch a boyfriend assume the same laziness. I tried to explain all this to him but he only grew more defensive.
I want to be clear: I don’t need my boyfriend’s pity. I need his empathy. I need a partner who is willing to accept that all families are different and that many are far from perfect. But perhaps most importantly, for the sake of my sanity, I need a partner who will take my issues with my family seriously, and not make inadvertently dismissive comments like, “Have you ever tried working things out with them?”
I’ve done endless amounts of emotional labor just so men could get a glimpse into my destructive family and hopefully see my side of things. That’s an exhausting amount of work to put into a relationship just so the other person can admit, “Yeah, your family is fucked.”
While I’ve met men who probably have good intentions when they express concern or amazement at my general view of the family unit, I haven’t met a lot who are capable of listening and detaching themselves from their own experiences with family structures.
A healthy relationship acts as a judgment-free support system for both parties. But my experience has been that guys who’ve never dealt with a problematic family the way I have can’t support me the way I need. I’ve always felt judged. I’ve always felt like I have to hide parts of my identity, my history, and my worldview because guys can’t understand that I’m shaped by a hectic, stressful household. I need to talk about my struggles with my parents, and particularly my father, but I need to discuss them with someone who can relate, or at least give me affirming feedback.
At the end of the day, I have a delicate and often draining, relationship with some of my family members. No matter how far I move, how many work projects I bury myself in, or how many friends I have, I still have to mentally work through my troubles with them on an almost daily basis.
And while I understand that it is not reasonable for my boyfriend or husband to be my therapist, I do need genuine support and validation from my partner, no matter how hurtful or childish my arguments with my parents may seem. That’s not too much to ask.