Personal Connections: Learning about family dynamics at holidays

During the holiday season, you’re probably spending more time than usual with family: your own and, if you have a partner, with theirs. That may be a wonderful thing or a challenge (or both). But one thing’s for sure: If you have the right mindset, it’s interesting. You can learn more about the one you love.

Around their family of origin, your partner may act a little or a lot differently than they do in other contexts. Your polite boyfriend may turn into an argumentative teen or mean big brother. Your mellow wife may become tense or defensive. Your partner may be louder, quieter, goofier, grumpier or more sensitive than usual.

That’s because when they’re with the family they grew up in, there’s a tendency to revert to old patterns. They may be trying to prove something to someone or to themselves. They may be fed up with years of something (expectations, criticism, not feeling heard) and so be hypersensitive when it happens again. They may fall back into childhood roles like “Daddy’s little girl” or “the family clown.” The minute they walk in the door, all that background and subtext comes rushing back.

So when you’re with your date’s/partner’s/spouse’s family, you’ve got a front-row view of the family that formed them.

When relationships are new

If the two of you haven’t been together long, meeting the family gives you a boatload of information.

Anticipate that your honey may act differently than usual and make a point of noticing the differences. In what ways do they act differently? Do certain people seem to bring up more behavior changes than others? Do you like the person your date is when they’re around their family?

Notice how your partner brings you into the family setting. Do they tell you ahead of time about people’s personalities, family history and traditions, and what to expect? Do they introduce you to everyone? Do they pay attention to how you’re doing during the visit and sort of take care of you?

Not that you should be clingy; but if you’re not yet familiar with the family, they shouldn’t just leave you to fend for yourself.

In short, are they able to be caring and supportive of you while they’re interacting with the family?

Also pay attention to how well your date’s descriptions of family members match what you experience. If they describe their mother as mean and controlling but you think she’s lovely, what is that about? Is she being fake to charm you, or is your sweetie’s perspective skewed or out of date?

Are their descriptions spot-on for most people and way off the mark about one person? What might that tell you about your partner’s “hot buttons” and ability to see things clearly?

When together a while

Even if you’ve been together for years, you can learn more about your honey if you look at things with fresh eyes. This can be challenging, because over the years you’ve become part of the family dynamic, too.

See if you can step back slightly and pretend you’re a detective, looking for clues to how your partner’s family works. Be curious.

Who triggers what emotions in whom? Who calls the shots in which areas? Who pitches in and who steps back? Who riles people up and who calms things? Who seems to be looking for attention? Do they have to fight to get it?

During the visit or later, think about how your partner fits into all this. How would the patterns you saw have affected their growing up? Are there things about your sweetie that now make more sense? How is your partner contributing to problems now, maybe by overreacting or pushing someone’s buttons?

Also think about how the patterns in their family differ from your family’s. Neither family is “right,” but the contrast can be informative, especially if it relates to ways the two of you butt heads.


After the gathering, talk with your sweetie about what you observed.

First talk about areas where you agree with how they see things. Yes, Sister Sue doesn’t do her share, Grandpa favors Cousin Claire, and Uncle Charlie is opinionated. Be sure to include positives, like who’s friendly, funny, enthusiastic or a good cook.

Then, add new information you’ve noticed. Maybe Sue was really attentive to older relatives, Grandpa said nice things about people besides Claire, and Charlie did also listen to other people’s perspectives even when he debated with them.

Especially if there are tensions, your observer perspective can add helpful new elements to the old conversation that might soften future interactions.

Talk with your sweetie about how the dynamics you saw in their family might affect who they are now. “It must have been tough to grow up in Pat’s shadow.” “Seeing how strongly your mom feels about things being done a certain way, I can see why you like to be more relaxed.” (Or, “why you like things done properly, too.”)

If you have this conversation gently and lovingly, it makes your honey feel seen. If there are rough areas, a new perspective may prompt new ways of thinking and relating.

You might also discuss ways your partner’s family of origin is different from yours. Focus on the positive or neutral ways; the goal is curiosity, not criticism. Be interested in how those differences affected your growing-up experiences and how the two of you interact.

Really, it’s all a matter of being open and curious. Enjoy the festive food, lights, and music — and the opportunity to learn more about the one you love.

Jill Whitney is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Old Lyme who blogs about relationships at


If you have a question you’d like addressed, email and we’ll consider it for a future column. All commenters’ names are kept confidential.


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