Dr. Jessica Koblenz is a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City.
When rumors that Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber were taking a “break” surfaced, people were quick to point fingers—mostly at Gomez’s mother, whose disapproval for her daughter’s childhood sweetheart is well known. Late last year, the pop star and her mom, Mandy Teefey, even unfollowed each other on social media, reportedly over Selena’s reunion with Justin. We all know that a family member or close friend’s negative—or positive—opinions about our significant others can dramatically affect the way we evaluate our relationships. So the question I get asked often in my practice as a therapist is: How much do their opinions actually matter?
In my clinical experience, one pivotal part of the answer hinges on another question: How close are you to your family? And by that I don’t just mean how much do you love them—but how much do you rely on them to make day-to-day decisions?
Some people are prone to seeking out their family’s approval for every choice in life, not just when it comes to dating. Careers, friendships, even what you’re wearing can be grist for the family WhatsApp mill. It comes down to extrinsic dependence versus intrinsic confidence. People who rely heavily on their social or familial networks to make decisions are highly extrinsically dependent. But not everyone functions that way; those who are more intrinsically confident may love the people around them just as much—but lean on them less.
This sets the tone for how much your family members can sway your decisions. If you’re intrinsically motivated and feel passionate and sure of your decisions, there is less room for mom or dad’s two cents. But if you’re already wavering, other voices can take over—they can even make you question your own understanding of yourself. For someone who is extrinsically dependent, the effect of a loved one’s opinion may not be obvious; they may question a partner whom they love and trust simply because of a parents’ disapproving eye rolls or cold interactions.
But, how much those opinions matter in evaluating a partner is another story. And that comes down to the reasons why your friends and family are naysayers. I had a good friend who for years dated jerks who didn’t respect her; because of that, our entire group of girlfriends never supported her relationships. Recently, though, she started dating a wonderful man who is supportive and nurturing, and for the first time in 10 years, she had the approval of all of her friends. She finally realized that we weren’t being needlessly critical; her boyfriends were all just grade-A douchebags who treated her poorly, and we were trying to protect her. But as much as we love them, sometimes our friends act selfishly—even without knowing it—and don’t like a partner we bring home because he reminds them of their ex, he’s hotter than their boyfriend, he takes up all of the time you used to spend with her, he smells weird, whatever...
Be critical with the ones you love who question your relationship choices: Ask them what their reasons are for not approving. Saying your boyfriend drinks too much, is controlling of you, has a concerning temper, or seems like he might be cheating are warning signs, and it may be wise to listen up.
However, it’s also possible that your family members has unrealistic boundaries and are threatened by you being in any type of relationship. It can be difficult to know if your family has your best interest at heart or if they aren’t able to separate themselves enough to make you the priority when offering advice. That doesn’t mean they don’t love you (I’ll let you figure that part out); but it does mean that their opinions should carry less weight.
Where you come from culturally may also play a role here. Some cultures are more focused on independence and a need to define yourself on your own; others have strict customs when it comes to partnership, whether that means arranged marriages or a tradition of marrying within the culture or religion. And whether you’ll be able to find happiness with a partner who represents a break from those rules all depends on how important the rules, and sometimes the community that comes with them, are to you. If you must choose to prioritize one over the other, the question is: Which is the relationship you can’t live without? The answer will be different for everyone and will likely pose an internal conflict that deserves serious thought. There’s a chance that a community will be disapproving of a partner at first and then warm up to them; but there’s also a chance that clashes will intensify as the relationship gets more serious and kids are possibly introduced into the equation.
Its challenging when powerful emotions like guilt—of not adhering to your family traditions or not abiding by your faith—conflict with prioritizing your own happiness. It’s hard to give yourself that permission when you feel you’re doing something wrong. Try to solve that internal battle before considering how you’re making your family members feel.
But if you’re wondering how to handle the crisis of family not approving of your significant other, the first step is to evaluate your boundaries. Do you open the door for them to offer their opinions? There’s a big difference between, “I don’t know about him—Mom, what do you think?” and “I really like this guy, and I am looking to you to support us.” If you know that you’re particularly susceptible to being swayed, keep that door closed. Or thank them for their opinion and tell them you’ll take it into consideration but would prefer not to talk about it again. Often, in such a case, the response to shut down and not advocate or take a stand for your partner. But if you’re able to, it can bring you closer together.
Ultimately, you need to trust your gut. Do you feel uplifted in your relationship? Taken care of? Nurtured? Mutual? These are good signs you’re on the right track. And don’t be afraid to tell your parents to lay off. That doesn’t mean you need to cut ties if they don’t follow through, but if you are strict, they will get the message that they need to support (or at least tolerate) the relationship if they still want to be close to you.