I had a long talk recently with Tito Jun, my romantic partner’s father. It was a real man-to-man talk, from an older man to a younger one, about what is really important in life and in relationships.
I went into that conversation knowing it would be important, yet I still underestimated its significance. We talked about many things, but there was one piece of advice that I will always remember, and I suspect it will be something I can turn to in future moments of difficulty and doubt.
Today I share that advice with you.
When you need to take sides
Human relationships are always going to be a two-sided reality. There will be happy times and good memories; and there will be frustrations and misunderstandings. This is especially true when the larger families of the two lovers are involved. And, unfortunately, there may be times when it becomes necessary to take sides — times when staying neutral will only prolong the problem, and create more resentment and hostility. Choosing sides isn’t always fun, but sometimes it’s the least of all possible evils.
I remember a nasty incident during my family’s Christmas Eve celebration a few years ago. The delicious Christmas dinner had been eaten, midnight was approaching, and it was time for the ritual of exchanging and opening gifts. But a disagreement arose at this point: one of my family members believed that the gift-opening time was to be that night, while another family member insisted that it had always been done the morning after. The situation was made even more complicated because my family’s Christmas celebration is usually divided between several different houses, on different days during the season.
To make an ugly story short, the disagreement escalated into an exchange of insults in front of relatives (including relatives visiting from abroad), culminating with one family member storming out of the house, not to be seen again for the rest of the night. No one knew where he had gone. (He eventually returned home, safe but still angry.)
So much for “the season to be jolly”.
Clearly, this sort of situation is very delicate. At times like these, a decision has to be made. One side may have to be chosen over the other, at least to a certain degree. Looking back at that Christmas incident now, I realize that I really could have used the kind of advice that Tito Jun gave me recently. Faced with this kind of unpleasant scenario, how can we know which side to take?
The answer, according to Tito Jun, is: you need to make that decision before the bad situation happens in the first place.
When you are single and romantically un-attached, you have one family: the family you are born into. Once you are in a relationship, you have two families: the one you were born into, and (to some extent) your partner’s family. If you choose to get married, you will now have three families — the third one being the family you will be starting with your spouse.
Almost inevitably, disagreements are going to arise between these multiple families. Before this even happens, we need to have decided which family to stand behind. And once that decision has been made, we will need to stick with it.
Let’s have an example, to make things clearer.
The scenario and the solutions
Scenario: I am newly married, and my parents are inviting me and my wife to a long vacation with them in Tagaytay (a scenic and popular tourist destination in the Philippines), to celebrate the new marriage. For my part, I would be equally happy whether I go on this vacation or not. However, my wife doesn’t really feel like taking this trip with my parents. She’d rather take a trip with just the two of us alone.
I don’t want to appear snobbish or unappreciative towards my parents; but at the same time, I certainly don’t want to put my new wife through something unpleasant just as we’re starting our life together. What can I do? What guidelines can I use to make a good decision?
If, by this point in my life, I had not made any prior decision about “which family” to prioritize, I would be in trouble. I would be caught in paralysis by analysis, arguing against myself, trying to stay neutral in a situation where neutrality is inappropriate, and eventually alienating both my parents and my wife.
But if I had made my “which family” decision early on, before this situation arose, I would be able to avoid the stress of a last-minute decision process. I would know whether to focus on strengthening my bond with my new wife, or maintaining strong ties with my “old” family.
It need not be an all-or-nothing decision, either. Prioritizing one does not mean completely rejecting the other. For example, if I choose to prioritize my wife, I could say to my parents:
“Mom and Dad, I appreciate your invitation, and I am grateful for everything you’ve done in terms of raising me and preparing me for this new life. For now, I would like to spend plenty of time bonding with my wife, just the two of us. Let us pass on this Tagaytay vacation for now. But maybe the four of us could do something simple and fun in the future, once my wife and I are more settled. How does that sound?”
If I choose in this instance to lean towards my “old” family, perhaps I could say to my wife:
“I know that you would like us to spend more time alone together, since we’re just getting started on our new life. I would love to spend more time with you, too. But I feel that my parents are sad that I am leaving them, and would like one last adventure with all of us together. I’d like to give them this last trip with us, and then afterwards, you and I can really focus on each other. Why don’t we take our own trip together, just the two of us, sometime in the near future? Does that sound fair to you?”
In both cases, I am able to express my own preferences, while at the same time staying as diplomatic as possible and minimizing damage to all the relationships involved. Even though we recognize the need to sometimes choose one side over another, we also want to keep any long-term relationship damage as low as possible, even towards the party that we decided against. There is no need to burn bridges — “I disagree with you this time” does not need to mean “We will be enemies forever”.
(Personally speaking, in a scenario such as the one described above, I would be much more likely to prioritize my wife over my “old” family. I believe that if I am going to be married at all, it wouldn’t make sense to frequently side with anyone other than my spouse. However, for the benefit of those who may believe differently than I do, I included possible solutions for both the “new” and “old” families. These solutions can also be used by someone who wants to sometimes side with the old family, and sometimes side with the new.)
Familial conflict is nearly unavoidable, and pretty much always unpleasant.
However, it need not end up like my family’s Christmas mess — if we make the effort ahead of time to sit down, think about our priorities, and decide which side to take, should the need arise. It can be tempting to stay neutral, but there are times when neutrality will only allow the argument to escalate further. We need to have the mental preparation and the verbal tools to choose a side when necessary, without completely destroying our relationships with the un-chosen party.
Now, I’d like to hear from you. What about your own relationships (romantic or otherwise)? Has anything like my family Christmas story ever happened to you? What did you do, and would you have done things differently if you had heard Tito Jun’s advice beforehand? Let us know in the comments.
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