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Opening Doors

It takes time — and effort — to become part of a close family

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 08/25/2011

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­­Dear Patti,
Three years ago, I got married for the second time at age 53. Although it’s sometimes hard to merge our respectively well-established lives, we manage to work it out.

I love my husband very much, but I just can’t seem to get connected to his family. Not only are they all involved in a business together, but they constantly socialize on the weekends, too.

Peter is upset I don’t like to spend as much time with them as he does, but I feel like I’m always on the sidelines. They’re nice enough — certainly not rude — and polite but superficial. I’ve tried to bond with his sisters and mother, but it’s like they tolerate me and don’t want to get to know me. If I start talking about my own work or travels, they listen for a sentence or two and then resume talking and reminiscing with each other.

I’m not angry. I’m just bored and feel guilty that I’d rather be spending time with my own friends and family. Peter feels I’m not making enough effort, but after three years of trying, I just don’t feel like doing it much anymore. My real life is on hold when I’m with them all the time.

What should I do?

I don’t want to live separate lives, but we really feel differently about this. ~Karla

Dear Karla,
I agree; it’s not always easy assimilating with a family that’s already close and established, particularly if they don’t seem motivated to bond with you either. For starters, make sure your listening skills are up to par. Begin looking at them as individuals rather than a group, even if they’re always together.

It takes time, but if you’re truly interested in each of them they’ll eventually become more interested in you. Make a list of all the family members and write at least three topics each one is really interested in. Even if it’s the same topic, personalize it.

Embrace the conversation-starter rule of going from general to specific. If, for instance, one sister says she just got back from looking at new cars, ask her what models, features and colors she liked. If another sister is interviewing nannies, ask her more questions about that endeavor and what qualities she feels are most important.

Write down at least three ways you could spend time with the family members as individuals or couples. Always seize the opportunity when it arises for one-on-one interactions. Offer a teenage nephew driving lessons and go walking with a cousin who wants to lose weight. It’s OK if you end up becoming closer to some more than others; that’s inevitable. Just make sure you make an individual effort with everyone and don’t leave anybody out. Have them over to your house and invite them to share your interests.  If you love theater or music, for example, ask a couple to go with you and Peter.

While I encourage you to keep trying to build relationships with Peter’s family, it’s also important that you strive for more of a balanced life. There’s nothing wrong with taking “alone time” and encouraging Peter to go see
his family by himself while you spend time by yourself or with your friends and family. In addition, Peter needs to put effort into getting to know the people you’re close to as well as devoting more quality hours to your life as a couple.

I also recommend developing new friendships with people you’ve met since you got married. Gently help Peter understand that his responsibility as a husband is to create a new life with you, not just accept you into his present one.

I know it’s hard, but try to be patient. In a perfect world, a close family would accept you immediately.

Unfortunately, we can’t always expect people to be as close after only three years as they’ve been with relationships that have evolved over a lifetime. I agree that there’s a tendency to feel empty when you spend so much time with people you don’t feel close to. If you don’t invest in a significant amount of time together, however, the chance is slim that you’ll ever become a true part of the family.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com.

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