Have you just started dating someone, or are in a long-term relationship, and feel the escalating sense that your boyfriend is prioritizing his family over you?
Are you feeling hurt? Frustrated? Resentful? Are you both arguing about how much his family is involved in his life?
Here are some reasons to consider why your boyfriend may be doing this and what you can do about it.
Why is he prioritizing his family over me?
1) How did he grow up?
It’s important to remember that we grow up very differently. A person who comes from a very large, close-knit Latino family may have a very different dynamic from someone who was raised in a small, reserved Scandinavian family.
Some families are close. Extremely close. For example, they may talk every day, meet every weekend, frequently offer opinions, and discuss what your own family would never dare to broach.
Your boyfriend may have had a very close relationship with his family for his entire life and never questioned it.
Try to ask him about it. Step back and learn more. The more we can understand why people do what they do, the less reactive and more informed our response will be.
2) Has something recently changed?
Is your boyfriend spending more time with his family for a particular reason? Is this something new? Has something changed in his life? It’s important to remember his familial relationships came before you. There are so many factors that can cause him to want to spend more time with his family, such as:
- He’s recently moved cities?
- He’s taken on more responsibilities
- A family member could be going through a difficult experience
- He has a busy schedule and less free time in general
These are the people that he’s known the longest and he can have strong connections with them. Before you get upset, take your time, step back, and look at the situation from his point of view. Be patient. Inquire. Try to understand.
3) Does he have a dominating mother or father?
If your boyfriend was raised by very opinionated parents, he might still be very complacent with them. Throughout his life, he may have just gone along with their directions and deferred to their judgment.
Does it feel like he acts and makes decisions solely on his parent’s input?
Do you feel your own input is case aside?
Some people might be absolutely okay with family members making decisions for them. But if he is okay with this and you aren’t, then there’s going to be conflict growing between you.
4) Is his family helping him financially?
Is his family helping him financially?
If so, they may use that as leverage to make decisions about where the money goes, how he spends his time, and what his obligations are. This may impact where his focus is directed and he may not want to explain the full story. Then your relationship may feel like an afterthought.
5) Is he a people pleaser?
What’s your boyfriend’s personality like?
- Is he generally easygoing?
- Is he non-confrontational?
- Does he see arguing with his parents as disrespectful?
He might want to keep an air of peace with his family, either by doing and saying nothing, siding with them, or hoping that he can smooth things out with you later if his actions upset you.
6) Does he feel pressure or is he uncertain about you?
Remember that romantic relationships can often feel tumultuous and uncertain. Perhaps when he met you, he gave you more attention and now this feels lacking? Your boyfriend might change his behavior and focus on others for all sorts of reasons:
- He might not feel that has to impress you the same way as when you met
- He might not feel comfortable including you in his family life quite yet.
- He may not be sure about his feelings or future with you and be pulling away to take some space.
As messy as our relationships and life can be, our families are our first stepping stones. They might be a comfort that he can return to for a sense of security, stability, and familiarity.
Let him deal with his family matters. Try to give him some time and space to naturally open up about what is going on. If something directly impacts you and your relationship, then openly discuss that matter. Focus on your relationship with him.
7) Is something else going on?
For whatever reason, when our partner feels distant, it’s easy for us to feel hurt or rejected. Try to look a little deeper into your own feelings.
Are there deeper issues of dishonesty or distrust between you both? Is there something else going on that upsets you?
- Is he using time with his family as a way to avoid you?
- Have you caught him in a lie?
- Do you trust he is doing what he says he is doing?
Maybe your issue isn’t his family, maybe there are underlying problems that stem from distrust, or worse, behaviors, and actions that he’s hiding from you.
What can be done about it?
1) Identify your feelings
First and foremost, identify what you are experiencing and what bothers you:
- You have a hard time relating with his family
- There are language or cultural barriers
- His family comes over unexpectedly
- His family demands his time and attention immediately
- You aren’t invited to functions that you would like to attend
- He places family time in front of your planned time together
- He talks to his family on the phone when you are on a date
- You feel he doesn’t make enough time for you
From there, you can begin to process what’s truly bothering you about this situation, and this will put you in a better position to resolve these issues.
2) Learn his feelings
Ask your boyfriend about it. Ask him how he sees the situation and what he’s been feeling. Let him know that you are not trying to judge him. Remind him that you don’t hold negative feelings toward him or his family.
Show him that you understand that he has love for you and his family as well. Check-in with him.
3) Try to understand your differences
Personally, I’m from a very large family. We are all extremely independent and we all live in different parts of the world.
So, I remember being quite shocked when I met my Italian boyfriend’s family because I couldn’t relate to how much time they spent together. Every weekend he drove three hours to his grandmother’s home, where his mother and grandmother prepared his laundry, doted on him, and cooked his favorite meals.
Since my Italian was incomprehensible, I went in with curiosity; I watched how they spent time together, enjoyed my tiramisu, and reserved my judgment.
In time, I saw the tiny, spartan room that my boyfriend rented in the city, and shared with eight other university students. The flat had no washing machine and was without a kitchen.
It took months for him to tell me his parents were divorced and his grandfather passed away when he was young. In their absence, his grandmother raised him while his mother worked full-time. He was frugal and saved his money to help pay for his family’s needs, his own schooling, and to invest in his growing entrepreneurial start-up on the side.
I started to understand the strong love and care he held for his family. I respected him more for that. The weekends were the only time they had together and they made a point to be there for each other, no matter what.
So I came to understand that a Tuesday night date night with him was more plausible than a Saturday; I looked forward to weekdays instead of questioning his absence on the weekend.
4) Try nonviolent communication
When you do open a conversation with him, keep it light. Expressing how you feel doesn’t have to feel too serious. Just keep it honest and clear. Have you tried using the four pillars of nonviolent communication? The process goes like this:
- Ask him if it’s a good time to talk. Have him agree first before you launch deep into your thoughts.
- Start positive. Say something supportive about him.
- Describe what upset you. State what he said or did and how you felt about it. Try to avoid using “you” statements. Keep it to one recent situation.
- Finish with a clear suggestion for what you would prefer going forward.
Then, wait. Listen. Give him a chance to respond. This might not happen immediately, but you are opening a door for more clear communication.
5) Don’t forget that you are on the same side
When you discuss how you feel, remember that you are not against each other! Are you trying to win an argument or improve your relationship?
Try to avoid ultimatums or putting your partner in a position where he has to decide between spending time with either you or his family. It doesn’t have to be like this. It’s not a competition. He can have great relationships with all of you!
6) Ask yourself: Is this really a problem?
“When you pick a partner, you pick a story. So what kind of story are you going to write?”
– Brenė Brown, Rising Strong: The Physics of Vulnerability
When I’ve felt upset about something, I found a really useful tool that Byron Katie’s outlined in her book The Work. It helps to explore conflict logically, with a series of four, simple questions. Ask yourself the following:
- Is it true? Is it really true that your boyfriend is putting his family before you? How much time does he spend with you? How much time do you expect? Is this a realistic expectation? Did you make plans with him and he cancels to be with his family?
- Can you absolutely know it’s true? Does he feel he is putting his family before you? Are there any times when he’s put you first?
- How do you react and what happens when you believe that thought? How do you feel when he is with his family? Do you communicate your experience openly? Do you hide your feelings? Do they come out strongly?
- Who would I be without the thought? Without the thought he prioritizes his family over you, you might be freer to see their good qualities, as well as his. You might feel lighter and happier and more relaxed. Perhaps you might be better off without the thought?
Now, can you “reverse it”?
Can you think of the best times your boyfriend spent with you? What are your favorite memories? How does he show you that he cares about you? Perhaps he is caring for you a great deal and you can’t quite see it?
Remember to live a full life
Another piece of advice that I’ve come across is from the renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel. She reminds us, in her book Mating in Captivity, that it’s important to take care of all of your relationships. We can’t place all our needs on just one person.
“Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic, as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”
– Ester Perel
If you are feeling cast aside or neglected, it’s important to take care of yourself! You can’t depend on someone else to make you feel completely happy, elated, desired, and safe all at once. Make your self-care an absolute priority.
- Spend time with your friends and your own family and neighbors.
- Pour your energy into hobbies and personal pursuits.
- Take a course that you’ve always wanted to dive into.
- Join social or sporting groups in your area.
- Make your own life richer and abundant.
By prioritizing your own needs, you’ll be less resentful and more grateful for the time your boyfriend does give you. Ultimately, if you feel like you aren’t your boyfriend’s top priority, then make yourself the priority in your own life. No one else can do this for you.
Remember to love and be kind to yourself.
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