Dear Wayne and Wanda,
My fiancé previously had a very long off-and-on relationship with his high school girlfriend. After about 10 years of dating, they broke up in their late 20s. We met a couple years later, dated for a couple of years, and recently got engaged.
He grew up here and has extended family in the Anchorage area, including his parents, siblings, and several aunts, cousins, etc. When he told them we were engaged, their response was to question whether we were moving too fast.
Here’s the deal: they all love his ex. She was around for years. They’ve known her since she was a kid. They adore her, and I know his parents hoped they would get married. They still maintain a friendship with her, as do his siblings. And I hear about it constantly. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever spent extended time with the family without someone bringing up her name, sharing information about a recent visit, or commenting on how well she’s doing and how cute she looked.
It’s fine. I can deal with that. She’s actually really nice, the breakup was mutual, and I’m in no way threatened by her in terms of my relationship with my fiancé. What I can’t deal with is his family not making an effort to accept me, to bond with me, and to embrace our relationship. Advice?
Long relationships cast long shadows, and your future in-laws indeed appear to be struggling to move out of said shadows to embrace the rosy future. Understandably, this is tough. Engagements are exciting, and yours is tempered by this feeling of being stonewalled or overlooked, which is unfortunate. But things can get better.
Consider your strategy carefully. This isn’t a competition to be won, and things won’t get better by you trying to out-girlfriend the ex. His parents likely have an almost paternal-maternal relationship with her, having watched her grow up and share formidable milestone experiences so entwined with their own son’s growth and development that it’s hard for them to divorce the two. It’s understandable. And very likely, this is less about them wishing their son married her than it is about letting go of that vibrant and enduring part of his childhood.
So, next steps: you’re engaged — and you have a wedding to plan! Mother-in-laws love that stuff. So involve her early and often. Use it to create opportunities to collude, and bond over the romance and possibility of your situation. Actively solicit her feedback and input. Even if you don’t incorporate it, your openness will go a long way in proving you value her. While you’re at it, be deliberate and plan some time together, like family dinners or barbecues.
And by all means, make sure your husband-to-be understands what you’re experiencing, and ensure he’s firmly in your corner, helping you to build a strong foundational relationship with your new family members.
Welcome to the family!
Seriously: Props to you for the awesome attitude, perfect perspective and concrete confidence in yourself and your relationship, which clearly has not let the constant convo about this exceptional ex drive you crazy. You’re stronger and more grounded than most.
That said, she’s the past; you’re the present and future. And, as Wanda mentioned, you have plenty of opportunities in the weeks ahead to win friends and influence soon-to-be family members. I say don’t stop at mom; bring in the whole female contingent among your fiancé's siblings and his extended relatives —aunties and cousins! — and friends. Invite them all to be part of the planning and partying leading up to the big day, right alongside your family and besties.
You shouldn’t have to force it; it should be organic and natural. I mean, it’s a wedding and all of this is supposed to be fun, right? Why wouldn’t they get onboard? And if they don’t want to, that’s up to them, not you. Don’t hold grudges or feel rejected; just keep it moving.
Because the big time reality is this: no matter how much time and energy they invest in getting to know —and love — you leading up to the wedding, they’re going to have to get used to you being around for years and years and years after the wedding, right? This is a marathon, not a sprint. And if you are as likeable and charming as you are level-headed and resilient, I expect you’ll be a family favorite before you know it.