By the time I met her (early 1930s), she had operated on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for a decade. She still loves them dearly and decided that they would “do the right thing if given the chance” which seems to mostly involve her telling them about me and then getting upset when they shut it down – or get angry when they don’t react, which she sees as a sign that they are “changing”.
She’s also upset because she thinks I’m judging them, which I am. Honestly, I would be happy never to meet them, and it breaks my heart to see her trying to gain their approval when they are the same parents who have been historically and consistently abusive.
It’s like she hurts herself over and over again, and they live far enough away that meeting them in person isn’t a risk. But, I was born to WASP parents here in the United States, so I know there’s also an added complexity of different cultural experiences. How can I talk to her about it and help her?
— I want to help my girlfriend
I want to help my girlfriend: You are correct that there may be several cultural factors at play. In my work with immigrant children and immigrant parents, there is a common theme of protecting the family’s reputation within the community. It can feel like hiding something that might be perceived as bad for others (i.e. homophobia is still rampant in immigrant communities), and it can feel like pretending everything is fine. well, that’s not the case.
Another common theme in immigrant families is the expectation of a child to be respectful, obedient and of service to their parents. While this isn’t inherently bad, in some cases it can create a dynamic where children are riddled with guilt and shame, which makes self-defense all the more difficult.
Ask Sahaj: I Realize My Parents’ Discipline Was Emotional Abuse
Finally, many immigrant parents fear cultural erasure, especially as their children choose to be in interracial/cross-cultural relationships. Beyond sexuality, I wonder if race is an issue for her parents?
Right now, your girlfriend views your comments on these dynamics as judgmental. It may be a combination of her not being ready to hear them, the way you communicate, and her feeling triggered by conflict or assertiveness because of the abuse she has experienced.
She takes care of her parents and I assume she cares about you, but the two feel at odds. You’ve made your position clear, but it still navigates its cognitive dissonance. Instead of contributing to this, what would it be like for you to support his agency?
Remember that these family dynamics have been normal for her all her life. Not only does she not know differently, but she has to deal with multiple layers of power dynamics, relationship trauma, religious shame, cultural factors, guilt, fear, and abuse.
You love her and want to protect her, but you also need to step back and meet her where she is. While removing the people who are causing the pain and trauma may make sense to you, it may be considered countercultural to your girlfriend. And whether or not she chooses to be in a relationship with her parents, it doesn’t change the fact that she will have to heal from everything.
As a partner, you can validate what she is going through. You can show her what true love, patience, and support looks like through your actions. You can nonjudgmentally challenge her contradictory beliefs and statements by throwing them back at her as facts rather than emotionally charged responses. (For example: “You say your parents can come back, but it’s been 10 years and very little has changed..”)
You can affirm his actions of setting boundaries or talking about you or his sexuality with his parents, even if those moments seem small to you. You can be there for her as she continues to process it all. You can direct her to resources – like a family trauma/abuse therapist, a support group, and trials of other LGTBQ people who share their stories of unsupportive parents. You can communicate how much it hurts you to see her hurt herself, using “I” language instead of “you” or “they” language. You may be more curious about the cultural aspect of what she’s going through (or find more information online – hint: Brown Girl Therapy).
Even if you don’t agree, and even if it hurts to watch, she’ll have to figure it out on her own. You can’t do the job for her. Love can help remind him of his agency, and that can be healing. But if something needs to change, she will have to take responsibility for her role in that change.
Until then, you can try leading with love. You will also need to figure out how you can take care of yourself and ultimately what you can tolerate.