Michele O'Mara

Dealing with Family and Friends Tip #3: Cut the Apron Strings

Filed By Michele O'Mara | July 26, 2008 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: coming out of the closet

Having already identified Tip #1 and Tip #2 in a series of ten tips for GLBT persons in dealing with family and friends, we are now ready for tip number three: cut the apron strings.

I never felt married, until I got married. I got married twice, in fact, to the same person. The legal ceremony, if you will, took place in Canada (no bitterness there, right?)

I don't have a long history of partners, if you consider that my real years of dating (you know, the ones that are gender-appropriate) didn't start until I was 21. Until I met Teresa, my Canadian (no, she's not Canadian, just our marriage is) wife, I never felt a sense of permanence about my relationships. With her, though, it was like I'd always heard... I just knew.

For years, like many gay and lesbian people I know, I made choices that prioritized my family of origin above my partner. If a choice was to be made about who I was going to prioritize (or more specifically, who I would not risk disappointing) it was automatically - without even thinking - my family of origin.

I think two things about this. My bT (before Teresa) relationships were not committed enough, permanent enough, or certain enough for me to feel like it was safe or smart to cut the apron strings.

When I talk about cutting the apron strings, I'm talking about creating a shift from viewing your family of origin as your "primary relationship" to viewing your newly created relationship with your partner as your primary relationship. This shift changes the decisions you make from what is best for my family of origin, to what is best for my newly created grown-up family. This transition is often very painful for parents, and their fears and disappointment in losing you may inadvertently cause them to challenge your decisions, or make cutting the apron strings more difficult.

The second thing I think about why I delayed cutting the apron strings in my life is- I was not committed enough to myself, or certain enough in my own skin to trust that it was okay, or even acceptable (based on my own Imago) to cut the apron strings.

Well, as love would have it, Teresa came equipped with her own pair of scissors. What initially felt to me like a serious design flaw in our relationship ("how," I would ask myself, "can she not see how important my family is to me?") has become a most important gift. If you haven't noticed this yourself, our relationships are full of these kinds of gifts that are initially disguised as serious character flaws in our partners.

With these scissors, she helped me see that this was not a situation where I am choosing "either my family of origin, or her." Rather, it is about knowing how to prioritize my adult relationships - just like my parents had to do to build their family and their parents before them and so on.

In this process I discovered the difference between the family in which I am a child and the family in which I am an adult.
This difference is key to understanding the importance of "growing-up" in our adult relationships. To be responsible to ourselves, our future, and our relationship, we must be sure that we nurture connections that will sustain us into the years we continue to live after our parent's are no longer alive.

In order to grow-up, we must make a transition from being a "child" to being an "adult." One of the most difficult aspects of that transition for many gay men and lesbians is moving through the stages involved in growing up, without the support and encouragement of our families. For our heterosexual siblings, the progression is fairly well mapped out, and involves a series of socially-dictated rites of passage (dating, engagement, marriage, and in most cases parenthood) that move a child into adulthood, out of their parent's home, and into a new, adult situation where they create a family of their own.

If your family does not validate your same-sex relationship, and you prioritize their discomfort by accommodating their wishes - which contradict your own needs, then you are inadvertently keeping those apron strings intact, which keeps you in the role of child, not adult.

Suppose, for example, you were a heterosexual and your parents disapproved of your choice in a partner. If they invited you, but not your wife or husband, to a family gathering would you attend without your spouse? I doubt it. If they came to visit you, would you be sure to not hold your spouse's hand so as not to offend them since they don't really like him? I doubt it. If they asked that you sleep in separate bedrooms when you visit them at their house because they don't approve of your choice in a spouse, would you agree to this? I doubt it.

All of us gay men and lesbians are responsible for how we allow our parents (and everyone else, for that matter) dictate how we are going to live. It is our responsibility to set the stage for how we are willing to be treated and how we are willing to let our relationship be treated. Do we buy into the notion that if our relationship is "not legal" then it is "not valid?" I don't.

Grown-up relationship boundaries mean that each partner in the relationship promises to protect the relationship from anything that does not offer to improve the physical or emotional health of each partner or the intimacy of the relationship.

In order for us to establish and respect these boundaries, we must internalize the importance and validity of them. And we must expect those around us to respect our adult relationships as much as their own. We only risk "disappointing" our family of origin if they do not respect or value the new relationship that we have made.

We have much to learn from our heterosexual brothers and sisters on this issue. It is expected in our culture for heterosexuals to marry, create their own families, and make decisions in the best interest of their new families. It stands to reason then, if we wish for this to become the norm in our relationships too, then we must step into the belief that it is not only okay but essential to the health of our relationships and our personal growth and well-being.

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I've never been that close to my birth family, but I've become very close with Jerame's mother. It's funny; I didn't cut the apron strings, I gained a friend!

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 27, 2008 9:21 AM

My family was given no choice. Love me accept my partner in the room. My parents were fine, my partners parents took me under their wing. Bil, you are lucky to have another mom, cherish her, in fact let Jeramie know you are her favorite from time to time.

My parents, and my Bob's parents, were annual guests at our home for Thanksgiving. We went all out to enjoy holidays together.

Great advice for those with shitty relatives.

That is such excellent advice and wisdom. and I think you hit the nail right on the head about why it's difficult for us to cut the strings. Great post!