Conservative family vs. liberal partner: How do you make it work?

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By: ionics – CC BY 2.0
By: ionicsCC BY 2.0

My partner grew up in a conservative household. They were the All American Family. Sit-down dinners, church on Sundays, restricted TV shows, being taught the Christian Conservative Way all through growing up.

Cut to my loud, Filipino family. Meals were whenever we were hungry, religion was never forced upon me, and we were able to express ourselves however we wanted. All you had to do to survive in my family was to be respectful of the rules.

It’s 2015, so a liberal Filipino woman dating a white conservative man isn’t so unusual. And our relationship is amazing — no fights, no drama, no games. We are a very simple couple. Except… while my family has welcomed the man I love with open arms, his family keeps their arms shut.

Normally I wouldn’t be too concerned with whether or not people like me. But it’s different when you’re talking about the parents of the man you’re dating. There are many questions that I’m wrestling with now:

  • Must I conform to their standards even if their son loves me for who I am?
  • Do I change the way I do my makeup, the way I dress, and hide my piercings because they’re not conservative enough?
  • How do you change for them but stay the same for him?

Communication? Clear boundaries? Compromising? How do YOU deal with not exactly fitting in with your partners’ family?

Comments on Conservative family vs. liberal partner: How do you make it work?

  1. I firmly believe that dressing for your audience and conforming your personality will help open doors. This does not mean to erase yourself for them but maybe tone it down when you’re out with them until they get to know you better and let you in. To me, it’s like dressing for work, no one at work knows the real you at first but when you get comfortable you start letting more of the real you out and shine brighter.

    That might mean a simple avoiding subjects and sometimes holding your tongue especially if you’re not asked a direct questions. If asked a direct question I wouldn’t lie but I would choose my words carefully. For dressing the part it does not mean taking out piercings, but maybe simple and more appropriate to them jewelry. (for me it was flipping my septum ring up into my nose)

    If you’re already doing those things and they are still weird, there may be no pleasing them. Or it might be up to your parter to find out concrete reasons why and be your advocate.

    • Also, doing things like this, even if you are obviously not changing for them but are just changing temporarily to please them, shows that you really care about them liking you, that you are trying to be respectful to them since they are the family of the man you love, and hopefully them seeing that will remind them to try to do the same to you. 🙂

    • I agree with this. I don’t make the same jokes with everyone. Oddly I make more vulgar jokes at my work than with my family because I know my bosses have a very open sense of humor. But on the flip side I don’t ever show my tattoo at work because we get much older clients and I know my bosses prefer me not show it. I don’t feel like it is taking away anything since it isn’t like a tattoo that is hard to hide (it is on my upper arm)

      My point is that everyone kind-of already watches what they say or wear in situations. I wouldn’t say go out and buy a totally new outfit that your in-laws would wear, just wear something that isn’t scandalous, or something you would find okay to wear at a company picnic/church/whatever.

      Although I think holding your tongue can be good, in ways of poop jokes, and curse words, I wouldn’t just “yes ma’am” and back down from important conversations. These could be in-laws, parents to your kids, or maybe not. But they shouldn’t think you are someone that you aren’t. You might have to spend a lot of holidays with these people. You don’t want to have to play make believe everytime you are with them.

  2. I think you can be respectful without changing how you look, or behave. To me it feels really unkind to yourself to decide that they are more important than you, and that you must change yourself or put on an act while they are allowed to fully be themselves. It may feel a little scary. It sounds like both you and them need to learn about each other and possibly find some common ground to meet on. Hiding aspects of yourself won’t help with that journey, neither would them hiding things about themselves. You might end up still not liking to be around them, and they might feel the same, and I think figuring that out would feel a lot better if everyone involved was being genuine.

    • I agree on finding common ground, especially if it is in vague terms that can overlap. For example, a large part of church time (for some) is family time, so maybe casual comments about how nice family time is, etc. could be the start to feel out some common ground.

      I think it will also be important for the boyfriend to be an “explainer” to both his family and to the OP. When my brother started dating a girl that my family didn’t understand, it was confusing. We were interpreting some of her actions wrong, like buying fancy gifts or fussing over a complicated dessert and taking over the kitchen when our mom was trying to make dinner. So my brother (eventually) was able to explain to us that her worrying about gifts or dessert was how she SHOWED appreciation for being around our family. And then he was able to explain to her other specific ways that my family FEELS appreciated. This is just one easy example, but taking the time to figure out people’s intentions when their behavior is different goes a long way.

  3. i’m dealing with this right now, except flip flopped. i was raised in a very conservative household with a narcissistic mother, and my boyfriend’s family is the exact opposite, both in politics and personality. so, my boyfriend’s family has accepted me with open arms, whereas my family doesn’t care about my bf or getting to know him. in the past year we’ve been dating, he’s met my family about 5 times.

    my boyfriend knows my parents won’t change their opinion of him. he’ll always be the dirty blue-collar democrat trying to brainwash their daughter, so the best he can do is dress nicely and be polite. if they don’t accept him, maybe they can one day grudgingly admit that he seems like a really nice guy who treats their daughter well and is polite and respectful.

    so, do the same with your boyfriend’s family. dress nicely, say please and thank you, be modest and smile. not necessarily putting on a show, but it gives them less to ‘criticize’. don’t change yourself completely though. stay who you are, but by toning it down and being polite in their presence, you’re showing your boyfriend that you want to make it work and make his life easier too.

    basically, since you said they attend church, pretend like you’re going to church. 🙂

  4. The way you word this in your question, really stuck out to me:

    “Cut to my loud, Filipino family. Meals were whenever we were hungry, religion was never forced upon me, and we were able to express ourselves however we wanted. All you had to do to survive in my family was to be respectful of the rules.”

    You had rules in your family. His family has rules too, just more of them and different ones than the ones you are used to abiding by. I grew up in a somewhat traditional/conservative home (though not religious) and I think sit-down dinners are nice. It gives people time to talk about their day, hear what’s going on with the rest of the family, etc.

    Though some rules may seem stuffy and rigid to outsiders, I think it would help you relate to them if you understood the reason behind the rules. You still don’t have to agree with the rules, but sometimes if you know where they come from, you may find that their family is more similar to yours than you thought. (Of course, it’s also possible, that they’re just very very different…)

    • Much agreed. When I first started to date my husband I was really freaked out because his parents were so “clean cut.” The house was super clean, dinner was cooked everyday and everyone waited until his mother got home, she was a stay at home Mom, etc. So I was pretty intimidated. But when I moved in, I found out that I actually have more of the same values with them than with my family. Sometimes it comes down to spending more time with them. You’ll eventually find things in common, and sometimes you values are the same but reflected in different ways.

  5. My family looks like that picture-perfect All American family too. It drove me nuts when I was growing up because looks aren’t reality. As I’ve grown up, I’ve developed a pretty great relationship with my parents and I can see more of their reality, their good and bad sides. One of the things I realized was that while they’re great one-on-one once they get comfortable with someone, they’re kind of… difficult to be around in large groups or around people that make them uncomfortable.

    So my solution when I started dating someone who I knew would make them uncomfortable was to bring them together a lot. Boyfriend and I went to their house for dinner, just my parents and us, at least twice a month. Over time, everyone adjusted and learned how to deal with each other. They’re still not BFFs, but they can have a good time together.

    If that’s something you can try, try it. If not, make an effort to communicate with his parents without your boyfriend being involved. Email them. Call them. Show them all the beauty that your friends see in you. They may not appreciate all of it, but chances are good that with enough exposure, they’ll see you.

  6. I am also in the reverse situation with my own conservative Christian family. My husband, his family & I are all liberals – some Christian, some not. Fortunately, the two families haven’t mixed much, living in different states. With my family, the hardest part is that there is often someone around who wants to bring up a controversial topic. I have learned not to take the bait. Usually, a simple, “Let’s agree to disagree” and then offering a complement of some kind to the other person works to change the topic. For the extremists who don’t want to let it go, I try something like “I’m not going to convince you am I?” and when they agree, I say, “Well, you aren’t going to convince me either, so why waste our valuable time together arguing? Let’s find something else to do.” In the worst situation, I was accused of walking away because I didn’t have good arguments. I had to resort to, “I have great arguments, but I care more about my relationship with you than about convincing you that I am right.” Of course, with someone who is not closely related to you, that last line might not work. However, I have found that as I have gotten older, I am satisfied with feeling right inside without the need to convince others that I am. This has been surprisingly liberating.

  7. When I first met my husband’s family, I had learned a hard lesson. My brother, a few years younger than me, had a string of girlfriends and I sorta had an apathetic/borderline rude attitude toward most of them. I never anticipated that the “17 year old hussy” he would start dating would end up a year later his wife. Whoops. Hard to repair that rocky relationship after the fact.

    So, I made a conscious effort to connect with my husbands family in a way that felt congruent with who I am. I participated in Sunday dinners for years, and after a long time I started to let myself shine a little more in conversations. I hadn’t hidden everything about me, but I didn’t let every curse word fly, or get into politics, or any of my other more extreme views on things.

    I also tried to do 1-1 things with people. I asked his mom out to coffee to hear about her life (and she loved telling stories of my husband as a kid). I asked her for advice on various things relating to my husband. I asked his sisters out to lunch/coffee, because I wanted his family to feel like my family, even though their ‘rules’ for existing were quite different than my own family.

  8. Just something I want to throw in here:

    Sometimes “conservative” means things like “modest, low-key, mainstream” in contrast to us offbeat homie types, and in those cases, the advice from others is perfect! It’s a great strategy to introduce yourself slowly, letting more and more of yourself shine through as you get to know people like that and they get more comfortable around you.

    But sometimes, and hopefully not in this case but sometimes, “conservative” can mean things like “racist, homophobic, etc”. If that is ever the case please know that you are NEVER under any obligation to spend time with people who are doing or saying oppressive stuff/ doing microaggressions to you. A partner who cares for you won’t insist that you expose yourself to harmful situations like that, and you don’t have to endure harmful situations to please folks who are being hurtful to you.

    • I think you misspelled “conservative” in this sentence: ….. “conservative” can mean things like “racist, homophobic, etc”.

      I believe the spelling you were looking for is A-S-S-H-O-L-E. Because I’m sure you didn’t mean to tar half the country and some readers of this site with a very broad brush.

  9. I have been through this, kinda on both sides. Firstly I am loud, happy and bright, my family sounds a lot like yours.

    With my partners father, his parents are divorced, his mother and I were firm friends from the outset but his father and stepmother did not approve of me at all. They kept the photograph of my partner and his ex hanging in their house for four YEARS after we started going out. I just ignored it. I kept going around, sure I was polite, I didn’t make vulgar remarks or whatnot but I was still loud and happy and myself. I am not going to change myself for people who don’t even have the decency to be polite to me. We never see his father a lot so it didn’t worry me to much. These days, ten years later, his father has a totally different point of view, it just took time, I was polite but still myself until I wore them down.

    Some of my family didn’t like my partner straight away, no idea why, my siblings accepted him in a heartbeat but my parents did not and their nasty comments behind our backs (my family gossips) influenced the other extended family members opinions. They all kept this very hidden from my partner, he never knew they were faking it, I of course did. I cornered them, when my partner was not around and told them in no uncertain terms they either treated him with the respect he deserves and stopped the bitching or I would chose him over them and it would be their fault because he had done nothing wrong. It worked too, they seemed to finally click in that I am, in fact, an adult who is perfectly capable of making her own decisions and deciding who I do or do not want in my life and for what reason. They stopped the garbage, genuinely got to know him and now when I am away for work and he feels lonely he goes around and hangs out and my mother feeds him and he is truly part of the family.

    Has your partner thought about talking to his family outright about his expectations of how they treat you?

  10. I am in this sort of situation with my fiance. My family is loud, liberal, has a simultaneously lewd and really nerdy/intellectual sense of humor, and a general disregard for authority for authority’s sake. We did usually eat dinner together every night, but the conversations that flew around the table ranged from discussing my dad’s latest scientific research to obnoxious “see-food” and fart jokes. Religion was not a part of our household.

    In contrast, my fiance was raised in a house where religion, specifically Evangelical Christianity, was not only central, but integrated into their way of living to (what I would consider anyway) a pretty intense degree. My fiance is an atheist, as am I. You can imagine what his parents think of that.

    While I am not the loud, occasionally obnoxious person I am around my family, I don’t actively try to hide myself from them. I am polite, say please and thank you, I help entertain my fiance’s nieces when needed, I help clean up dishes, and so forth. These are things I would do when visiting anyone’s house, and would generally consider to be common courtesy. While I don’t make a habit of bringing up politics or religion, if asked a direct question, I will answer straightforwardly about what I think. If I get the impression that an argument is brewing, either between myself and one of them, or others (he has a big family), I do try to diffuse the situation as best I can.

    On the subject of religion, I told my fiance before we got engaged that if we were going to get married, he had to tell his parents that he (and I) are atheists. I didn’t think that it would be a great idea for them to find that out while we were trying to plan our wedding, or at the wedding. I also didn’t want them to be able to blame me for “turning their son into an atheist,” since he had been one loooong before we ever met. It worked out nicely. They weren’t, and still aren’t, terribly pleased about it, but they don’t appear to be holding it against either of us. It’s not something we ever really discuss either, but it’s at least out there.

    So really I guess my advice is, be polite and well mannered, help out with dishes when you are at their house for dinner, etc. Doing those things gives you more room to be yourself when it comes to your opinions on politics, religion, and whatnot, because you’ve already shown them that you are generally nice and helpful person. It’s hard to strongly dislike someone who is happy to scrub the greasy pans and put away leftovers, even if they do have a different political opinion.

  11. I completely understand where you’re coming from. While my partner’s family has opened up to me (we’ve been together for over eight years), their first impressions of me were that I was too loud, too colorful, too interesting. Then I realized that people who are centered on traditions need time to become comfortable with anything new. So I began to change my tactic. I made it like an acting game. I watered myself way down for them for a while, dressing in the correctly preppy way, smiling sweetly, not getting all excited about my work, saying no more than one sentence at a time. I played hard to get. And then they started asking me questions and giving me the chance to show them — when they wanted to see it — my more authentic personality. Now we all get a long great, and I’m actually becoming close with some of them. But I had to make them come to me! So my advice is, don’t think of it as “hiding” or “changing” for them, but letting them dip their toes into your wonderful world first, so that they’ll see how awesome it is, and wade in of their own volition!

  12. I need some advice on this issue too! My fiancé comes from a very large Haitian family and never had sit down dinners, didn’t need to filter his conversation, and wasn’t expected to participate in “stuffy/forced” gatherings.

    My family is the “All-American” family with sit down family dinners every night, no cursing, “polite society” conversations, and yes, family get-togethers where everyone was expected to spend time together.

    My problem is that everyone likes each other but no one really knows each other yet. My fiancé dislikes “forced” interactions and worries too much about accidentally cursing and my family is too polite to interrogate him, so everyone just makes small talk which never gets us anywhere. I’ve talked to all of them about how much it means to me that they have good relationships with each other and I’ve tried to facilitate real conversations, but nothing seems to help. What can I do?

    • Funny thing is that my husband and I felt like both sides of the family had “stuffy” “forced” family get togethers. Sometimes it is a matter of getting use to everyone. His family does more extended family get togethers, and although each family has their own thing, sometimes it felt too formal (probably because he has 6 cousins, 4 of which have children). Mostly it is just their views are different from mine, more atomic family sprinkled with lots of commercialism. (Oh and all but one of the adult cousins became teachers… no joke.. in the same immediate family)

      But some of the family I really don’t like that much, I still have some interesting conversations with. Like I talk about running with my Uncle (in-law) and his wife tells some interesting stories. Eventually you get more interested in what people are doing with their lives, and maybe that could be a great way to start conversations from your fiancé’s perspective. Oh and a little alcohol helps. Not saying you need to plastered, but sometimes a bottle of beer helps work out the “stuffy jitters”

      You could also try hosting a family get together and try taking down some of the formalities. Like serve appetizers with desserts or buffet style dinner instead of a sit down dinner. It is kind-of a good middle ground. It helps take away some of the formal rules of talking during dinner, like having one person speak at a time, etc.

    • This is going to sound odd, but bend the system to his favor.

      Are these potlucks? Have him bring something that’s unique to his experience. It will be tried, and asked about and he can talk about his background, culture, experiences, etc framed around the dish.

      That can lead to conversation about family life and other things. If he has had questions about certain cousins or what-have-you of yours, it opens the forum for him to talk with them about all of that.

      If these are truly more formal, see if you can get things themed. “Your hobby” or something like that — make people really think about how they would like to present themselves and get each other talking about the things they’re doing, interested in, etc.

      It sounds really hokey on paper, but it absolutely helps people like me who are very reserved/shy/anxious.

      But, really, see how you can game the system if you don’t think your family is close enough.

    • Play games! DO something! You’d be surprised what will come up in an organic way when it isn’t labelled as a “get to know you” conversation. It’s more authentic.

      Also sometimes it helps to have one on one time with individual members. My MIL is much more likely to talk about a whole set of subjects she won’t in the presence of other family members. I got to know her better while walking the dogs together than I did around the dinner table.

  13. This might sound puzzling at first, but hear me out. I went through (and sometimes am still going through) something similar.

    Focus on your commonalities.

    Even with folks who are vastly different than yourself, there will be threads which are common between you. In my situation, it was a reverence for some tradition. The family I was coming into built itself around traditions — Wigilia with oplatki, blessed food being the first thing you eat Easter (I married into a Polish Catholic family). I can appreciate the traditions and now, many years later, have come to really love them.

    Additionally, I think something that very much helps is that while the people who you’re encountering are outspoken, they may not be 100% agreed with. Find your allies. Father might be railing against “the communists taking over” but his sister might think he’s just going on another one of his rants. Keep an eye on the room and look for “tells”. All families are made of individuals thrown together by genetics, marriage and possibly adoption. No two people are alike and no group is a monolith. It’s easy to broad-brush, but these are people you’re going to be around and interacting with in comfortable and uncomfortable situations for a long, long time. It is worth it to figure out who talks to whom, who believes what and who just goes along to keep things happy.

    As far as things you can do for yourself. I am a staunch believer in being yourself, but also picking your battled. You have the piercings and the offbeat flair, but that doesn’t mean your family isn’t also important to you. If someone talks about something that relates to your experience in a positive way, bring it up and participate. You may be surprised how quickly a “hey, that sounds like something my family does. This is how we do it!” can turn into a “do you think you could bring that in?” The more you integrate yourself without giving yourself away, the easier it will be for them to come around to you, even if you don’t always see eye-to-eye.

    The only hard and fast rule I have is NEVER talk down about the family unless you know it’s just you and your partner. And ALWAYS dress it as your opinion with examples. If something happens and it really bothers you, talk it out with your partner on the ride home. Maybe you missed something, don’t know a part of the history or could be sensitive because you’re out of your element. Remember it’s you and he who are the team and working these things out together — strategies and pain points — will help everyone in the long run.

    Most of all, good luck.

  14. Be as respectful of them as you want them to be respectful of you. (This is not to say I think the LW is disrespectful at *all*). I think (hope) you will find this will be surprisingly easy because you love your boyfriend and this is the family and the values that made him the man you love. (At some point, during a quiet moment with his mom, try telling her what I told my MIL, “I knew you must be an amazing woman because your son is such an amazing man.”)

    So don’t hide who you are, but adjust. To the same degree you wish they’d adjust for you. Don’t conform to the extent that you’re hiding yourself, but keep an open mind to their way of doing things. For right now think of it more like “casual job interview” standards than “hello future family!” standards. And ultimately be patient. You could be the second coming of Fred Rogers and it would still take some people time to open up to you.

  15. Wow. Everyone has such great advice but it did absolutely nothing in my favor. We have like no relationship with his family. I am pagan and value things like DIY and thriftiness and homesteading. His family is conservative Nazarene upper class. I tried that work really hard, water yourself down stuff. I worked really hard at it for 18 months. There really is nothing there and that’s okay. I have been angry because I am pregnant and I wanted a better relationship with his parents then what I had with my daughter’s father’s family. But luck has it I don’t and I won’t. They are so ridiculous that he doesn’t have contact with them or want to hang out. There is no “holidays” and whatever with them. Also my husband has gotten really close to my mom who’s basically an old divorced hippie and we don’t think they like that much. His dad literally turned his back on her at our wedding lunch. So for us it’s worked best to just separate ourselves and carry on with life as we see fit. We are raise our children the way we want (without baptizing them etc) and basically it’s too bad they are missing out on our stellar kids because they don’t value a relationship with me

    • As a Christian married to a Pagan, I can only say how sorry I am that you’ve been treated this way, and how sorry I am for your in-laws that they are missing out on the complete family that they could have.

  16. Oh, you are NOT alone here! My fiance’s family is Pentecostal, super-conspiracy-theory-right-wing Tea Partiers, etc. I’m lucky in that they embraced me right away, although every time they call my fiance by the wrong pronoun (he’s trans, 8 years post-op) I cringe. I get more offended by their hate speech than he does, and after three years what I’ve learned is to view them through a Reality TV filter. I just don’t take anything they say to heart, and I don’t challenge them even when I disagree with them. I don’t change my makeup, clothing, or opinions…but I don’t voice anything political, religious, or corporate around them. I remind myself they aren’t the ones I chose, he is, and therefore I don’t need to get along with them. I think it’s admirable that you want to make a connection, but if their stance is “conform to our way of the thinking or don’t be involved with our family”, the healthiest option for you and your relationship would be to be polite but distant from them.

  17. As I’ve learned from being a lifelong oddity, I agree with those folks who say that kindness erodes all barriers if people have a grain of openness to them. I’d also add that how you view yourself can have an impact. I discovered years ago that when I thought of myself as a weirdo outcast I got treated as a weirdo outcast, but when I started to think of myself as a loveable eccentric I got treat as loveable, and I didn’t have to change a thing about myself except my attitude.

    Regarding the specifics, I had the opposite issue, in that I am a devout Catholic and my husband and his friends are Pagan. To further complicate things, he loves to hang out with conservative sparring-partners (I am very liberal in some things, very conservative in others, outspoken in all.)

    While I did not tone down my beliefs to placate anyone, nor did I avoid controversy, I started with the assumption that those who disagree with me are sincere, intelligent, good-hearted people, and that we all have the same desire for the good of the community, even if we differ on how to achieve it. I embraced the truth that all people deserve a baseline of respect. Whenever we’d encounter an impasse in anything, I accepted that at this point opinions won’t change, and that’s all right–we can still have supper together, enjoy a sunset together, or get into an outrageous pun contest together. I mean, who agrees on everything?

    Love and respect them, and expect love and respect back. It’ll work itself out.

  18. The conservative/liberal dynamic that some have hinted at is really interesting. My parents are “conservative” as far as their politics go, and my husbands parents are “liberal”. However, my parents never EVER bring up having a family, are totally in the know about my being bisexual, love my pink hair, and the only comment they ever have for the kooky person I turned into is “You know, I would never have guessed you’d turn out this way”. Meanwhile, his parents express constant concern about our lack of reproduction, our “irresponsible spending” (traveling instead of putting a downpayment on a house), and his mom almost fell over when I showed her my magenta locks.

    What I’m saying, is that people can suprise you all over the place. Yeah, sure, maybe don’t wear the shirt that says “Fuck Mornings” on it the first time you meet them, and maybe don’t put the pot leaf earrings in, but be you. I really wish I had been more myself with my husbands parents from the get-go, because it would have saved a LOT of the “wait, huh????” conversations we have had with them since.

  19. I think all the advice is great, but at some point you also need to take care of yourself. I was in this boat as well with my in-laws and tried the whole toning it down thing but after so many years of doing it I just felt like a fraud and insincere to myself. It’s now gotten to the point where I don’t get together because of their comments to me (despite my bending over backwards to try to fit into their square hole).

    So, yes do all these things but be aware of where your line is and that sometimes, despite your best intentions and efforts, they will never welcome you.

  20. This is a tough one. A few details would make this issue more or less difficult. If you have or want children this will have a bigger impact on you. If you want children you need to ask him what he sees as an ideal life for his children.
    I believe that in an ideal world we should count on love to transcend politics. That said, sometimes politics can become a part of a person’s identity and it can make them closed off to accepting and collaborating for the good of all parties involved.
    I would say that if you are feeling shut out by the other family that is a negative thing. You will need to understand how close your partner is to their family. If your partner sees their family frequenly and shares all of his family political views I would not expect the current coolness or distance you feel right now to improve. If ther relationship is balanced and your husband exhibits a sense of personal identity and independence from his family then things could work out just fine.

    The bottom line is that there are good and bad people on both sides of the spectrum. A person can have a lackadaisical lifestyle and still be unkind just as a person can be more reserved and be deeply compassionate. What should matter most is integrity and how much love and support exists within the relationship.

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