Are my parents too controlling?

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Since I was a young girl, I have obeyed my parents and have rarely given them a problem. When I was a sophomore in high school, I began to restrict my food intake, and was later diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Like many people with anorexia, I am extremely perfectionistic and try to please those around me. In high school and through the end of my junior year of college, I achieved high grades, rarely drank alcohol, and spoke to my mother daily.

In October of senior year in college, I met my current boyfriend, whom I lost my virginity to later in the relationship. Although my mother was a virgin until marriage, I felt that I needed to make my own decision…the therapist that helped me with anorexia also helped me understand that I tend not to make my own choices and listen to my parents. I am 100% happy with my decision, and am excited that I made this choice on my own. I told my mom because she and I used to be very close, and honestly did not think that she would be upset. However, she was deeply upset and was very affected by the fact that I decided to have sex.

My bf came to visit my parents’ home over Christmas break. My dad really liked him and said that he seems like a smart, loyal person, but said he might not be right for me. My mom also liked him, but felt that “I could do better”. While I valued their opinions, I also felt that I should continue dating him because I wanted to form my own opinion of him. When I went to visit his family in January, my mom and dad were angry that I was still dating him, and asked me why I would take a trip to visit him and his family. Once my parents made it clear that they no longer wanted me to date him, I became uncomfortable talking to my mom or my dad about our relationship.

As the months went on, my parents continued to pressure me about ending the relationship. Soon, they began to threaten me that I needed to choose between them and my boyfriend. They told me they “couldn’t believe I would still date someone that they don’t approve of for me”.

I understand that my mom and dad don’t exactly feel that he is the “perfect” person for me, but he treats me so well, and he and I are very compatible. He understands my eating disorder, loves me for more than looks, is loyal, and I tend to be shy, but somehow I am able to be completely myself with him. I don’t really understand how my parents are able to make such an intense judgment about him after one dinner (he and I went on day trips while he stayed at my house so we weren’t home much). Also, if I am in fact making a mistake in dating him, I need to realize it on my own. I’m 21 years old!

Recently, my parents have increased the threats, and have taken away the car that they gave me as a gift when I was sixteen so that I can’t visit him (he lives about 500 miles away). Three weeks ago, my dad told me that if I choose to stay with my bf, I need to move out of the house within a week. I decided that I would stay with him, so I packed up my things to leave the house. My dad must have realized that I was actually going to leave, so he and my mom told me that I could stay in their home, but I could never talk about my boyfriend.

I need to add that my parents are also perfectionists, and they base a large amount of their personal success on the successes of my brother and myself. It’s not necessarily awful for parents to have pride in their children and their achievements, but it seems as though if I “disobey” them, they go to extremes.

I’ve consulted my own therapist about the issue, and she thinks I need to move out of my house, and explained that since she has known me, she has believed that my parents are controlling. My friends also think the situation is outrageous and believe that my parents have overreacted. However, my mom’s therapist agrees with their decision to make me leave the home if I stay with the bf. Since I graduated college in May, my parents and I have been working to mend our relationship, but we don’t seem to be going anywhere. We recently consulted a family therapist and have met with her twice. After the sessions, my parents seem angry, and none of us speak to one another for a while after.

I apologize for the wordiness of this question! However, I would like to know if I am being dramatic in thinking that my parents are attempting to control my life and my decisions. Since I returned home in May, I have been trying to help the situation, and do not talk about my bf in front of my family. It seems as though I am making adjustments and changes, but my parents refuse to either admit they’ve been wrong or make changes themselves. Regardless, the entire relationship is suffering, but at this point, I am not willing to end my relationship with my boyfriend. We have almost been dating for nine months, and are really happy together.

Thank you so much for your help and concern! Have a great day! :)

A: What a difficult, difficult situation. I’m impressed that your parents and you are trying so hard to come to a resolution. At this point, you have quite a committee working with you (your therapist, your friends, your mom’s therapist, the family therapist, now me).

Personally, I don’t think it’s very helpful to label someone. Although your folks may act “controlling,” they do so because of many complicated issues. You probably scared them to death with the eating disorder, for example. That may have intensified their protectiveness. On top of that, you mention that they see their kids’ successes as an indication that they did well. This suggests that maybe they have some self-esteem issues and need your successes to shore up their feelings about their lives. Meanwhile, you are trying to figure out how to separate from your family as all young adults do while still maintaining loving contact and how to be with the man you love when your family disapproves. Yikes. What a lot to think about.

My vote is that you stick with the family therapist to see if there is any way to allay your parents’ fears and to give you room to make your own decisions. You all may benefit from having a safe place to talk about why there is such a difference of opinion about your boyfriend. Your parents need help to understand that ultimatums and threats will drive you away from them emotionally even if you obey them. You need help learning how to assert yourself and still maintaining connection. They need help recognizing that your independence is something they can take pride in.

Please tell the family therapist about the angry fallout following sessions. This should become part of what is talked about. The therapist can only do her work if she knows what is happening between sessions. I encourage you to stick with it. Putting in the effort now is really, really worth it if it means that you can maintain a good relationship with your family and yet live your own adult life.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Jul 2009

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2009). Are my parents too controlling?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2009/07/12/are-my-parents-too-controlling/

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