When You Don’t Approve of Your Adult Child’s Relationship
“What does she see in that guy?”
The woman talking with me is more than a little upset. In fact, she is beside herself with worry and disapproval.
“He’s not at all like any of her other boyfriends. He barely says hello when he’s with us. He’s just plain rude. He doesn’t have an education or a trade. His own family doesn’t seem to want much to do with him. Yet she swears he is the love of her life and she defends him!”
A father is very upset with his son’s choice of partner. “We have always emphasized how important it is that he marry someone of our faith. Yet he’s serious about a girl from another country and culture. Doesn’t he understand that he is separating himself from her family and our values? We can’t possibly approve. We want him to stop seeing her and find a girl who is appropriate.”
Ah. Love and romance. If only it were sensible. Sometimes it is. Often it’s not. When young people are crazy in love, it can seem really crazy to the adults around them. At times, it can seem like the biggest mistake your child could make. At times, it can threaten the very fabric of family life and the larger family culture. When that happens, parents are challenged to the depths of their souls. Is your love for your child bigger or smaller than your commitment to an opinion, a belief or value system? Is your child’s choice so disappointing or contrary to how you brought them up that you can’t find a way to make peace with it? It’s not an easy matter.
You want your adult child to be happy and safe. You don’t see how the object of his affection can possibly provide that. Your hope is that your disapproval will bring your child to his senses. You believe that your anger, disappointment and obvious dislike will change your kid’s mind. It probably won’t.
Forcing an adult child to make the choice between the parents who raised him and the person he loves always ends badly. Cutting off the child will only cut you off from the wheel of life.
You won’t get to see him develop into his adult self. You won’t be able to be there to comfort him in the hard times or to celebrate with him in the good. You won’t know your grandchildren. You won’t have someone who knows who you are to care about what happens to you when you are sick or old. Does all that really outweigh the fact that you think the choice is misguided?
Even when our children become adults, we are more adult than they are. If we want to maintain the relationship with an adult child and to continue to participate in the family’s life cycle, it’s up to us to keep our heads and to model how to agree to disagree. Being older and wiser, it’s up to us to show our kids (and their partners) how to be gracious and open-hearted once the choice is made.
Managing Your Relationship with Your Son or Daughter
So how do you manage it when your child loves a disappointing someone?
Don’t draw a line in the sand.
Ultimatums won’t work. Romantic love is more powerful than loyalty to parents, at least in the first flush of new romance. Objecting will only make your child even more committed to his choice. If sex is involved, it’s even less likely that forcing the issue will help resolve it. Sex is a powerful reinforcer. You have nothing as rewarding to offer. If you force your child to choose between yourself and the love of his life, you will lose. Actually, you all will.
State your concerns seriously and thoughtfully — once.
Ask to have a private meeting with your child. Outline your concerns calmly and logically. Express your wish for your child’s future happiness and the reasons you think she or he is making a mistake. Reaffirm your love for him. Then listen to your child’s opinions with respect. Do not allow yourself to get defensive or angry or threatening. People can’t hear people who are yelling.
Trust that you didn’t raise an idiot.
There may well be positive attributes in this person that you don’t yet see. Listen carefully to your child’s perspective. Take the time to get to know the new partner up close and personal. Invite her to dinner and family outings. Have her over for coffee. Talk, really talk about what interests her and what she is passionate about. Find out how she understands their romance and what she sees in their future. Stay interested and dispassionate. Either your anxieties will diminish or your child will see for himself the issues that make you anxious.
Find something to admire.
You may not be able, at least yet, to love the person your kid loves — but if you work at it, you can probably find something to admire. If nothing else, the fact that she is able to withstand your disapproval deserves some grudging respect. The fact that she loves the child you love puts you on the same side.
Know when to drop the argument.
Your child will always be your child. But an adult child is exactly that — an adult. He has the right to make his own decisions and his own mistakes. Let him know you wish he saw it your way but that you will do your best to embrace the person he cares so much about. Then work on it.
If there are children in the picture, focus on them.
The kids’ welfare is something you all have in common. Love the kids. Respect the young parents’ boundaries and wishes. Provide whatever emotional support you can for the difficult job of raising a child. Loving the little ones can lead to love, or at least respect and some like, among the adults.
Most important, love your adult child. Maybe things will work out just fine. As much as we like to think we know better, we don’t always. Sometimes it just takes time for everyone to warm up to each other. Sometimes the person who seemed so wrong turns out to have been exactly right. But if it all does fall apart, your love and reasonableness through the whole thing will make it far easier for your child to come to you for comfort and to learn from the mistake.
For the other side of this equation, see here.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2013). When You Don’t Approve of Your Adult Child’s Relationship. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 4, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/when-you-dont-approve-of-your-adult-childs-relationship/