It’s a problem that is probably as old as time. Adult children don’t always choose the mate their parents want for them. Shakespeare immortalized it in Romeo and Juliet. A central theme in the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, and the current TV drama, Downton Abbey, is the struggle of the parent generation to accept their adult kids’ choices. For all I know, a Neanderthal woman had a fight with her dad about her choice of her Cro-Magnon guy. (“But Daddy: He’s real smart and he’s so tall!”) But however timeless and universal the theme may be, when it comes home, it’s painful. Here are only a few examples from our “Ask the Therapist” service:
“I’m caught between my mother and my wife,” says a 25-year-old man in Boston. –“ My Chinese mother expects my wife to obey her and wait on her when she visits, just as she did for her mother-in-law. My American wife works all day and doesn’t see why my mother can’t start dinner or help out when she visits. My mother constantly complains. My wife cries. What do I do?”
A young man in Florida writes: “My wife is Latina and I’m white. My father goes on and on about illegal immigration whenever we visit. My mother can’t shut him up. My wife tries to smile through it. We fight when we get home because she says I should stop him but I know nothing I can say is going to change him. Help!”
“My boyfriend and I want to marry but we’re from different ethnic groups and we know our parents will never agree. We’ve been secretly seeing each other for 4 years now.” –- from a young woman in Serbia.
Like the writers of these letters, you’re in love. Like them, you want your parents to love and admire the person you’ve chosen. Instead, they can’t see past their own traditions, values, or prejudices. They don’t see your sweetheart or spouse for the wonderful person he or she is. All they see is something Wrong – with a capital W. You feel caught between them. You love and, yes, respect your parents but you also love and admire your partner.
Bridging the divide is important. If you and the person you love aren’t clear about your commitment and the compromises you are willing to make to be together, the constant disapproval, whether stated or seething under the surface, can undermine your relationship. The child of the disapproving parents is caught in a terrible bind. Listening to and responding to either side makes the other feel abandoned, unloved or disrespected. The partner who is the focus of dislike may feel constantly under pressure to prove her or himself to be worthy. If unrewarded, the efforts can soon turn to resentment and anger that spills into the relationship.
Fortunately, there are less drastic solutions than the romantic death scene in Romeo and Juliet. Like Tevye in Fiddler or Robert in Downton Abbey, there are parents who eventually accept their adult children’s choices and even give their blessing. But it takes work and willingness. It doesn’t happen by magic or by argument.
Don’ts and Dos for closing the gap:
- Don’t meet criticism with criticism.Your parents’ values, traditions, and feelings have helped make you who you are. They have been the guiding light for perhaps generations and have been central to your family’s identity. Putting down your family history isn’t honest or helpful.Do be compassionate. The older generation clings to their attitudes and opinions because it helps them feel safe in a changing world. Their intentions are probably good. Find ways to reassure your family of origin that you appreciate and honor your past while you are also becoming part of the global community that includes people from other walks of life.
- Don’t meet parental disapproval with defensiveness and argument.Defensiveness implies that there is something to defend. Arguing implies you can be argued out of it.Do respond to their concerns with respect and clarity. Acknowledge that a cross-cultural marriage is going to be difficult. Express your sadness that they feel the way they do. Affirm your love for them and your general respect for their opinions but be clear that you have made your decision. Quiet certainly is far more effective than angry words.
- Don’t keep your relationship a secret.Keeping it secret suggests you are ashamed of your choice. Someone will inevitably find out, which will make everyone else in the family angry and upset with you both.Do make sure both of you agree about compromises in order to be together. Make sure you are sure. There is no point in confronting your parents with something that isn’t going to last.
- Don’t use your partnerto make a political point, to educate your parents, or to give yourself an ally. It’s not fair to the person who loves you to be used as a pawn in an ongoing fight you are having with your parents about such things as religion, race, or status. It may feel good to have a supporter in the battle but “us against them” isn’t enough of a basis for a lasting relationship.Do be clear about your own motives. Make sure you love the person for who he or she is in their entirety, not because you like the drama of choosing someone who has a significantly different family background.
- Don’t take a side – your lover’s or your mother’s. This isn’t about winning and losing. It’s about reconstructing everyone’s idea of family.Do your best to negotiate compromises, understanding, or at least respectful disagreement. When you have to turn down someone’s demands or requests, be clear that it doesn’t mean that you don’t love them. It means that it doesn’t fit with the kind of family you want to make.
As our world becomes smaller through social media and increased ease of travel, more and more people are finding themselves in love with someone their parents never considered as a suitable mate. It’s hard on everyone. If people dig in their heels, the consequences can be terribly hurtful and long-lasting.
Bend when you can, just because it’s easier for the younger generation to bend a bit as people get to know each other. However, the painful bottom line is this: If your parents persist in not accepting the situation, your first loyalty is to your partner. This is the person you have chosen to make a life with. Even if your parents threaten never to see you again, to treat you as dead, or to cut you out of the will, loving your partner means living with those consequences. If you’re not prepared to do that, it’s only fair to your partner and to yourself to end the relationship.
Hopefully, it won’t come to that. Parents usually don’t want to lose you any more than you want to lose them. Hopefully, when your parents see that you are committed to the person you love and the life you have chosen, they, like Tevye in Fiddler and Robert in Downton, will come around.