Parental disapproval of partners adds zing to romantic comedies, but off-screen it’s often far from funny. Here’s what’s likely going on and ways to cope.

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When I first met Stu, I was not quite sold. He seemed unattractive. He lacked intelligence and imagination. He was missing the spark you look for in a man.” Father of the bride’s wedding speech — “The Hangover Part 2.”

Parental dislike of a significant other or spouse can be blunt, subtle, or passive-aggressive. And it can wreak havoc in relationships — if given the chance.

One study suggests that parental disapproval does strain partnerships.

Before you react, it can be helpful to pause and take stock of your situation. Once you know exactly what’s going on, you can be better prepared to choose your response.

It’s important to note different parental objections would likely call for nuanced means to engage and respond. For example, personality or political differences of opinion are areas time and openness on both sides might overcome, but issues due to intolerance or prejudice may require a more in-depth sit-down with your parent.

If your parent suspects abuse, you or you and them together might want to get an outside perspective from a clinical expert.

They only invite you — not your partner — to family events

Exclusion doesn’t have to be direct. Refusing to accommodate is one form of exclusion. In this vein, your parents leaving when your partner arrives or dropping by when they know they’ll be gone may be indicators of avoidance.

They don’t want to hear why your partner is so great

They’d rather talk about the handsome, smart guy your sister’s marrying. Or they remind you of how well your ex is doing since he moved to Florida. Good qualities you mention can be redirected to other topics.

If you say your partner works hard, your parent might sigh and talk about how lonely it must get for you with a partner always working. Sometimes their praise of you is backhanded criticism of your spouse. As in, “it’s lucky your kids have one parent who puts them first.”

They criticize your partner directly

Unproductive or incompassionate critiques can run the gamut from your partner not fitting in with the larger group, to socializing too much, to just not being right for you.

The negativity bias also breeds more negativity and makes it hard for a parent to find something likeable about their adult child’s partner.

Prejudice and parental disapproval

Sometimes the criticisms will involve veiled or direct homophobia or racism. These actions are embedded in intolerance and black and white thinking and are far more serious.

A 2015 study of parental disapproval of gay and lesbian relationships shows the strain prejudice can cause. Some respondents sought solace and romantic relationship strengthening by separating themselves from their parents.

Losing a relationship with you is likely not your parent’s goal. If racism or homophobia is involved, you may want to consider sitting down and “talking about prejudice with your parents.”

Hidden reasons for disapproval

Your parents may have their own issues and fears about relationships which show themselves in passive-aggressive behavior about yours.

They say they’re worried about you — sometimes for genuine reasons, other times not

Your parents may say your significant other is controlling, untrustworthy, or not good for ‘us.’

They might just be feeling left out. Or this could be a sign of your parents being enmeshed with your day-to-day life.

There’s also a chance that they see red flags you don’t. If there’s a chance they’re on to something, you can reflect and do some introspection to see if you’re in a controlling relationship and don’t know it.

What to do when parents disapprove of a relationship?

Whether it’s your parents who are off base or you need to do some relationship tweaking to set boundaries or expectations between you and your partner, here are some pointers to you can consider to help maintain the peace in the interim.

You may well live in a world that is much broader and more diverse than your parents’. Arguing with them won’t convince them that your values are healthier. Showing that you and your partner love each other and that it’s still possible for you to love them too might reassure them.

Even if it doesn’t, nothing new will be lost.

As an adult, you are free to use other options than the defiance or compliance of youth.

If your parent goes on the attack, you don’t need to defend. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean giving in.

Detaching with love from values you don’t hold, frees you up to protect your relationship with your partner and reconstruct (when possible) your relationship with your parents.

Hiding a relationship can fuel a parents’ belief that you’re involved with someone you shouldn’t be. It also assumes they can’t be trusted to process the relationship and respond well over time.

Haven’t told your parents yet? Here’s how.

  • “I want to tell you about someone important to me, ___, when might be a good time for us to talk?”
  • “I have met someone who shares my passion for ____ and loves ____ about me. I’d like to introduce you two over lunch. When would be a good time? Where would you like to go?”
  • If you suspect something more serious is going on with your parent, with respect to meeting your other half, you might use a direct but softer approach to “call them in” vs. “calling them out”. It might look like this:

    “I’ve noticed you avoid eye contact and change the subject before I can extend an offer to meet my new partner whenever we speak. I love ____ and I love you. If you have concerns about our relationship, I’d like for us to talk respectfully about them. I’m here to listen and try to understand.”
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It’s not unusual to have arguments with your parents about politics or anything else.

But it’s not fair to use your partner as a symbol to represent your different values or to rebel against your parents. Not only is this unlikely to soften or change your parents, but it’s also using your partner which can be hurtful to them.

Your parents may see your partner or you through a stereotypical lens. That’s them. You don’t have to buy into it.

Sometimes the red flags parents see your partner waving may be just that. You don’t have to discuss this with your parents, but you might want to listen if your parents point out specific behaviors that can have harmful outcomes, such as excessive drinking, drug misuse, or actions that can be indicators of different types of abuse.

It’s not about your parents being right or you being wrong. It’s about seeing your options clearly.

If you think you may be in an abusive relationship, get a second opinion, even a third, from friends, counselors, or domestic abuse advocates.

  • If possible, avoid being the intermediary between your parents and your partner.
  • You might consider trying to improve the relationship between your parents and your person, but only if it doesn’t stress you out.
  • You can also consider looking for common ground through food, music, streaming entertainment, or family gatherings.

It’s OK to see your parents without your partner. Healthy boundaries can also ensure that your time together is precious and fond.

If either your parents or your partner rejects your efforts to set boundaries, you have the option to consider counseling. You can even leave the relationship(s).

On the other hand, your loved ones may consider learning to compromise and respect your choices and your boundaries when you stand calm, clear, and open to communicate.