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In and Out of Love...With Your Young Adult's Love Life

Young adults' romantic bonds can challenge their bonds with their parents.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The journey towards relational intimacy is both an ancient and eternal one because this journey is ultimately what sustains the human race—only by differentiating from their families of origin and voyaging forth into the world to find love will our children create the next generation that will take its place in the world.

Watching young adult children begin this pursuit can be a source of tremendous delight and pride, and stir pleasant memories of our own first, fumbling but exhilarating steps in the direction of the courtship that may have ultimately led to the beginning of family life. Of course, necessary as it is for all of us to find and forge an enduring relationship with a loved one, the process of discovering and nurturing healthy intimacy is often a long, and sometimes harrowing, one, comprised of one or more relationships that do not appear to be quite as healthy and suitable as caring parents would like them to be for their offspring. With this in mind, it is helpful for mothers and fathers to have a blueprint on hand regarding how to make sense of, and intelligently discuss, young adults’ relational matters, particularly if and when warning signs begin to reveal themselves.

One place to start is by constructing a working definition of what a loving relationship consists of and is characterized by. As we all know (and may very well remember!), most of us who are in a romantic relationship, even one that appears to be nothing more than a superficial infatuation, will steadfastly insist that we are “really in love”. And it is invariably impossible to argue a young adult out of this position—nor is it generally necessary to do so. Unless, of course, the relationship is a troubled one and seems to be creating more problems than it is solving for one or both of its constituents.

With this in mind, I often advise parents to take the stance that a truly mature and loving relationship is one in which both partners value each other, and are showing evidence of thriving and prospering as a result of valuing each other. For example, if romantic partners are treating not only each other well, but also their friends and family members well, that is an indication that their bond is indeed a meaningful one. If they display enthusiasm and energy for important endeavors such as work, school, and personal interests, and a good-natured, generous spirit when it comes to handling their responsibilities, that, too, should be held up as an indication that their partnership is a loving one. If, on the other hand, one or both partners seem more irritable than engaged, more contentious than cooperative, more distracted than focused, then we, as parents, have the legitimacy to dispute their frenetic insistence that they are indeed “in love” and encourage them to question the value and vitality of their affection for each other.

The sexual and romantic evolution of young adults is often a challenge for parents not only because we worry about the direction their relationship is moving in and the impact that it will have on them and their future, but also because it is such a profound reminder of our own mortality. Nothing nudges us more forcefully into the twilight of insignificance than seeing the adoration and adulation that used to be directed our way now being directed towards someone other than us. We all yearn to be part of our children’s lives, but that yearning may become increasingly unrequited and unanswered as they decamp from the province of their childhood home.

Similarly, I have seen many parents take an inappropriately harsh stand against an offspring’s nascent romance because it reminds them of the romance that they no longer feel, either because they are alone (single, separated, divorced, or widowed), or because the marriage or partnership that they reside in has been sapped of richness and vigor. The envy that we (sometimes ashamedly) encounter when we watch our children blossom into the springtime of their lives can be painful indeed, and if we do not pay attention to and understand the basis for that envy, it can sometimes get the best of us, prompting us to want to squelch a relationship that is either harmless and likely to be short-lived anyway, or potentially long-standing and growth-promoting.

On the other hand, I have witnessed some mothers and fathers attempt to re-experience the love that they are lacking in their own lives through vicariously tapping into their young adult’s love relationship, leading to an inappropriate support or endorsement of a romance that is imbalanced or misguided, and possibly resulting in a premature fusing together that suffocates the development of the two young adult partners.

Of course, it is also not uncommon or inappropriate for parents to be concerned about a young adult's amorous attachments for reasons that may, in fact, be legitimate, and, at these times, it is important to proceed thoughtfully and strategically. As noted above, adopting an overly critical, condemning viewpoint may artificially solidify a problematic relationship, creating a “Romeo and Juliet” situation in which the star-crossed lovers actually savor their parents’ antipathy as nutrients that fuel their relational growth, despite how dysfunctional the relationship has become. But simply backing off and adopting too much of a laissez-faire attitude can yield decidedly disadvantageous outcomes, as well, some of them potentially irreversible, such as an unplanned pregnancy or the transmission of an STD, some of them simply dangerous, such as the infliction of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Another thought to keep in mind in these situations is that the individuals whom young adults surround themselves with are generally an accurate barometer of their self-regard, especially when it comes to a romantic relationship. In other words, the higher a person’s self-respect, the higher will be the quality of the intimate counterpart, and the more mutually respectful their relationship will be. So when a young adult has become entangled in a relationship with someone whom we do not approve of or who is, in one way or another, “bad” for him/her, it is unwise to unleash a fusillade of acid commentaries, scornful criticism or fretful catastrophizing, since these will only further corrode his or her self-respect, which may in turn further solder together the maladaptive bond.

With this in mind, rather than just taking a stand against the relationship, or trying to obstruct or obliterate it, a better tactic entails asking questions that attract a young adult’s curiosity regarding why s/he is engaged in this relationship, and what the potential risks and pitfalls of continuing it, or concluding it, might be.

Here are some examples:

I know that you have said that you are in love with your girlfriend, yet I have to say that the two of you don’t seem very happy when you are together—do you have any sense of why this is?

Sometimes I wonder if you have outgrown your relationship with your boyfriend, yet you seem hesitant to put it to rest—what are you concerned would happen if you broke up with him? Are you more worried about how *he* would handle it or how *you* would handle it?

Have you ever thought about the difference between someone “loving you” and someone “using you”? What do you think the difference is? When you think about your relationship, do you think it’s more like being *used* or more like being *loved*?

An often neglected component of helping our young adult children establish a solid foundation for meaningful love is to continue providing them with a model for hearty intimacy in our own lives, so that they enter the region of relatedness with a useful template to build from. It is obviously easier to provide this template if we are engaged in that kind of intimacy ourselves, such as a respectful, affectionate, enduring marriage. But even if we aren’t—even if we are separated or divorced or perhaps never found ourselves in a gratifying, flourishing relationship—we can still provide young adults with an understanding of what may have gone wrong so that they are more likely to seek out and promote the attachment that turns out to be right for them.

“Your father has many strengths but, looking back, I can see that I married him because I was lonely, and scared of being alone, rather than because I really loved him.”

“I did care about your mom, and there were many interests that we had in common, but I did not see her as a life partner. However, I felt too guilty about ending the relationship so I just kind of went along with it, year after year, until I realized that we were never going to be happy together.”

The reality is that human beings are, in essence, creatures of love. From my perspective as a family psychologist who treats individuals throughout the life-span, from toddlers to seniors, I have come to the conclusion that healthy development ultimately depends on the capacity to pursue and find adult love and to gradually allow that love to soften and heal the unavoidable pain that remains from our childhood.

Young adults’ pioneering efforts to seek out this sustaining and sustainable adult love, clumsy and consuming as these efforts may sometimes be, still deserve to be honored and treated sensitively by their parents. The more that we do so, the more likely that the connection that they ultimately choreograph and co-create with their eventual partner of choice will carry both of them forward towards lives of significance, depth, and dignity, lives that are guided and enriched by the infinite possibilities of love.