- Disagreement over love and marriage puts parents and adult children at risk for estrangement.
- Avoid estrangement by expressing concerns gently and once, giving the love the benefit of the doubt and avoiding ultimatums.
- Also avoid taking sides; let your child's peers raise alarms and don't boycott a wedding, even when you disapprove of the match.
- Be there for your adult child: for consolation after a breakup or to celebrate a relationship that, to your surprise, leads to happiness.
Red flags may wave for a variety of reasons when you first meet your adult child’s new love.
Or maybe he fills in all the requisites for education and employment but is, in your opinion, arrogant, obnoxious, and dismissive of your daughter’s achievements and potential.
Or maybe you’re put off by differences that stand out for you if not for your adult child: differences in religion, race, or culture.
Or you find her personality off-putting and her lack of interest in creating a warm connection with you a significant warning sign.
Or maybe your first impression is marred by her characteristics that are at odds with your expectations for a future daughter-in-law: She’s covered with tattoos or uses language you consider trashy or uncouth or is simply so different from your son that you can’t imagine this relationship working.
When you meet your adult child’s new love and see red flags waving, your first impulse may be to pull your son or daughter aside and say, “What are you thinking? Run, don’t walk, away from this person now!”
But the road to estrangement is well traveled by parents and adult children when it comes to love and marriage. The more you object to his or her love, the more connected your adult child may feel to this person. Arguments and ultimatums create distance and hard choices.
Research by Dr. Megan Gillian and her colleagues at Iowa State University found that if a mother disapproves of an adult child’s spouse or of their marriage (due to a difference in religion or other core values), there is a much greater chance of estrangement than if the adult child had run-ins with local law enforcement or even was in prison
So what can you do when you’re convinced that your adult child is at risk for a love disaster?
1. Think about and get clear on what is bothering you about this person.
Is your negative first impression based on your own tastes, experiences, and opinions? In the past, for example, it was quite common for a man to be involved with a woman who had less education or ambition than he did. Now that more than half of new college graduates are women, and many younger women are capable of supporting themselves or of being primary breadwinners, they may feel free to fall in love with men for their personal qualities, even if levels of education or professional achievement differ. If your objection is based on differences in religion or culture, give some thought to your adult child’s priorities and how these may differ from yours. Before sharing concerns about this new love with your adult child, be clear on whether you’re seeing disaster down the road for your child or simply reacting to someone you wouldn’t choose.
2. Take a low-key approach even if your initial impulse is revulsion.
Don’t leap in with unsolicited advice. State your concerns calmly and then back off. Get more information about the person—good qualities your adult child sees—to balance your negative impression. Voice your reservations gently—perhaps as questions more than statements—preferably along with a positive comment in order to prevent defensiveness and a communication cut-off with your adult child.
“When my daughter Kayla met this guy I didn’t especially like—he was into video games and partying rather than studying and working—I tried to see him through her eyes while making her aware of my questions,” a client I’ll call Gina told me recently. “I said that ‘Denny seems to be a fun person. I like his humor and energy. But I wonder how your differences will play out long-term? Have you thought about what it would mean if you were working long hours and he was more laid back? Could you both be happy with that? That does seem to work for some people. Would it work for you?” I just said my say and then backed off. She broke up with him after a few months—to my great relief. But she did that for her own reasons.”
Jill, a friend who had two disastrous marriages to men who were addicts, wishes that her parents had taken a more low-key approach to her bad choices: “If my own daughter happened to be as dumb as I was about men, I would take a softer approach for sure, focusing on her desire to help people and suggesting that you can help people in many ways, but marrying an addict is not the best way to help him or you! My parents’ screaming objections to my awful exes made me defensive and helped to drive me into those marriages destined to fail.”
3. Give the new love the benefit of the doubt for a time.
Is the person simply obnoxious as far as you’re concerned or truly toxic? It’s important to get more information to see if your initial response was on target or not. And it keeps the door open with your adult child if you keep an open mind.
4. Don’t take sides when your adult child complains about the relationship.
Listen, and show support and faith that your child can make a rational choice about what to do. Don’t give advice unless he or she asks for it. But let your adult child know that, while you have concerns for him or her in this relationship, you will always be there for him or her, supporting whatever decision he or she makes. Avoid criticizing the lover. If they reunite, your negative comments may come back to haunt you, causing distance or even estrangement from your adult child.
5. Don’t issue ultimatums.
Demanding that your child chooses between you and a potential spouse puts you at odds with your son or daughter, whatever choice they make.
Ray was born in Guatemala, adopted by his parents as an infant, and brought to the U.S. But when he fell in love with a young woman who had emigrated with her family from Mexico, his parents were horrified. “We gave you our last name with love,” his mother told him. “If you marry that woman, we want our name back. You can just use hers.” Ray chose not to marry the young woman, but he lived with considerable resentment and kept a distance from his parents after that. He eventually accepted a job in Ecuador and married a woman there. He didn’t speak to his parents for several years until they reunited over their shared love for the grandchildren.
6. Let your adult child’s friends or siblings raise alarms.
Sometimes adult children will listen more readily to peers rather than parents.
“I had major concerns about my daughter’s loafing leech of a live-in boyfriend,” my colleague Dave told me. “But she would get defensive at the slightest hint of my concern. However, when her brother came to visit, he asked her some pointed questions: ‘Does he ever pay for groceries? Why doesn’t he ever get you a birthday card or gift? Or anything for Christmas? Why is his money all his and your paychecks have to cover both your living expenses?’ She could hear his questions and began to give serious thought about what she wasn’t getting emotionally from the relationship. She broke up with her boyfriend shortly thereafter. And she met and married a wonderful man, a true partner, several years later.”
7. Don’t boycott a wedding, even if you disapprove of the match.
Being present during this life transition, even if your heart is breaking, sends a message of love and emotional support to your adult child. Show up and avoid emotional scenes or recriminations. If your adult child is truly making a terrible mistake, he or she will remember your being there for him or her then and know that you will be with him or her through all the challenges of life. If, despite your early misgivings, the match turns out to be a good and lasting one, your willingness to share this special day can be a first step toward getting past the old pain and building new closeness.
You can’t always predict how a relationship will grow and evolve—and how happy some couples can be despite significant differences.
“My parents were not at all happy when I introduced them to my future wife,” my friend Mark told me recently. “My father was an unapologetic racist. My mother zoned in on religious differences. My wife is an immigrant several decades younger than I am. She comes from a vastly different culture, has dark skin, and English is definitely her second language. We’ve never focused on our differences but on what we share. We have the same values. We’re devoted to our children. We can talk about anything. We laugh a lot and truly enjoy being together. That has worked well for us in nearly 20 years of a loving marriage. My parents died not long after we were married in a ceremony they did not attend. However, I like to think that, over time, my parents would have come to embrace the woman I love once they got to know her and saw how happy we are together!”
As we watch our adult children fall in love, we need to be open to all possibilities—consoling and supporting them emotionally in the wake of relationships that don’t work and celebrating with them when relationships, however unpromising to us initially, lead to happy, loving, and lasting partnerships.
Megan Gilligan, J. Jill Suitor and Karl Pillemer. "Estrangement Between Mothers and Adult Children: The Role of Norms and Values" Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, No. 4 (2015), pp. 908=920.