Expert Q&A: Dealing with Parental Disapproval
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Q: My parents don't approve of my partner. What should I do?
A: Love certainly can blind us. Your brain chemicals oxytocin and endorphins make you feel oh so good and happy that you minimize those nagging problem areas in your new partner. But if you are smart, you will be mindful of those issues while you are in love, postpone major decisions such as engagements and moving in together, and at least acknowledge your parents' feedback. Wisdom is to know what to listen to and what to dismiss.
But evaluating is not so easy. Most of us want to feel loved—and most of us know the difficulty of finding a good partner. So, when you finally find someone, the last thing you want is parents who doubt your happiness.
Usually, parental disapproval of your relationship is based on several key issues. Here are some typical factors and tips about how to assess and use your parents' observations.
1. Age differences. Not too long ago society shook its collective head at May-December marriages. When there was a big age gap between the couple, the male suitor was seen as a "dirty old man." Not so today.
Still, if your parents express misgivings about your older man or woman, they might be voicing realistic areas of concern. For example, if you are a woman who decides to have children, make sure your older partner arranges adequate funds for child care and addresses inheritance issues, especially if he has older children. The tabloids are filled with stories about young wives fighting the man's other children for part of the estate.
The best way to respond to your parents' disapproval of your choice of mate is to work out ahead of time monetary and child rearing issues with your new partner. Seek legal advice and develop binding legal decisions and obligations. Then you can present your legal agreements to your parents.
And don't forget to bear in mind your parents' sexual discomfort with a person who is in their generation-or older. You can say something such as: "So and so is a very young and healthy and active person." By including health issues in your response, you are also signaling your family that you have reasonable expectations that you and your new partner will have many good years together. No parent wants a child to be lonely or burdened with health issues.
2. Religious, race, and nationality differences. Once again, not too long ago, inter-faith and inter-racial unions were so troublesome to parents that rejecting their child was not uncommon. Today, in some cultures it is dangerous to buck social norms.
Each culture has its unique socially designated "outsider." In one country, for example, it might be a person with religious beliefs that are counter to that culture's mainstream religion, and in another it might be a person from a perceived undesirable country of origin. But, people are individuals, and your love for someone is based on your mate's positive attributes.
In more enlightened cultures your best way to ward off negativity and cultural knee-jerk reactions from your parents is to iron out ahead of time with your new partner how you will handle your differences about topics such as religious observances and child-rearing. When you are on firm ground as a couple, you are in a better position to manage your parents' worries. Acknowledge their concerns, and then highlight your partner's specialness and your decisions about dealing with your diverse backgrounds.
3. Differences in educational and economic levels. Despite the social advances of women, in most western cultures men still have self-acceptance issues with not making as much money as their women partners. Today's recession has often been called a "man-cession" since more men than women are out of work. Yes, some husbands like to be stay at home dads, but, like the clients in my practice, men still struggle with feelings of inadequacy. And, yes, again, there are many happy unions where the women have more education, salary, and professional recognition than their men.
But problems can sneak up on you. One of my male clients who is a plumber said of his marriage to a lawyer: "We started out with stars in our eyes that money and status differences wouldn't bother us. We thought we were above that. But then there it was a few years later. I made some dumb comment with this really nasty tone about her being such a big deal lawyer who didn't have time to eat with her husband." He realized that he had been harboring resentment about not feeling like a "full player" in couple decisions. There was an unexpressed sense between them that the wife had more clout since she made more money.
Your parents' doubts might be in response to their experiences and beliefs about traditional male roles in relationships. Use their concerns as a springboard for you and your partner to discuss how to handle issues such as decision-making. When you are confident, your defensiveness goes down, and you are more able to address and allay your parents' qualms.
4. Unacceptable and troubling behavior in your partner. Sometimes, your parents have great radar for potential emotional trouble in your new relationship. Typical parental objections include disapproval of partners who have problems such as gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, debt, difficult children, and other family issues. And these are understandable concerns.
For example, I counseled parents who sought my advice on dealing with an adult daughter who announced her engagement to a man who abused her physically. The daughter had been dating the man for a few years and could not hide her bruises. Yet, when she became engaged, she told her parents that "all would be okay once she agreed to marry him." She wanted a big wedding.
The parents decided to tell their daughter that in no way could they give her any wedding to an abusing man. They said they did not want to "brush the problem under the rug and hope for the best" as she was doing. They explained that it would be irresponsible to be "enablers" in such a dangerous situation. Finally, they said that the next time they had any doubts, they would call the police.
This approach was a big gamble. They risked losing their daughter. But they also knew their daughter's good qualities and her sibling situation of having an older sister and brother who were extremely intelligent and accomplished. This daughter was gifted in other ways, but she still harbored feelings of not being good enough. The parents were aware of these feelings, and they made sure to address them with their daughter. Their love and strong position sent a message to the daughter, and she broke the engagement. A few years later she met and married a wonderful man.
Heed your parents' warnings. Take a good, long look at your partner. Yes, people can change and improve, but make sure you are not over-accommodating or minimizing your partner's problems. Ask yourself: Why am I so desperate? Why am I so willing to excuse or tolerate such unacceptable behavior?
I advise that all couples should seek pre-marital counseling. If you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn't object!
5. Choice of partner breaks your family's "emotional rules." Often, in order to mature and have a healthy relationship, you have to choose a partner whose very difference from your family requires you to depart from your family's unhealthy behavior and beliefs about trust, men, women, and the world. For example, one of my women clients was from a very wealthy, well-known family who believed that women were "window-dressing." Their role was to be seen and silent about alcoholism and verbal abuse. When my client chose an even more prominent man who did not drink and who regarded her as an equal partner in life, my client's parents warned her not to marry him.
They didn't give any reasons for their coldness to him. They attended the wedding, but they didn't mix with the guests and left after only staying a short while. My client felt overwhelming guilt. She eventually understood that her parents felt as though they had been slapped in the face. They experienced their daughter's rejection of their family values as proof that they were bad people.
Don't avoid a good match because he or she is an improvement over your family's way of life. To reduce your guilt, thank your parents for creating an adult child who could choose so well! See if you can find a few qualities that your parents and partner share. Don't expect miracles from your parents. And if you don't garner their approval and comfort, you can still be happy.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships. For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."
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