“How’s Julie?” I asked my friend Ruth during our we-haven’t-talked-for-an-age coffee catch-up.
Ruth groaned. I mean, what came out of her mouth sounded like, “arrgghhhgrrrrrrr.”
I was alarmed. Was everything fine at the nonprofit where Ruth’s 29-year-old daughter is working in development? Was Julie’s health OK? She wasn’t having problems with her boyfriend, was she?
Ruth waved her hands to tell me to stop.
“That’s exactly it! The boyfriend. They’ve been living together for four years now, and not a sign of a ring. I want to see her married. I want to know there’s stability in her life. What am I supposed to say to her?” Ruth asked.
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Good question: What does a parent say to an adult child who is one-half of a seemingly committed but unmarried couple? I spoke with two relationship experts who work with parents of young adults and young adults themselves, and they have some good ideas I’ll pass on. But — important — both specialists were clear on the phrases that should never leave our lips when we’re talking to anyone who is part of an unmarried couple.
Don’t say: “So when are you finally going to get married?”
Here’s why: The real problem in this question is the word “finally,” says Beatty Cohan, a psychotherapist with practices in Sarasota, Fla.; New York City and East Hampton, N.Y. “That word has a subtext that time is getting away from them, that they’re getting stale,” she explains.
Say instead: “Is marriage something that’s important to you and X?” — but only ask this if you are truly close and open, Beatty warns. “There’s a great possibility that any question about marriage can open wounds. Perhaps one person wants to, but the other doesn’t.”
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Don’t say: “He’s never going to marry you because you’ve been living with him already.”
Here’s why: Toni Coleman, a social worker and therapist in McLean, Va., believes this question is out of line for several reasons. “It implies that you believe the man’s interest in the woman is only sexual. It’s also really old-fashioned, insensitive and demeaning,” Coleman says.
Say instead: “Are you at all uncomfortable with living together and not being married?” Coleman emphasizes that to ask a question even worded as carefully as this can put off someone unless he or she is used to speaking openly to you. “Even if you really care about your adult child, basically it’s none of your business. You’re crossing boundaries,” she adds.
Don’t say: “I’m ready to be a grandparent.”
Here’s why: “Since when is your adult child’s unmarried state all about you and what you want?” Coleman asks.
Say instead: There is no “instead” in this case, Coleman thinks. If your adult child brings up grandchildren, fine, go ahead and talk about them. In fact, if your adult child has started the conversation, you can even go so far as to express your yearning for the pitter-patter of little feet. “Even if your child is the one who started talking about grandchildren, make sure you don’t put on the pressure. Guilt-tripping doesn’t work. It’s not your child’s responsibility to have children so that you can be a grandparent. If and when that happens, it can be a nice perk in life,” Coleman sums up.
Don’t say: “Your biological clock is ticking.”
Here’s why: Women over 35 and men over 45 may face issues with fertility. You can be pretty sure that childless men and women already know the statistics about how age affects chances of conception. Says Cohan: “Pointing this out sounds like criticism — indeed someone who is saying this is probably being critical.” Cohan says she has spoken to women who have concerns about their “clock” and who hope to have children. “Put yourself in that young woman’s place. Would you find a statement like that supportive or anxiety-producing and infuriating?” she asks.
Say instead: “What are your thoughts about having children?” This statement sounds pretty innocuous, and if you are close to the person, you may get a heartfelt answer — or you may be brushed off. Remember: Many couples choose not to have children. It’s their business, and no one else’s. Keep in mind as well that couples these days don’t feel compelled to get married before having children. Finally, men and women struggling with fertility issues may feel too raw to discuss the subject, even with close family.
Don’t say: “Gay people get married, too.”
Here’s why: Statements like these to a gay child make it seem that you, more than your child, needs the validation of a wedding certificate and ceremony. “My parents have been pressing me for two years to have what they call a ‘real’ wedding,” says 32-year-old Adam Plank, a software developer who lives in California. “They are welcoming to my boyfriend of four years, Henrik, so most of the time I have the feeling that they truly accept me and my choices. But when they start harping on the wedding, I feel like they aren’t completely comfortable that I’m gay and that they feel a wedding would somehow make me more ‘normal.’”
Say instead: From Adam: “I’d like my parents to say, ‘When you get married, we’d love to be involved in planning the wedding.’ That’s not pressure or judgment, just a wish they’re telling me.”
Don’t say: “You’re wasting your best years.”
Here’s why: Words like these reveal that you believe (a) marriage is an absolutely necessary component of a person’s life and (b) the chances of getting married are significantly reduced as a person gets older, Coleman points out. Meanwhile, statistics indicate that people are waiting until they are older to get married, more women are deciding to not to get married and even plenty of people 65+ are saying, “I do.”
Say instead: “Getting married was something I cared a lot about when I was your age. Do you feel differently?” This is an honest, open question, a conversation starter. Be prepared, though, not to respond in a judgmental way if your child doesn’t hold your opinions, Coleman warns. You may not come away with the answer you want, but you will learn something about your young adult offspring.
(MORE: The 6 Things You Shouldn't Say to Your Adult Child)
Don’t say: “All your friends are married. Why aren’t you?”
Here’s why: True or not, this can be a hurtful thing for your adult child to hear. You are indicating there’s something wrong with him or her. It may be that your child doesn’t want to get married, even if she’s in a long-term relationship. Or, perhaps, your child yearns to be married, but the partner doesn’t want to take that step.
Say instead: “Is it an issue among your friends that they’re married and you’re not?” Rachel Spivak, a product manager for a business outside of Atlanta, Ga., says that she’d love to be able to discuss this subject with her mother. “Sometimes I feel left out when I get together with all my married friends. My boyfriend and I just seem to be in such a different place than these women and their husbands. I would love to be able to pour my heart out to my mom and dad, but I know they think it’s a bad thing I’m not married. I don’t like it when they make me feel bad about myself.”
When speaking to our adult children (or anyone, for that matter), it’s important to make the distinction between our own concerns and worries and theirs, Cohan reminds us. “As parents, or as friends, we need to create an atmosphere of dialogue. It’s more a matter of how we say things than specifically what we say,” Cohan elaborates.
So what do I think my friend Ruth should say to her daughter Julie?
I’m going to suggest that she make a simple observation, like, “In my day, even though we were supposedly all hippies, most of us also cared a lot about being married and expected to be married before we were 30. How do you and your friends feel about that?” And then Ruth should just sit back and listen.