Tammy says her heart sank when her son, Leo, asked for the family diamond his grandmother had willed to him for his fiancée’s ring.
“Until that moment I had held out hope that he and Taylor would break up,” Tammy remembered (names have been withheld to protect privacy). “I kept thinking that Leo would finally see that she was terribly self-centered. When he called, I anguished that I was going to be stuck with a disagreeable daughter-in-law.”
Ed recalls a similar experience after first meeting his daughter’s serious boyfriend: “Kyle seemed nice enough — but he was a surfer-type and had no ambition or plans. The only conversation he made was to offer to make necklaces from cowrie shells.”
Daddy’s Little Girl? Not Anymore
So here’s one more thing parents of adult children have to grapple with: not liking the person our sons and daughters have chosen as their life partners.
Luckily, for the most part, our kids seem to pick “significant others” we gladly make space for in our hearts. Still, almost everyone over 50 knows someone who can’t quite stomach their adult child’s partner of choice.
“I hear about this all the time,” says Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist and relationship expert in New York City. “People understandably feel hopeless and upset when their child, whom they love more than anything, wants to be with a someone they don’t trust or whom they think is selfish — or even just ‘not good enough,’” she explains.
5 Easy Ways to Improve In-Law Relations
Sometimes a child’s choice in love can result in an irreparable family rift. But Brateman believes parents who find themselves disliking a boyfriend, fiancée or even a spouse shouldn’t despair.
You can’t wave a magic wand and turn someone into the partner you have always dreamed of for your child. But you can work on the “in-law” relationship. No matter how grim the prospect, Brateman believes that in most cases, it’s possible to forge friendly relations that will benefit everyone involved. She offers five suggestions:
Come to terms with change. Brateman says a common underlying cause of tension between parents and their adult child’s partner springs from the realization that we’re no longer numero uno.
We know that being able to move on from the nest of mom and dad signals our children are healthy individuals. But our children remain our little darlings forever. Thus, it’s common for parents to feel jealous and project that emotion onto their child’s heartthrob. The likely scenario: Your child’s partner isn’t envious of you at all.
“Letting go of your child really and truly can be a tremendous help if you’re trying to feel more friendly toward the person she has chosen,” Brateman adds.
Keep your negative thoughts to yourself. Criticizing a significant other to his or her face simply provides ammunition against you. Every censorious remark you make will probably be repeated to your child. Speaking ill of the beloved to your child won’t score you any points either. “You become the villain, and they can unite against you,” Brateman explains.
If your feelings have been hurt or you believe your child’s partner should behave differently, Brateman suggests phrasing your request objectively and coolly. For example, tone down your complaint that your son-in-law-to-be didn’t acknowledge his future father-in-law’s 60th birthday to: “Are you comfortable with the way our family fusses over birthdays? We would love for you to join in our hoopla.”
(MORE: The Best Way to Get Over a Grudge)
Share something. Just because you have nothing in common with your adult child’s amour, that doesn’t mean you have NOTHING in common. Go out of your way to search for anything you can use to bond.
Suppose your daughter-in-law-to-be loves reality shows but you don’t know Real Housewives of Atlanta from Duck Dynasty. Nevertheless, ask her what she watches, and you’re bound to find some subject that intrigues you.
Say Yes to the Dress may speak to the interest you both have in weddings (considering one involving your child is coming down the pike). Are you a business buff? Shark Tank brings innovation by real entrepreneurs to the small screen. “With a bit of effort, you’ll probably find shared interests, and then at least you’ll have something to talk about,” Brateman says.
(MORE: How to Keep Peace With Your Daughter-in-Law)
Help out whenever possible. Don’t turn everything into a big deal; just be there.
Are your child and her partner about to move? If possible, volunteer to help pack or unpack boxes. Let the “kids” take the lead: Ask them how they want things wrapped or what needs to be put where. Don’t be bossy; the important thing is that you give a hand, not that you take the lead.
Tammy managed to bond with her daughter-in-law after three years of a tepid relationship. “Taylor came down with pneumonia and my son was away on a business trip. We live too far apart for me to just swing by, but I found a market near her that delivered hot meals twice a day. I can’t say we’re best friends, but she appreciated that I cared and has been considerate of me ever since,” Tammy says.
Think of the future. As Brateman reminds us, “this ‘in-law’ is someone you’re going to be dealing with for probably 30 years.” At some point down the road there might be grandchildren, and the relationship we have with our children’s significant other will affect how their kids feel about us. Conceivably, this person may someday be involved in caring for us, too.
This is why Ed decided to stop objecting to his daughter’s boyfriend and take action that might transform him into a more acceptable prospect. “Kyle finally decided he wanted to own a surf shop. I suggested that he take some business management courses, which he did. A few years ago they married, and these days I go down to Florida to visit my daughter and their children. I have a wardrobe of cowrie shell necklaces,” Ed laughs.
Real Issues and Tough Decisions
There are times, of course, that parents shouldn’t ignore the alarm bells that can go off when they meet a child’s significant other.
If you discover the boyfriend was arrested for abusing a former girlfriend, if your child confides that the partner is asking for money all the time — if something really seems off — it is perhaps better to risk an angry reaction than to not say anything. Your revelation may break your child’s heart, but that’s better than real misery down the road, Brateman says. And your concern may help your child break free of a bad situation.
In the end, however, it’s our children’s lives. They’re the ones falling in love, not us. It may sound like a contradiction, but when it comes to adult children, there are times we have to back off in order to hold on.