The current dating scene is a depressing place: too few suitable options and fewer still willing to commit. And far too many tears after yet another less-than-stellar first date.
Such things should matter not one whit to me, a happily married 49-year-old grandmother. But they do matter — a lot. My heart breaks every time I witness, counsel and console my oldest, never-wed daughter in her unsuccessful attempts to find a mate.
Surely I’m not the only parent hurting because of an adult child’s single status. Population reports indicate that the age of young adults marrying for the first time is steadily inching toward 30.
And while just over half of all American adults in the United States are single, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of never-marrieds still hope to have a spouse one day.
That adds up to a lot of unhappily single people under 40 and a lot of anxious boomer parents.
As our grown children despair, we’re right there with them. And I’m pretty sure most of us would bend over backward to help them realize their dreams of being married and having a family.
Understandable as that parental urge is, it’s easy to overstep one’s bounds. And that, experts tell us, can do far more harm than good.
Are They Doing Something Wrong?
It has never been easy to find a suitable life partner, but in the today’s world, where so much social media and living virtually insulates us from personal interactions, our kids face additional challenges. Many of them didn’t grow up dating in the traditional sense we think of: two people out for the evening (or afternoon), on their own. This generation tended to do things in groups, and the concept of “courtship” is as quaint as corsages (if they’ve ever heard of them).
And many of these young people grew up in divorced households or had parents who didn't commit fully to one person. One consequence of that is not having a clue about what a healthy relationship — or commitment — looks like.
Young adults’ standard mode of communication is emailing or, more commonly, texting on mobile devices. “They’re so busy looking down that they rarely look up anymore,” says Terri Colby Barr, a parenting consultant and professional mediator. “Look around anywhere you go: At airports, walking their dogs, in line at the post office, at wedding receptions, in restaurants, even in theaters, the young people you see are all on their smart phones.” The best chance of having a personal encounter is literally bump into someone while texting and walking.
Because so many of this generation work from home or in cubicles or offices where all the work is done at individual computer stations, even professional relationships are less likely to blossom.
Many are flocking to online dating sites, but that can work against young singles who don’t have a lot of experience in the dating world. For one thing, there’s the “buffet phenomenon,” as Paul A. Falzone, chief executive of eLove Matchmaking, calls it. “People can be overwhelmed by too many options and choices, which can actually cause inactivity.”
And just maybe some of their standards are too high. Idealism is a hallmark of youth, and a terrific quality, but perhaps the generation that was raised to believe the world revolved around their every whim are getting their first taste of reality?
So What’s a Parent to Do?
Offering support to our kids in their search for a mate begins with helping them evaluate why they’ve been unsuccessful so far. Regardless of the reasons, the key to actually being helpful is doing so in a healthy, non-hovering manner. Here are experts’ suggestions for what to do and, more important, for what not to do.
1. Do examine your own motives. “The question every parent should ask him- or herself is ‘Why am I so concerned and involving myself in this?’” Colby Barr says. Loving parents naturally care about their child’s welfare and happiness, yet, she adds, “If your interest is selfish — grandchildren, bragging rights, wanting your child to have something that eluded you — then butt out.”
2. Do ask your child how you can best offer support. Start by finding out exactly what your child would like from you in her search for a mate. Robyn M. Posson, a counselor at Schenectady County Community College, suggests, “Do they need a shoulder to cry on, advice or a nonjudgmental sounding board?” Be prepared for the possibility that your child may ask that you do absolutely nothing. “If they want or need no involvement from you, step back and trust that they will figure it out for themselves.”
And however eager you might be to hear some details, take your child’s lead and discuss dating only when prompted. “This may be supremely important to you,” says Karla Moore, an Atlanta-based dating coach and matchmaker, “but it’s better to err on the side of restraint to maintain trust and ongoing involvement.”
3. Do listen — and confirm what you heard. On a related note, it’s important to be a good audience. “Most of us think we really listen,” Colby Barr says. “But we filter out significant information as a result of historical interactions, assumptions, self-interest and distractions.” She advises parents to follow the active listening with questions on “how to actualize their interests rather than assuming you know how that theoretically applies.”
4. Do model healthy relationships. In a perfect world, you would be in a long-term, emotionally mature loving relationship that your children seek to emulate. But even if that’s not the case, it’s important for you as a role model to be honest and take responsibility for your present (and past) romantic partnerships. “When your offspring asks you about your relationship history, share it and also say what you learned from it,” advises Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and the author of The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again. Like it or not, how you handle relationships — positive or negative — is their primary yardstick.
5. Do offer perspective without being negative. “There’s nothing probably quite so illogical and even impulsive as romance,” Moore says. “Parents can be important sounding boards, offering some measure of perspective that can be very helpful.”
And at least in the beginning of a budding romance, Tessina says to "be relentlessly positive, even if you're on the fence about a new prospect — unless you’re asked for your honest opinion. And even then be very careful what you say.” If the relationship turns out to be serious, she warns, your criticism will be remembered, potentially leaving a bad taste that could be hard to overcome.
(MORE: The 6 Things You Shouldn't Say to Your Adult Child)
6. Do suggest breaks — and counseling. There’s more to life than searching (and finding) a mate. Remind your child to engage in favorite hobbies, and invite him or her to join you on outings. “Caring for the self with enjoyable activities lifts their mood and fills their free time in meaningful ways,” Posson says. If such offers and suggestions are rebuffed, see if they're open to professional help. “Counseling will recharge their self-confidence and self-acceptance and strengthen their ability to trust themselves and others,” she says.
7. Don’t make matches, but feel free to make introductions. Just as you would with any friend, avoid placing your child in an uncomfortable situation. Bringing together two eligible singles for a dinner, lunch or event with others is acceptable. “But then you have to step back,” Tessina says. “Whether or not they’re a match is their business.”
8. Don’t blame yourself. When things look bleak and your heart aches for your child, “remind yourself that you’ve done a great job raising them, and they’ve been taught some healthy coping strategies,” Posson says. Much as we want things to work out, it’s not our problem to resolve. As Karla Moore says, “Respect that however things progress, this is your child’s life, and at the end of the day, they are driving their own love life.”
Freelance writer Lisa Carpenter runs the website Grandma’s Briefs.