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How to Create a Good Relationship with Your Child's Significant Other

Be warm and welcoming, but let your child set the pace

By Randi Mazzella

When I was 22, I was invited to a cousin's wedding along with a plus one. I brought my boyfriend, whom I had been dating for about a year. 

During the party, the photographer asked our family to get together for a photo. My boyfriend stood there visibly awkward, unsure what to do. Before I could speak, my mother announced that my boyfriend should not be in the photo.Then she explained, "It's a family photo and we don't want it ruined if you break up. You aren't married or even engaged."

Parents greeting daughter and significant other, child, relationships, Next Avenue
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Like many of her generation, my mother believed that unless there were rings exchanged, a relationship was not serious. But the old rhyme, "First comes love, then comes marriage," was not totally applicable back then and is less so now. Many young adults date for years without making it "official," some marry soon after meeting and some never marry at all.

There are no rules about when parents should meet their adult child's significant other. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of several books including "Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess," advises letting the child dictate the pace. She explains, "Let them know you are excited to meet their significant other when it suits them."

Whether you meet after the first date or when they are more established, be warm and friendly when you meet your child's partner. "Show them lots of love and acceptance," says Leaf.

Be inquisitive, but don't make them feel like it is a formal job interview. The idea is to get to know them and find out what they are interested in without being too intrusive.

Relationship expert Laurel Steinberg says, "Ask questions and remember the answers. Follow up on what you learn, such as remembering to wish the person a Happy Birthday or asking how the person's parent is or how a job interview went."

Many young adults date for years without making it "official," some marry soon after meeting and some never marry at all.

Right now, with COVID-19, getting to know your child's new partner may be a little more challenging. Leaf suggests asking your child if they want to set up a Zoom meeting or maybe meet outside somewhere in a socially distanced and safe manner. 

"Children are generally really excited to tell their parents about their significant other when the time is right and if they feel comfortable enough in the relationship that they know their parents are not pushing them," she says.

Is It Serious?

Rather than relying on a material sign such as a ring, ask your child how they feel about their significant other. Then, Steinberg says, "Speak privately to the person with your child. It is helpful also to ask how they would like you and the rest of the family to relate to them as a couple in order to understand what is expected of you."

Don't get defensive if grandparents or friends say things like "When I was young … people didn't live together without getting married" or ask, "When are they getting engaged already?" Instead, calmly explain that every generation is different and needs to do what feels right to them. Hopefully, their love for the adult child will outweigh the judgment.

Instead of setting up arbitrary boundaries (such as no one in the family photo unless they are married), Steinberg suggests erring on the side of generosity when it comes to gifts and invitations. You don't have to go overboard (i.e. overly expensive), but do make the significant other feel welcome and included in family events.

"Act as if the person is in the family but understand that this status may change," says Steinberg. "If people notice that your child's partner from this year isn't in next year's photo, so what? The world understands that relationships can end. Married people can get divorced, so live in the moment."

Try not to make too much of an issue about any one thing. For example, if you tell your child their partner is welcome at a holiday dinner, don't be upset or concerned about the relationship if the partner declines. They may have already made a commitment. Or perhaps your child wants to spend time with their siblings without their partner.

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According to Leaf, "There is no rule here; it's whatever comes naturally to the people involved. The main thing is not to take offense. Remember that we all have different ways of seeing and interacting with the world."

Understand Your Role

As Leaf explains, the child — not the parent — should lead the pace of the relationship between the parent and the significant other.

"Show interest in their partner, but at a level that keeps your child comfortable," she adds.

You don't want to get so close to your child's partner that they question your loyalty or make your child feel as if they are disappointing you if they want to end the relationship.  

"It's important to tell your child to make relationship decisions that are best for them — and that you'll adore the partner they choose because whoever is important to them, is of course, also be important to you," says Steinberg.

And if you don't care for your child's partner, tread lightly. Steinberg suggests opening a conversation with your child about how they feel about their partner. 

She says, "If they say they are crazy about their partner, indicate that you are happy to hear this — but then ask if they want to know what's going on in your mind. Then share your concerns as you respect differences among the population. There is no need to be cruel."

If there is a breakup with a significant other you liked, Steinberg cautions parents against maintaining a relationship with them.

The situation is different if it's a matter of safety. Leaf says, "If you know that this is an abusive relationship, then you will need to take action to keep your child safe — but based on evidence and not vague feelings of 'this person is odd.'"

Your Child Gets to Choose Their Partner

If there is a breakup with a significant other you liked, Steinberg cautions parents against maintaining a relationship with them.

She explains, "They broke up for a reason and your child (who is your priority) needs a clean slate to move on. Wish the person well and wait to befriend the next partner that comes along — or find your own friends!"

While it may be hard to let go, children need to pick their own partners. Steinberg urges parents to be cautious and contribute only positive energy and support to their children's lives without being overwhelming or smothering.

Leaf says, "Let your children know you trust them to know who they want to be with, so if they have chosen someone, you respect their choice."

My boyfriend was not in that photo, but has remained in the picture. We have been married for over 30 years. Unfortunately, those words my mother said stung at the time and set the tone for their relationship. 

The silver lining is that that exchange has also influenced how we approach meeting our adult children's partners. Better to be kind in the present because you never know how the future will turn out.

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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