Adult children complain that parents often cross boundaries into personal lives, especially when it comes to boyfriends and girlfriends. Parents counter that they are unsure what their role is supposed to be. Say nothing or say everything? Echo Beyoncé and tell your daughter that if the guy loves her then he needs to “put a ring on it”? Or tell your son that before moving in with his girlfriend he should take a note from The Destroyers and “get a haircut and get a real job“?
On a more serious note, the middle ground–not the extremes–seems to be the best approach, at least according to a study of 225 adults aged 22 to 29, conducted by Psychology Professor Stephanie Madsen of McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland
In a Wall Street Journal article, columnist Sue Shellenbarger wrote that the study found:
“Young people like it best when parents take a consulting or coaching role, listening—and offering advice only when asked.”
However that doesn’t mean to zip your lips. The survey found when parents don’t take an interest in their children’s romances “that is linked in their offspring to poorer-quality relationships, including less affection and support and more conflict.”
The parents who chat with their children “tend to have warmer, closer, more positive romantic relationships, with less fighting and tension.”
So talk up a storm but carefully weigh what you say and even where you have the conversation. Several suggestions came from another psychology professor who also studies young adults and their relationships, Carolyn M. Barry from Loyola University in Baltimore.
Dr. Barry suggests that the first step is simply providing informal opportunities to chat. Taking a car or train ride together, playing a sport, or shopping can provide the perfect time to listen to love stories without it feeling like “The Talk.” A casual conversation allows young adults to “share their thoughts and feelings with parents rather than parent asking lots of questions that get yes or no answers,” she says. Prof. Barry also recommends that parents,
Try to be the mature adult and try to get child to think through whatever the situation is. Take a step back to support them through the decision-making process. Otherwise they shut down. Ask lots of questions such as “How does this person make you feel?” or “Why do you think that’s the case?” Be Socratic rather than too direct.
Whatever the discussion remember that you are your child’s biggest supporter. “Parents have a vested interest in the well-being of their child,” Dr. Barry says. As an example, she recalls the time when she was applying to doctoral programs and trying to decide whether to head to the Midwest or stay closer to home, and not so co-incidentally, to her boyfriend. She turned to her father for advice, typically given during their regular tennis games. “My father said, “He may be the guy of your dreams but you need to make best decision for you. Focus on making sure you are in the right program so if it doesn’t work out you will still be in the place best suited to your needs.” (As it turns out the boyfriend was the right guy and they are now married with two children.)
However, as many parents know, not all dating relationships end happily ever after Sometimes it’s the parent rather than the child who has a tough time moving on when a relationship ends. Two young women find themselves in that circumstance because their boyfriends became intimate parts of their families.
Casey, now a graduate student, was in a relationship for more than five years. She and her boyfriend broke up amicably three years ago but he’s still hanging out at her parents house, going to vacations with them and best friends with her brother. Initially her father took the breakup harder than she did. “My dad told me that I was meant to be with my boyfriend, that I was making a mistake and would eventually realize he was the right one for me. My mom could see that we were different and why we broke up.”
Casey and the young man never did get back together. She’s now resigned to him being a family fixture when she goes home.
Not all parents are so accepting when a relationship ends. When another graduate student’s boyfriend broke up with her, the father in this case was very angry. Even though Tula and her boyfriend got back together temporarily her father was not so quick to forgive, and now that the couple is dating other people, he still is not thrilled with him. This boyfriend too became friends with Tula’s brother and was recently invited to a surprise party for the brother. Tula made sure to warn her father that the sometimes boyfriend would be at the event.
Still other parents, no matter how much they liked the old flame, are not inviting anyone to dinner much less a family trip any time soon. One set of parents became so angered by the way a young man broke up with their daughter that they stopped socializing with the boy’s parents, who were longtime friends.
The territory that comes with adult children’s relationships is filled with land mines. Where do parents venture forth and where do they keep away? Not easy to know when the ground keeps shifting.