It’s a familiar scenario: a name starts popping up in talks and texts with your adult son or daughter. A romance is brewing! One day you meet the beloved person and while you are happy for your child something is not quite right. Times passes and the uneasy feelings remain. It’s not that you don’t like the boyfriend or girlfriend. Rather there seems to be a mismatch: in personality, emotional attachment, life experience, careers, expectations, behavior, or any number of different traits.
What do you do? You can wait it out and hope that your son or daughter discovers the incompatibility. What if your daughter comes home with Brides magazine or your son starts asking about diamonds? What do you say then? Suppose your 25-year-old daughter is madly in love with a creative type who can’t find a job. That 25-year-old related her sad tale in a “An Oral History of Breaking Up,” a New York Times article about why young people divorce. Her marriage lasted a year. Perhaps her mom should have suggested her daughter check out one of the many websites on questions to ask before committing to marriage.
In search of advice we turned, again, to the very wise and witty Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue.” She has encountered many such situations in her work and writes about them in her book. We chatted on the phone last week.
Q. If parents believe that their adult child is considering a match not made in heaven, should they say anything?
A. Yes, if it’s before marriage and you feel it’s a bad match then you have an obligation to say something. Once married though you have an obligation to love this person your child chooses and to not say anything else. First you need to examine exactly why do you not like this person. Is the reason because no one is good enough for your child?
Q. How do you approach the topic with your adult child?
A. You don’t want to start head on. You want to talk about an observation such as, “I notice when Jeff is around you’re very quiet” or “I notice you no longer go out with friends.” You need be very specific in how you phrase that observation.
Q. Suppose it’s not so much your child changing but rather a negative trait you see in the boyfriend or girlfriend?
A. Another way is to try to find an example of the same trait in a book or a movie. Get the book, read it and then mention to your daughter that you just read a book about a man, for example, who was a “taker,” someone never gives back, just takes and takes what he needs in a relationship. You’ll plant the idea if that’s the situation. Or watch a movie together and make an observation about a character. I call that simulcasting: watching a movie with your child and getting a message across through your comments on the characters in the movie.
Q. Suppose you suspect that your child shares your concerns but hasn’t voiced them.
A. Start a conversation with your child, saying that you notice she is spending a lot of time with so-and-so. Ask what she likes about him. Then mention your concerns and ask if she noticed that too. Keep in mind the child may storm out of the room. These conversations don’t always go smoothly but it’s not end of the world, and not the first time or the last time that’ll happen.
Q. When is the best time to have this conversation?
A. The timing is when you begin to feel relationship is getting serious but even then be careful not to cast aspersions. That person may become your daughter-in-law and be choosing your nursing home someday! Also keep in mind you never know about people. There are relationships that friends and relatives predicted would fail that are now celebrating anniversaries.