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How to Help Your Kids Through Engagement Dilemmas

Tips for when to step in ... with caution

With the holiday season — a prime time for engagements — behind us, some parents and young women are left wondering when and if the question will ever be popped. Even in an age of gender equality, many young women still expect the beau not only to propose but to pull out all the stops.

How to Help Adult Children Through Engagement Dilemmas

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Steps to provide emotional support to adult children in their romantic relationships

Why don't women propose? That idea is "utter horror" to them, says Ellen Lamont, a sociology professor at Appalachian State University. "There is still a strong stigma against women proposing because they are then seen as desperate — the belief is that a man will propose when he is ready," she says. "If a woman pushes that, she is getting a man who is not ready for the relationship to move forward."

Parents looking from the outside at a long-term relationship may be puzzled why the couple do not marry. Beyond the generational delay, there are other reasons. Two key points:

* More than 30 percent of unmarried young adults say they have not found someone who has the qualities they want in a spouse. What exactly are they looking for? Women want a spouse with a steady job, while men want someone who shares their ideas about child rearing, according to a Pew study.

* Many millennials move in together with the idea of getting married … someday. Why does that date often seem amorphous? Author Hannah Seligson calls it "marriage's new timetable." Millennials have a bucket list with career, travel and other experiences to be checked off before marriage, says Seligson, who wrote A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It's Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door.

While that lifestyle is great during their 20s, the biological clock starts ticking as women enter their 30s. When the boyfriend doesn't propose, then the young woman needs to decide: Stay (unhappily) or walk out the door.

When that happens, an emotional reaction can erupt. Parents may feel they are walking into a minefield. Say nothing, or say everything? For advice, we turned to Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children. The no-ring situation is a familiar one to Nemzoff, often brought up by distraught parents during her speaking engagements. Her advice:

  • Listen, and then help your child figure out strategies. "If she wants to leave the relationship, compliment her on the courage to jump off a cliff not knowing where she will land." But if she wants to stay, maybe she should ask her boyfriend why he hasn't proposed. "For all she knows, maybe he wants to give her a 4-carat ring and doesn't have enough money saved yet."

  • Call in the friends. "If everything you seem to be saying is grating on her nerves and she's devastated, ask her friends to talk to her and take her out."
  • Step in, with caution. Nemzoff related the story of a father who pulled a long-term boyfriend aside and told him, "I know my daughter really loves you. I am not asking you to marry her, but if you don't have permanent intentions, do her a favor and let her go." Nemzoff also suggested parents use the same approach with a son dragging his feet in a long-term relationship. "A parent can advise him that if he doesn't intend to get married, he needs to be fair to the girl — and himself — and move on."
  • Provide emotional support. Even if you adore the partner and are sad to see the relationship end, back your child's decision. "Your loyalty is always to your child first."

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.

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