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What To Do If You Don't Like Your Child's Boyfriend or Girlfriend

When that romantic partner isn't who you envisioned, try a cautious approach

Worried Parents
Christine Rösch

When my son, Gabe, was in college, he invited his girlfriend (I’ll call her Tiffany) to our home in Vermont for Thanksgiving. Let’s just say it was stressful. For five days, Tiffany clung to Gabe, but she never piped up during family conversations or pitched in with housework. Instead, she seemed closed off, obsessively checking her social media feeds. I kept asking myself, Why is Gabe with her? I just didn’t see how someone like that could possibly be good for my son.

On the day of our holiday dinner, Gabe was in the kitchen tending the turkey, my husband was vacuuming and I was setting the table for a dozen guests. Where was Tiffany? On the couch, FaceTiming a friend. My worry and irritation got the better of me, and I stomped into the kitchen to confront Gabe: “Do you think she could help out?” He shot right back: “I don’t want to hear it!”

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Years later, I still regret my outburst. Everyone knows it’s bad form to criticize your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Scientific studies of the phenomenon are scarce, but anecdotal evidence suggests it’s quite common for a child to bring home a sweetheart who rubs parents the wrong way. One survey by a British newspaper found that 1 in 3 parents of teens had disapproved of someone their child was dating.

Sometimes a parent’s irritation can be a red flag for serious problems, including abuse. So there are times when it’s right to speak up. But how do you know when to say something and what to say? For insight, I interviewed experts in family dynamics. Here is their advice.

Prepare

Figure out exactly what bothers you about the person, counsels psychotherapist Judith R. Smith, author of Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children Through Conflict and Change. “Crystallize your concern in advance,” she says. Maybe you worry, as I did with Tiffany, that the person is taking advantage of your child’s good nature.

Check your bias

Are you judging the person based on something that has nothing to do with their character, such as their accent or social class? If you discover that your reaction is irrational or superficial, silence is golden.

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Pick your moment

Once you clarify an issue that may need discussion, choose a calm time and a neutral place to address it — that is, don’t confront your child in the midst of holiday mayhem. “Deal with big issues, especially with young adults, when you’re not reactive,” Smith advises. “And talk things over in a neutral location — during a car ride, walking or while out for coffee.”

Ask questions

No matter how aggravating you find your kid’s partner, “try to stay open-minded and curious about their relationship, rather than condemning it,” says University of South Carolina Beaufort sociology professor Deborah J. Cohan, author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption. “You don’t want to create a them-against-the-world Romeo and Juliet scenario where you run the risk of bringing the couple closer together.” Instead, ask what kinds of activities they share or what your child admires in their partner — and really listen to the answers. A better understanding of why your child values their partner can help you learn to value that person too.

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Make peace

If you still feel you must raise your concerns, begin by telling your child you want to share some thoughts, advises Antioch University clinical psychology professor Martha B. Straus, coauthor of The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships. Reaffirm your unconditional love for them. Then, as briefly as possible, address your main concerns. “Don’t dwell or repeat yourself,” Straus says. “In all likelihood, your child knows how you feel anyway.” End by saying again how much you love them, and that you know the choice of a friend or mate is theirs. After this talk, your child may decide to speak with their sweetheart about problematic behavior. Or not. You can’t control that, but you can control your own reactions.

Know when to intervene

There is one situation that requires you to act: spotting signs of abuse, such as excessive jealousy or attempts to control your child. “If there has been a threat of violence or your child has communicated to you they don’t feel safe, step in,” Straus urges. “In extreme cases, this might mean contacting the police, even helping your child get a restraining order.” For more on how to recognize an abusive relationship, you or your child can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-SAFE), where counselors are available 24/7.

Thankfully, my aggravation with Tiffany didn’t signal any deeper trouble. She was just a reticent young person who had zero interest in housework, qualities Gabe already knew about and accepted. And it works for them. The two are still together, in unconventional roles. He handles the cooking and cleaning, while she cares for the pets and manages their bills, long-term planning and investments. As Tiffany has matured, she has outgrown her reticence, and her obsession with her phone has lessened. I love her, and I love seeing my son happy.

And they both pitch in now when they’re visiting. Not only can we parents learn to change, but — if we’re lucky — our kids’ partners can too.

Young Love

Teenage romance is not universal, but it can be intense.

  • 14 percent of teens are currently in a serious relationship
  • 35 percent of teens are or have been in a romantic relationship

—Pew Research Center

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