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Is She Really Going Out With Him?

Answers to 5 common questions about your grown kids' relationships

En español │With the marriage age at a historical high point — 26 for women and 28 for men — the path to "happily ever after" seems to have grown longer and more complicated.  In what might be a decade-long journey to find Mr. or Ms. Right, there's now more time for all kinds of relationship drama. This might also mean your twentysomething kid will be introducing you to more romantic partners, which will lead to delicate questions about what your role should be.

From our research interviews with hundreds of families with "emerging adults" — grown children ages 18 to 29 — these are the questions we typically hear and answer:

Q: My child is seeing someone I don't think is a good match. Should I say something?

Is She Really Going Out With Him?

Caterina Bernardi/Corbis

A: Probably not. But if you must say something, comment on what you observe, rather than on the person in question. Instead of saying, "I don't think that person is right for you," try, "When I see the two of you together, I see something I'm concerned about." Then identify a specific action that worries you, such as: "He puts you down" or "She interrupts you."  Sticking with observed behavior gives your son or daughter room to open up — or tell you to back off.

Q: When my son or daughter is unhappy in love, I'm so tempted to give advice. Is this a good idea?

A: You may still have strong feelings about what's best for your grown children, but you should keep your big opinions to yourself. Hold the judgments and "I-remember-when-I-was-in-my-20s" lectures and listen with empathy. We call this approach "friends with barriers," and it's all about the delicate balance between support and intrusion, between staying connected and being overly invested in your emerging adult's every move. Be ready to respond if asked, but be readier to step aside and let grown children make their own choices, and learn from their own mistakes.

Meanwhile, you might also ask yourself what your child's relationship is providing that you're not seeing. Just considering this question reframes your perspective from criticism to greater understanding.

Q: Do young people today even date, as in go out to dinner and a movie?

A: In this dating-and-mating-2.0 world, paired couples are on the downswing in high schools and college campuses, and for many, the old courting patterns have gone topsy-turvy. Instead of a few movies, plus dinner out and then deciding to have sex, today's kids, especially "friends with benefits" might hook up, have sex a few times and then decide to start dating.

Most twentysomethings have a second life on Facebook, and almost half of those who do online dating are in the 18 to 34 age range, according to Mediamark Research Inc. The result, as one 22-year-old college senior explained: "We have every opportunity at our fingertips, so everything has become a lot more disposable for us. We can drop people as quickly as we can type." 

Despite the explosion of dating prospects, the overall trend through the 20s is not that different from 30 years ago:  falling in and out of some number of relationships until the right one comes along.  The recent Toledo Adolescent Relationship Study, which followed 1,300 young people from adolescence into adulthood, found that relationships formed in emerging adulthood show increasing levels of intimacy and interdependence. And the vast majority of emerging adults who reported recent casual experiences had sex with friends or ex-partners, not random Internet matches. For concerned parents, it's also reassuring news that 75 percent of young people are married by their early 30s.

Q: What do we say to an unmarried son or daughter who wants to sleep with a partner at our house?

A: This is a personal choice that depends on your values and ease with the guest in question. You might know, for instance, that your emerging adult is sexually involved or cohabiting with a girlfriend or boyfriend, but you may not feel comfortable hosting a sleepover at your home. Things to consider:  whether or not this is a long-term relationship, whether there are much younger children at home and whether there's enough room to give everyone privacy.  But basically, this is your home — and your call.

Q: Is it OK to keep in touch with a son's or daughter's ex-partner?

A: When a girlfriend or boyfriend spends a lot of time with your family, it's only natural to become close and feel the loss if the pair splits up. But except in rare circumstances (and, of course, if there are grandchildren involved), it may be too hurtful to your grown child to keep contact after a breakup. As one mother of a 24-year-old made clear, "We liked our daughter's college boyfriend a lot. It was hard to go cold turkey when they broke up, but to honor her, we couldn't see him." Your relationship with your own child is the forever one.

Elizabeth Fishel is a widely published writer on family issues and the author of four nonfiction books, including Sisters and Reunion. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is a research professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties. They are working on a parents' guide to emerging adulthood, which will be published by Workman in 2012.