I have a question about how (and whether) we can advise our kids on the subject of choosing a life partner. Say my child has been dating someone who doesn’t treat them with respect. How do I handle that, knowing my child might hold anything I say about their “love” against me and might tell the person, too?
A generous helping of parental skill and patience is needed to finesse the impossible task of being involved and staying out of the way simultaneously.
As our kids make decisions we don’t agree with, bring people into their lives we don’t like or approve of, and choose hairstyles, tattoos, diets, professions or partners that befuddle us, our job is to love them and stay open to them.
And it’s not a shallow display of support that’s needed. We really need to dig deep to make room for the stranger who used to be our child. Which means being willing to meet them anew, according to the identity they have begun to form for themselves. It’s exhausting I tell you. Didn’t we just finish nailing the tweenage identity? Now young adulthood has a whole new set of rules? Jeesh.
When they’re little, it’s our job to stand in the way of things that are harmful to them. First we yank them back as they dash into traffic, then we tell them to look both ways, and eventually, they remember for themselves and learn how to anticipate what may be harmful and how to protect themselves. When they’re on their own, we only get to protect them if they ask us to.
That you have asked whether it’s even okay to talk to them about their choices tells me you have a gut sense that doing so may not be advisable. Good instinct!
Take some time to unpack the many layers of intention and emotion that go into this kind of conversation. It’s tricky when the harm you see is coming from someone they care about. From 30,000 feet it sure looks counter-intuitive to stick with and love someone who disrespects us. But our kids do it all the time. With us.
Yes, we parents love and disrespect our children constantly. How? By overriding them when we’re too tired to negotiate. By pigeonholing them as “shy” or “responsible” or “trouble-maker” and crowding them into an identity that they then have to live up (or down) to. By suggesting they wear our choice of hat/pants/shoes instead of theirs. By turning their quirks or missteps into the funny stories we share with our friends. By assuming that whatever expertise we rely on to run our own lives automatically makes us experts at how they should run theirs. By telling them that respect has to be earned, as if there’s some secret dance they have to do to be treated with dignity. And by telling them they aren’t good at choosing life partners.
Full disclosure: I’ve done many of these things, and regret the damage this has done to my kids’ sense of self.
It’s so much easier to see from a distance. When we observe someone disrespecting our child, we see them being domineering, undermining our child’s agency, belittling them, ignoring boundaries, or being purposefully unkind or insulting as a way of exerting control. When and if you want to intervene in a protective way, it’s crucial that you do so without echoing the very disrespect you’re trying to protect them from.
The way to talk with our kids about the people they’re dating is to model the respect we want them to value. Rather than presenting ourselves as the authority on what’s good for them (aka being domineering or undermining their agency), we can be curious about what they feel is good for them and ask questions without judgment or ulterior motive.
Instead of questioning their decisions (aka belittling them), we can share the experience of how we feel when we see them being disrespected, or better yet, share the challenges we've experienced in caring about people who don’t always treat us well, and talk about the confusion we may have experienced in being intimately connected to someone who both loved and disrespected us.
And finally, instead of jumping right in as if we know what they need (and ignoring boundaries), ask if they want to know how we feel. If they say no, we should be ready to say, “Okay, I respect that,” and stand back.
Remember that early relationships are about trying things on to see if they fit. Young people are learning what relationships feel like and how to participate in them without you.
If they do ask for advice, speak from your own experiences rather than judging theirs. Share the lessons you’ve learned about dating and life-partner-choosing. Tell them what you wish you could go back and tell your younger self. Ask what they picture for themselves when they have the same conversation with their kids someday.
And with care and humility, acknowledge the ways you may have taught them to accept disrespect as part of the package of intimacy.