Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I am a 22-year-old woman with a huge problem. My family completely hates the man I'm dating. I am a college student and live at home, which makes talking to him or making plans a struggle. All of my phone calls are monitored and when I leave the house I am scrutinized as to where I am going. My mother fears I may see him more then once a week as we agreed.
You are probably wondering if my family's fears are justified. In some ways they are. This man is unsure of his feelings but would eventually like to propose if we can have stability for a few months.
My parents think he is a total bum for not having any real plan for the future. They think he is too immature and unstable for me.
There is also another concern. He has a history of dating women he didn't care for, and has behaved below the moral standard that my family abides by. He is not as moral or dependable as my father, and my mother hates this fact. They feel his actions should make him feel ashamed. They worry he has too much influence over me.
With all that said, my problem is this: I am of the age where I want to navigate my own path through life. I do not want to upset my parents, but I feel they are not allowing me to be my own person. I enjoy this man's company and would like to have the space and time to see where he fits in my life on my own terms. I am always going to be more liberal than my parents.
I truly don't know what to do about the situation and would appreciate your advice.
Thanks for writing to us. We hope that we can clarify a number of issues you have raised in your letter so that you can begin to make clear-headed decisions about the man you are dating.
You are correct that the biggest challenge you are facing right now is being able to become your own person. From your description, it appears that your parents have too tight a grip on the reins of parenthood. A 22-year-old's comings and goings and telephone calls should not be monitored except in extraordinary situations. Moreover, young adults should be permitted to make decisions on their own. Ideally, as children grow into adulthood, parents should empower them to make their own choices and decisions. That apparently hasn't happened in your family, and that is why you are having so much difficulty figuring things out.
The clinical term for this is "failure to individuate." Individuation is a process of developing a separate identity from your parents by developing an independent ability to evaluate situations, make decisions, resolve conflicts, form opinions, adopt values, decide upon goals, and express one's personality. During this process, most of us incorporate many values and skills we learned from our parents, but we adapt them to ourselves as we become our own person. We can see that you are struggling to do this from the comment that he isn't as "moral" as your father (without telling us what that means). You have told us a lot about your parents' perspective on all of this, and very little about your own. It seems that you are using their frame of reference rather than your own. That's what happens when someone has not yet individuated.
At 22, there's a lot that you can do to advance the process of individuating. You can begin by spending a few evenings writing down your thoughts about what you would really like to do with your life over the next six months, one year, and five years. Write down how you would like to develop yourself in terms of education, career, spirituality, social life, standard of living, creative expression, marriage and family, involvement in the community, and relationship with your parents. Wait a few days and read over what you have written.
We also encourage you to do the same kind of exercise with regard to the values you feel are important in life, the inner qualities you value in yourself and would like to develop, and the character traits you would like to see in the person you will someday marry. These exercises will help you jump-start the process of formulating your own values and goals. They'll also help you evaluate the situation with the man you are dating. (More about that later.)
These exercises will also be invaluable tools to help you develop your own frame of reference when you have to make a major decision or deal with a difficult situation. If you need to talk things through with someone (after all, when you are accustomed to seeing life through another person's eyes, it takes some time to adjust your focus when you begin to use your own eyes), we suggest that you turn to someone other than your parents, such as a trusted older friend or relative, a friend's parents, a spiritual advisor, or a teacher you respect. It's not that we don't want you to be involved with your parents, it's just that the dynamic between you and your parents isn't conducive to your individuating, and it seems they will have a hard time letting you do what you need to in order to become a mature adult.
Unfortunately, what your parents fail to realize is that you may be using your courtship with a man they don't approve of as a way of establishing your independence from them, and in the process you could make some mistakes that will outweigh much of what you can gain from becoming more independent. Very often, people in a situation like yours later discover that they have made a poor choice. They concentrated so heavily on rebelling, consciously or unconsciously, that they did not pay much attention to any negative qualities the person they're dating possessed and did not properly examine the quality of the relationship between them.
We want to make it clear that we are not talking about a situation where parents don't approve of a child's dating partner for one reason or another, even though he or she is a wonderful person and the two are well-suited to each other. It could be that the man you are dating is a fine person and, in the long run, you can have a viable relationship with him, but even you cannot know this at this point in time. You first have to examine your own situation more closely.
A few points in your letter raised some red flags for us. The first is this man's dating history with women he didn't care for. To us, that's a sign of immaturity, selfishness, insecurity, and a reluctance to become too personally involved. Unfortunately, contemporary movies and romance novels sometimes glorify this kind of behavior, but we've observed that most mature adults realize that this practice isn't psychologically gratifying and can have dangerous health consequences.
We would be interested in knowing how long ago these incidents took place, what he now thinks about his behavior, and whether he has continued this behavior while the two of you were dating.
One of the other red flags we saw is your mention of the need for stability so that the two of you can sort things through. We don't know what you mean by that. If you use the word "stability" describe the time that you can get your parents off of your back and think for yourself, that's fine. If, however, you and this man have a volatile relationship, argue often without being able to come to a mutually satisfactory resolution, break up and get back together frequently, or feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster, then the two of you have a problem that won't be easily resolved. These are symptoms of trouble.
If the two of you are relating well to each other, and if you've satisfactorily resolved some of the other issues we've discussed in this letter, then it is definitely a good idea to spend the next few months strengthening your emotional confidence by talking about values and goals, seeing each other in a variety of situations, confiding in each other and building trust. You shouldn't contemplate marriage unless each of you has a clear idea of the direction you would like your life to take, has begun to work toward that goal, understands and respects your partner's goals, and believes that you are moving in similar directions.
We wish you a successful journey to self-discovery.
Rosie & Sherry