Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I'm concerned about my daughter, who is in her early twenties. She has been dating a young man for almost two years now and can't make up her mind about marrying him. She says she doesn't feel sure if he's the one. She tells me she doesn't trust him to be stable in his opinions or life goals. Once she left him, but then missed him, and they went back together.
Personally, I believe she doesn't admire his personality or character traits enough to become married. On the other hand, he's a nice man who has good intentions.
My husband and I have tried not to interfere, because we're afraid to influence any decision she could later regret.
But time is passing, and I think that in the future it could be even more difficult for her to decide. How can we help her? What are a parent's boundaries between interfering and helping?
We appreciate hearing from a parent who wants to help an adult child make good choices with regard to dating, and we agree with you that it's not easy to know when to offer her insight or unsolicited advice, and when it's more appropriate to step back and allow the child to make her way through life independently.
Parents play a much more significant role in their adult children's lives that they realize. Although young adult children may drive a car and have the right to vote, parents still feel an obligation to help them with decisions about education, career path, medical, legal and financial issues, etc., and often continue to provide advice and guidance as their children move forward in life.
And yet, when it comes to the most important of life's decisions, many of us are afraid to offer our opinions, advice, or input. We're afraid to be too interfering, and yet, when we see our child struggling to find suitable people to date, and/or choosing dating partners based on criteria that seem to us to be superficial or unrealistic, not knowing how to build a relationship that can lead to a healthy marriage, or staying in an unhealthy relationship without knowing to get out or how to do so, we feel paralyzed. Why do we hesitate to offer our input in the area of dating when we feel comfortable enough offering guidance in other areas of our adult children's lives?
Many young people want their parents to "interfere."
We've been approached many times by parents who lament, "I didn't want to interfere and express my concerns about who my child was dating, and now I wish I would have." And there is no shortage of adult men and women who have confided to us, "My parents saw a problem, but didn't they didn't want to share it with me because they felt they didn't have the right to do so. I wish they would have. It would have given me the push to deal with a key issue I was ignoring."
So, what should a parent's role be in the dating process? It depends on many factors: to what degree other parents in your social circle are involved, the kind of relationship you have with your child and if she welcomes your input, and how strongly you feel about the particular issue in question. Someone who is just starting to date might benefit from a parent's suggestions about realistic expectations for marriage and qualities to look for in a potential spouse. An active dater might appreciate a parent's help with networking, and may genuinely want to hear a parent's opinions about the person they're dating seriously.
Figuring out whether and when to offer important, unsolicited input can be a difficult balancing act for many parents, and there are only a few hard and fast rules:
1) Do not make decisions for your child, nor pressure the child into making certain choices.
2) You must share your concerns about any dating relationship that you perceive to be unhealthy or dangerous.
Having the Talk
Your letter indicates that your daughter has been comfortable sharing with you some of her feelings about the man she's been dating for the past two years, but that you've been reluctant to do more than listen and offer support. Since she's still struggling with whether to proceed in this relationship, this seems an appropriate time for you to share with her some of your thoughts and concerns. We suggest that you and your husband first sit down together and discuss the points you'd like to bring up. It's helpful to think of the positive aspects of your daughter's relationship with this young man, as well as the issues that you're concerned about. Once you decide which points to bring up, schedule time for a private, uninterrupted conversation with your daughter.
We can't just sit by and see you struggle.
We suggest beginning with something like, "We see how hard it's been for you over the past several months to come to a decision about 'David', but until now we haven't really shared our own thoughts because we thought this was a process you had to go through on your own. But now we realize that as your parents, we can't just sit by and see you struggle. We think that if we share our ideas with you, it might help you come to a decision about where you see yourself headed in life, and whether and how 'David' will be included in those plans."
It goes without saying that this isn't a time to give your daughter directives such as, "You should break up with David," or "You should marry him," or "The two of you need to take a break."
It's also important to try to present your observations in a non-accusatory and non-confrontational way. You daughter won't be able to listen if she's put on the defensive. And after you and your husband have shared your thoughts, give her the space to decide if and what she wants to discuss with you. You might also encourage her to choose a third party she trusts to mentor her through the process that will follow your discussion.
Points to Consider
Here are a few guidelines as you prepare to discuss things with your daughter. The first is that the fact that two people like each other and feel a strong bond of friendship isn't a solid enough basis for marriage. Couples also need to respect and admire each other and have compatible values, goals for the future, and lifestyle expectations. In addition, each should believe that the other will be able to be a stable, committed marriage partner. You daughter can ask herself if she's having difficulty making a decision because one or more of these elements are missing with the young man she's dating.
Or, your daughter may be unsure about this man because he's still in the process of figuring out what he wants out of life, while she has a clearer direction. Remember, young adults are still in the process of developing aspects of their own persona and formulating their goals and values. Their tastes and preferences may have changed since the time they began dating two years ago. They may not have grown in similar directions, or one may have matured faster than the other. It could be that one or both of them may not yet feel ready for marriage.
Because they like each other and have a long history together, it may be difficult for them to acknowledge that they've become too different to be compatible in marriage. Or they might feel that marriage "should be" the next logical step in their relationship, but right now they are just comfortably "stuck" in dating.
It's difficult for a parent to observe a child struggling in a relationship that seems to be stagnating rather than moving forward. Courtships such as these usually fall apart when one or both of the daters wants to move to the next level and becomes frustrated by the couple's lack of progress. But when a courtship has been on the slow track for a long time, it's sometimes hard for the daters to realize when things have gotten stuck. By discussing your concerns with your daughter, and by encouraging her to look closely at her own goals in life, and what she expects from a committed relationship, you can help her gain the clarity she needs to make the right decision about her future. We wish you and your daughter success in navigating the dating maze.
Rosie & Sherry