What do you think of your child’s partner or spouse? Do you have a great relationship and love him like your own? Do you think being with her is the worst decision he ever made? Or is he ok, just not what you dreamed of for a son-in-law? Like it or not, when our kids grow up, THEY get to choose their partners – WE DON’T. So what do you do when you don’t like your child’s partner?
For the answer to that question – or at least some great insight, I’ve turned to one of my favorite authors, bloggers, podcasters and therapists, Dr. Margaret Rutherford. I listen to every episode of her podcast, Self Work with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Her advice and insight are common sense, compassionate and always delivered with good humor. I highly recommend it!
When You Don’t Like Your Child’s Partner and Other Reasons Their Choice Hurts
by Dr. Margaret Rutherford
Your daughter, Alicia called you, out of the blue, six years ago.
“Mom, when I’m home next weekend, I have someone I want you and Dad to meet.”
Your heart turned over. You were so excited for her — she’d never brought anyone home before. You couldn’t wait until the weekend. Would he like you? Would you all get along?
That weekend came and went. Everyone met and was nice.
But you didn’t get that feeling you wanted. You didn’t have an immediate sense of, “I like this guy.” He treated Alicia well, but he was stand-offish with you. Or he drank too much. Or he picked his teeth with a toothpick after dinner. Or… or… or…
There was something that made you uncomfortable.
Now it’s six years later. And they’re married. Alicia’s pregnant. And you realize you’ll spend birthdays, holidays and all kinds of time with him. You’ll share your daughter with him — maybe for the rest of your life.
You rationally realize he may have similar feelings about you. He may be disappointed in what’s happening, or not happening, as well. And Alicia? She’s aware. Things aren’t perfect. But she loves you both. So she’s stuck in the middle, trying to make the best of it.
So what do you do….?
1) …when your adult child chooses someone uncomfortable with closeness.
Maybe you’d always wanted a close relationship with your child’s partner. You imagined what your relationship with your son’s mate would be. She’d call you for ideas for his birthday or ask your advice on how to make the lasagna he likes so much. And that’s not happening. It’s okay to grieve that that fantasy won’t be happening, at least anytime soon.
She may have issues with trust or might have grown up in a family where closeness wasn’t the norm. She has to live this out longer, and begin to understand that there can be a benefit to close (but not too close) family ties. Experience with you can make a huge difference. You can give her the space she needs to begin to feel more comfortable. And hopefully, she’ll reach back.
Or perhaps she’s very close to her own parents and turns to them for many things. Trying to handle your own fears in this situation is difficult — almost as if being an in-law is a competition that you could lose.
The more you focus on your own relationship with her, and try not to compare, the better off you’ll be.
2) …when your new son or daughter-in-law has significant problems with responsibility or maturity.
You’d envisioned that once your adult child was married, a lot of the worry would be off of you as a parent. She’d have a partner — someone she could count on in diverse ways — financially, emotionally, as a co-parent or as a partner. But she chose someone who’s very emotionally immature, who’s never had a good job, or is struggling with an addiction. You don’t like that your child seems to be bearing a huge load in the relationship, and it’s difficult to contain your disappointment.
This is a tough one. Your adult child chose this person for a reason. You may not understand it. You may think the classic, “She’s not good enough for my son.” But your son chose her. You can work on accepting that and recognize your son’s responsibility for an apparently difficult choice. You can get out of the way, and allow the two of them to work it out.
3) Realize you may be grieving the loss of your own role with your now adult child.
It’s hard to move over, especially if you and your child have been close. Some of what you resent, or “don’t like” may be a sign of jealousy or resentment — and belongs more with you than with your child’s partner.
The work becomes finding things or experiences in your own life that you enjoy, whether that’s with your own partner or alone. It’s important to grieve that empty nest, move into the present, and not focus on the past or “what was.”
You can take responsibility for your own sadness, and look for new ways to connect with your adult child as well as her partner. You’ll enjoy the time when your child’s alone with you, but realize the reality of his life, how important his partner is to him, and focus on what’s possible and appropriate now.
4) … when you believe that your child is unhappy in his marriage.
You feel the strain between your son and his wife. You hear them bickering late at night when they come to visit. You want them to try to heal whatever hurts or resentments there are, and you don’t know how to help. You’re afraid the conflict between the two of them will affect your relationship with your grandchildren, if it goes too far.
There is very little you can do, except be supportive. What you can consider is this — if your son (or daughter) is talking to you about how unhappy they are, you can try very hard not to jump on the bandwagon and criticize their partner. Because he or she could change their feelings, and all of a sudden, you can become the bad guy.
It’s far better to listen, recommend they talk about their issues together, and support them in seeking counseling or help of some kind.
5) … when you suspect abuse.
This problem is far greater than arguing or occasional conflict. He’s isolating her from family. She talks about what he will or won’t “let me do.” She seems to not have as much confidence in herself. She has bruises and says they’re from a fall. She’s growing more nervous when everyone is together.
It’s often family members who love their daughter, niece or granddaughter who have to act when abuse becomes evident. The emotional damage done when someone abuses you is complicated — your self-esteem suffers greatly and you often feel to blame. That guilt can keep you in the situation. And you can fear reprisals if you leave.
Helping her come up with a plan for safety is vital. A family acting to support and shield someone from her perpetrator (or his) can make all the difference. You can try to understand the difficulty of the decision and her fear.
It’s important to not be in denial about the abuse. It can happen to anyone. There’s no race, creed or socioeconomic status that protects anyone from it. When there are children involved, it becomes very difficult to watch, and know how to help. She may need time to consider all her options, however, so there’s a fine balance between rushing in to save and waiting until she’s ready to face whatever fallout there might be from her leaving.
Click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret! It’s perfect for engagements, anniversaries, weddings, or for the person you love!
You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to her website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”
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Dr. Margaret Rutherford
Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist, who has practiced for over twenty years in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Since 2012, her work has been found on her own website, where her eBook, "Seven Commandments of Good Therapy" is available for free download. She is the host of SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a podcast where you can listen to her direct and down-to-earth advice.