So you’re dating someone new, and it’s finally gotten serious enough that you’re going to introduce them to your parents. What could go wrong? You’re getting together a group of people that you care for deeply, so how could they not click? Or so you thought. Turns out, your parents don’t like your SO one bit. What do you do? How can you choose between your parents and the person you’re in a relationship with?
There is a large variety of reasons that your parents may dislike or not approve of your SO. Maybe they’d rather you be with someone else, maybe they don’t agree with their politics, maybe they think they’re out of your age range or maybe they even look down on some part of their identity.
These obstacles can be difficult to overcome, especially when there are so many complicated relationships and feelings involved. We reached out to Rhonda Ricardo, author and romance expert, and Lesli Doares, licensed marriage therapist and relationship coach, for their expert takes on how to deal with parents who don’t like your SO, in addition to getting some collegiette words of wisdom.
1. Be as upfront and mature as possible
It’s always easier to completely avoid a tense situation, particularly when your own or others’ feelings are involved. This may seem like a good solution, but it is only a temporary fix, if even a fix at all. You are far better off confronting the issues and emotions that are coming up head on.
Doares says that we have to be willing to approach the situation maturely and “be careful that we’re not reverting to the spoiled 3-year-old or rebellious 14-year-old.” Especially in situations that involve our families, we can become so entangled in a given state that we forget to step back and look at the events from a level-headed standpoint.
This same level of maturity has to be expected from all of the parties involved. U’ilani Lishman, senior at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says that when her boyfriend and parents experienced a bump in the road, her boyfriend “put in an effort to fix what he had done...he was respectful...When I said I needed space, or my family told him to stay away, he did it.” If your significant other can’t compromise and understand that this kind of situation takes time, it’s going to be impossible to resolve your problems.
2. Hear everyone out
It could very well be the case that your parents are worried about your SO for good reason. Even if they aren’t, it is still necessary that you let them express what they are feeling in an effort to address and remedy the disconnect they feel from your SO. As Ricardo states, issues can arise when a “couple does not take the time to prove that the parents can be comfortable with the SO, so the parents worry (and therefore intrude).” These matters take a little extra work, but giving everyone the time and space they need to work through them will help foster stronger relationships.
Again, actively listening and attempting to empathize with everyone involved is necessary for you, your significant other and your parents. U’ilani adds that “when you really love someone, you need to respect their family and their family’s wishes.” If your SO really wants to be with you, they have to understand that your family is a priority and that their opinions do matter.
According to U’ilani, relationships work best when individuals “respect the other person’s wishes and do [their] best to work towards showing them [they] are a respectful significant other.” This ensures that everyone is on equal footing and can expect fair, thoughtful treatment.
Doares suggests that you “listen as open-mindedly as you can to your parents’ position…[your] parents do know something about somethings.” Take into account that their worries are likely from a place of pure love for you, and that they may even be valid. This is why it’s crucial to take stock of all of the separate emotions at work.
3. Establish boundaries
After you’ve come to an understanding about how exactly your parents and SO feel about each other, it is now time to set up clear boundaries delineating how all of the relations at hand are going to function. Make it clear to those involved that their feelings and wishes are respected, but you are the one who is going to be making your own decisions.
Doares recommends asking yourself if this is “odd behavior on your parents’ part, or [if this is] part of a pattern of the way that they deal with you.” If this is a recurring issue, it is probably time to tell your parents that you are past the point of needing their guidance on every move you make. You are an adult, and you are most definitely going to make mistakes, but it is your life and they are yours to make.
Doares adds that “it’s a sign of maturity to make your own decision about how you want to move forward.” Not only will this uplift your own confidence in yourself, it will show to your parents that you are competent and that they have successfully given you the ability to make decisions wisely.
4. Know that you don’t have to choose
Healthy relationships shouldn’t involve ultimatums or cutting ties with anyone. If your parents and your SO truly care for you, they won’t force you to do either of these things. Once again, it may seem easier to choose sides and avoid confronting or mediating a tough situation, but if you want to sustain the connections with the people in your life, you have to work things out.
This might be the first serious conflict you have faced with your parents as an adult. Your life might even still be funded by your parents, though you aren’t living at home. This nuanced circumstance means that you have to be extra careful when going against your parents' desires. Doares says, “If you can approach your parents as an adult who has their own...who owns their own feelings and desires as opposed to ‘I want your approval,’” you are likely to have more success. Make your feelings, intentions and independence clear.
Ricardo says that a “couple must treat each other’s parents with the same kindnesses.” As long as this is how you’re operating, you can rest assured that everyone will remain happy and that your parents will come to understand what you like so much about your SO, too! This was the case for U’ilani, whose parents came to like her boyfriend so much that “they keep telling [her] not to screw it up!”
5. Remember it’s a process
Like any other problem you’ll face in life, it’s unlikely it will go away overnight. Families and romantic relationships can be extraordinarily contentious, so when you put the two together, things get even stickier. Just remember to maintain your level-headedness, check in with yourself and don’t be afraid to make difficult decisions.
The issues you confront, be them with your family, your relationships or elsewhere in your life, will only make you stronger and wiser. Doares says we need to “understand that it’s a learning process and mistakes are going to get made.” If you tackle these difficulties in healthy, productive ways, they will also get easier and easier to deal with!
Doares also emphasizes that you need to “be gentle with yourself, your significant other and possibly your parents.” Feelings might get hurt, and this is unfortunate, but it’s also a fact of life. As long as no one is overtly attempting to hurt or sabotage anyone else, some hurt feelings are perfectly okay. It will all pay off in the long term, when you and your parents and your significant other have made it over the hurdles and can laugh about them together!