By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D
It’s a problem that is probably as old as time. Adult children don’t always choose the mate their parents want for them. Shakespeare immortalized it in Romeo and Juliet. A central theme in the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, and the current TV drama, Downton Abbey, is the struggle of the parent generation to accept their adult kids’ choices. For all I know, a Neanderthal woman had a fight with her dad about her choice of her Cro-Magnon guy. (“But Daddy: He’s real smart and he’s so tall!”) But however timeless and universal the theme may be, when it comes home, it’s painful. Here are only a few examples from our “Ask the Therapist” service:
“I’m caught between my mother and my wife,” says a 25-year-old man in Boston. –“ My Chinese mother expects my wife to obey her and wait on her when she visits, just as she did for her mother-in-law. My American wife works all day and doesn’t see why my mother can’t start dinner or help out when she visits. My mother constantly complains. My wife cries. What do I do?”
A young man in Florida writes: “My wife is Latina and I’m white. My father goes on and on about illegal immigration whenever we visit. My mother can’t shut him up. My wife tries to smile through it. We fight when we get home because she says I should stop him but I know nothing I can say is going to change him. Help!”
“My boyfriend and I want to marry but we’re from different ethnic groups and we know our parents will never agree. We’ve been secretly seeing each other for 4 years now.” –- from a young woman in Serbia.
Like the writers of these letters, you’re in love. Like them, you want your parents to love and admire the person you’ve chosen. Instead, they can’t see past their own traditions, values, or prejudices. They don’t see your sweetheart or spouse for the wonderful person he or she is. All they see is something Wrong – with a capital W. You feel caught between them. You love and, yes, respect your parents but you also love and admire your partner.
Bridging the divide is important. If you and the person you love aren’t clear about your commitment and the compromises you are willing to make to be together, the constant disapproval, whether stated or seething under the surface, can undermine your relationship. The child of the disapproving parents is caught in a terrible bind. Listening to and responding to either side makes the other feel abandoned, unloved or disrespected. The partner who is the focus of dislike may feel constantly under pressure to prove her or himself to be worthy. If unrewarded, the efforts can soon turn to resentment and anger that spills into the relationship.
Fortunately, there are less drastic solutions than the romantic death scene in Romeo and Juliet. Like Tevye in Fiddler or Robert in Downton Abbey, there are parents who eventually accept their adult children’s choices and even give their blessing. But it takes work and willingness. It doesn’t happen by magic or by argument.
Don’ts and Dos for closing the gap:
1. Don’t meet criticism with criticism.
Your parents’ values, traditions, and feelings have helped make you who you are. They have been the guiding light for perhaps generations and have been central to your family’s identity. Putting down your family history isn’t honest or helpful.
2. Do be compassionate.
The older generation clings to their attitudes and opinions because it helps them feel safe in a changing world. Their intentions are probably good. Find ways to reassure your family of origin that you appreciate and honor your past while you are also becoming part of the global community that includes people from other walks of life.
3. Don’t meet parental disapproval with defensiveness and argument.
Defensiveness implies that there is something to defend. Arguing implies you can be argued out of it.
4. Do respond to their concerns with respect and clarity. Acknowledge that a cross-cultural marriage is going to be difficult. Express your sadness that they feel the way they do. Affirm your love for them and your general respect for their opinions but be clear that you have made your decision. Quiet certainly is far more effective than angry words.
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