BY TAYLOR MARKARIAN
When it comes to dating, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. But sometimes it’s not what you’re doing that’s causing problems in your relationship, it’s the parents. Whether yours or your partner’s, parents can certainly have a way of butting in where they shouldn’t and can turn your relationship sour.
To get the scoop on what kind of meddling behavior to watch out for from mom and dad, I interviewed noted psychologist Dr. Ben Michaelis, who has been featured in magazines like Women’s Health, The Washington Post and Parents and professional matchmaker Susan Trombetti, who runs Exclusive Matchmaking in Maryland and has written features in Cosmopolitan and Shape.
Between these two experts, there’s a lot of expert advice that you need to pay attention to if you want to save your relationship from parental interference.
The models of love they give
Parents shape their children’s future love lives from the very beginning. The way you’re raised and the environment in which you grow up influence the way you perceive, feel, and give love.
“We learn about love from our parents,” Dr. Michaelis said. “It’s part of the authority that parents get. Whether we move towards the model of love that our parents provide for us or we move away from it, it’s still their model that we base our assumptions on.”
Dr. Michaelis gave me two examples of how parents’ love models have affected some of his patients. In one case, a young woman had been taught by her mother to think that she should always have a man in her life. This caused her to continuously be in relationships, even if they weren’t healthy. In another scenario, a young woman was spoiled with gifts from her father as a child and expected her current partner to show his love the same way. Of course, that’s not how the boyfriend felt, and it nearly destroyed the partnership. So the lesson here is that while you can’t change how your parents affected you as a child, you can be aware of it and decide how you act as an adult to maintain a healthy, strong relationship.
Crossing boundaries and lines of communication
A major way that parents interfere in their adult child’s relationship is by crossing boundaries and appropriate lines of communication, like reaching out directly to their child’s partner to give their two cents about how the relationship, or even getting other family members involved.
Dr. Michaelis remarked, “Any time a parent reaches out to their kid’s partner or their kid’s partner’s family, there’s boundaries being crossed. It’s very dangerous once you do that. If they have any concerns about the relationship they should be taking it to their child, not to their child’s boyfriend or girlfriend.” According to Dr. Michaelis, some parents will even go to their kid’s siblings to get them to try and reinforce their disapproval of the relationship.
While it is completely normal for a parent to give their child relationship advice, it isn’t right to go any further. A romantic relationship is for the people in that relationship to work on, not their parents. A parent might even mean well by doing this, but it is still detrimental and cause for awkwardness. If you feel your partner’s parents are too hands on, don’t be afraid to talk to your partner about it. If you don’t, it’ll just keep happening.
Being overly attached
The monster of all monsters is “The Mama’s Boy.” At least, that’s what professional matchmaker Trombetti had to say from her experience working with couples. And let’s be real, anyone who has been in a relationship with someone like this knows how awful it can be. To be clear, it’s not bad for a man or woman to love or interact with their mother, but it is when the bond is a little too strong; one can even say aggressive.
“The worst way [to interfere] is when they’re a mama’s boy and the mom is just competing with the girlfriend,” Trombetti said. “When you’re the girl and [his] mom’s interfering, she wants to be the confidant to him. Instead of encouraging him to go to you and build that relationship… she sees you as a threat.”
When the mom interferes to this extent, it’s not only intrusive but it’s majorly creepy. “I’ve seen mothers that I think if they could crawl in bed and have sex with their son they would,” Trombetti stated. “It’s ridiculous, they’re so competitive.” And it isn’t just reserved for men and their mothers. This kind of over-involvement and over-attachment can also happen with women and their fathers. The result is a weird and angering experience that will eventually break up the relationship.
Forcing family expectations on your partner
If your partner comes from a different culture than you do or their parents are very strict about their family lifestyle and expectations, your relationship may be doomed from the start. Dr. Michaelis said, “A lot of times, I see this particularly when younger folks are involved with people outside their parents’ group… people outside of their socioeconomic class, different race, different religion.”
Yes, it is racist, classist, and and prejudicial, but the families don’t necessarily see it that way. They see it as preserving their beliefs. For example, Indian parents tend to be very firm about their children marrying another Indian, or at least doubtful of them marrying someone who isn’t Indian. Similarly, Jewish parents may also insist on their child marrying another Jew. These are just a few examples.
Some families never come around to the idea of their child dating outside their group and the child in question gives in to their will. However, that’s not to say that intercultural relationships can’t succeed. It just may be a trying experience for the family and their child’s partner to get used to each other. But either way, if your partner’s family utterly disapproves of you from the get go, they will be sure to let your partner know and on a pretty frequent basis. The question is, can you handle that?
Pushing their problems on their kids
When a person’s parents are having marital problems, it can be hard on them in many ways, including their romantic relationships. Watching a marriage dissolve can give a person a cynical outlook on their own love lives.
“[Divorce] can influence them in terms of the parent saying, ‘You should avoid people like your father,’ [and] making stereotypes in that regard,” Dr. Michaelis told me. “It’s really important for parents to know their issues so they don’t put them on their own kids.” Even if it’s not divorce, parents can still push their problems on to their kids and harm relationships. If at least one of the parents has a drinking or drug problem, that will no doubt cause stress and emotional issues. Your partner might feel like they need to be there more for their parents than they are for you.
When things like these happen, your partner has to be able to figure out a way to find balance in their life and separate it from those of their parents. This isn’t to say that they have to abandon their family, but they have to be able to distinguish the difference between their parents’ relationship and their own relationship. Just because your parents may be dysfunctional, doesn’t mean that your relationship has to be.
Manipulating you with money
Money can be a huge factor in a romantic relationship. Not making enough money and struggling with finances can put a lot of pressure on people. But money can also cause problems for your relationship when parents get involved. For instance, if your partner’s parents keep giving them (and by extension, you) money to fall back on, they can have control over your relationship in other ways, too.
“Money is a big way parents interfere,” said Dr. Michaelis, “and they don’t always do that maliciously either. But sometimes they do. They give you the money and they say, ‘As long as I’m supporting you, this is what you’re going to do.'” Financial interference can lead to other kinds of interference that impact your lifestyle as a couple. It can put you on puppet strings that pull at your partner’s parents’ every beck and call.
The quickest and best solution to this problem is to find a way to adequately support yourselves without parental help. There are a lot of ways in which a person needs to be independent to make a romantic relationship work, and financial independence is one of them. You don’t want to be in the position where you’re indebted to your potential in-laws. Self-sufficiency is key.
Making special occasions difficult
Despite the joy they are supposed to bring, holidays can be some of the roughest days of the year. Spending the entire day with your whole family can be exhausting on its own, but holidays can cause problems in relationships as well. You may feel like you should spend the holidays with your significant other, but their family may be hellbent on having your partner all to themselves.
“They can interfere in holiday dinners and pull your significant other to be with them and not bring you, and really you might feel like you should be sharing in that time,” Trombetti explained. For a growing couple, holidays are occasions that foster bonding. But when a couple is separated, they are denied that opportunity.
Spending time with each other’s families is only natural as a couple becomes more involved, and if your partner’s parents are trying to prevent that it’s a big warning sign. It means they don’t approve of you or don’t consider you enough of a factor to be engaged in family activities. This can definitely create tension and spark arguments with your partner.
Showing up frequently
Couples need time alone together to be able to foster their relationship. However, this quality time can get interrupted when parents decide to make a nuisance of themselves. If you live together, for example, your partner’s mother might start bringing food to your place every few days or their father might show up unannounced to fix a leaky sink he saw last time he came by. Somehow, you just can’t seem to get rid of them.
“They can show up at odd times,” Trombetti said. “They can show up during quality time which is really preventing the bonding.”
So why do parents do this? According to Trombetti it’s because they’re overprotective and feel the need to hover. They could want to observe your relationship, or they could want to prevent certain things from happening in your relationship, like frequent sex. Whatever their reason for hanging around, it is intrusive and can be extremely frustrating. Not feeling like you have enough freedom can be suffocating, and that can be enough to make you want to call it quits.
Sometimes it’s unconscious
Before you start to hate your partner’s parents too much, take a moment to consider that they might not even realize how troublesome they’re being. They might just be doing what they think is right or normal. Some families operate on hyper-involvement while some give each other more space.
“They don’t even mean sometimes to be so dysfunctional and cause trouble,” Trombetti told me, even admitting that sometimes she wants to interfere in her own kid’s love lives. For some parents, it’s more of a knee-jerk reaction than a malicious plot.
It’s not just your partner’s parents, either. Your partner can be very used to their parents’ involvement in every aspect of their lives and might not even realize that it’s a problem for you as a couple. Trombetti explained, “[Your partner] can’t be committed [to you] because they’re committed to their mom, and sometimes they don’t even realize that this is strange behavior because it’s their norm.” So what seems weird or harmful to you might not even cross your partner’s mind as something strange or problematic.
What to do about it
Recognizing these problems is only half the battle. What really counts is how you as a couple handle it. Both Trombetti and Dr. Michaelis told me that the solution to any of these issues is for both partners to learn to become more independent.
“Young adults especially need to be autonomous,” Dr. Michaelis said. “They need to go out and try things in the world and also make mistakes.” Part of being autonomous is learning how to establish and maintain boundaries in life; knowing where your parents’ involvement begins and ends. “Healthy boundaries within families make for better relationships for their children going forward,” Dr. Michaelis continued. “That’s something that I constantly advocate, is healthy boundaries.”
Trombetti offered some useful questions you should be asking to evaluate your relationship, such as have they stopped calling mama and daddy for every little thing? Are you the first person they call for advice or tell their good news to? Trombetti suggests that if the answer to these questions is a resounding no, then you’ve got a lot of work to do to get the relationship where it needs to be. If your partner is able to slowly but surely take steps toward independence—steps away from their parents and toward you—then the relationship can be saved. If not, it looks like mom and dad are keeping them after all!