Parental Controls

Noodle
asks:
I have been in a monogamous relationship with someone my age for two years. We have been sexually active for a year now. My parents are religious and conservative, and believe strongly that there is no place for sex outside of marriage and I shouldn't be committed to my boyfriend until I have graduated college, which I am attending now. I have a very close relationship with my parents and didn't want to have to keep up a facade of chastity, so I told my mom that my boyfriend and I have been having sex. She was very upset and it launched a 3 month ordeal of restructuring boundaries for my boyfriend and I and reestablishing trust with me. My parents insist they still like my boyfriend as a person, but they no longer want us to have anything to do with one another. My boyfriend and I go to different schools and are apart for months at a time. We were originally planning to visit one another, but my mother says that if he visits it will permanently damage their relationship with him and my relationship with them. Over winter break, we were not allowed to ride in the same car together unless there was an adult chaperoning us, and my parents made sure we spent just as much time with them as with his family. It was horrible, and my mental health really suffered. I want to be able to go back to having a free, adult relationship with my boyfriend, but I also want my parents to approve of him again. I am dreading going home, but I really want to be able to see my love again. Any advice would be very welcome.
Heather Corinna replies:

This is one of those situations that I think is telling you it's time to start claiming -- and insisting upon -- your independence.

I kept the title you chose for this because it's clear you know what the problem is: control. The solution is about control, too: you taking control of your own life and refusing to let anyone take that from you by creating and holding healthy boundaries. Your mother has mentioned "restructuring" boundaries for you and your boyfriend. Those boundaries aren't hers to manage or be part of. The boundaries she should be part of restructuring -- or creating in the first place -- are between you and herself.

I'm so sorry you've had to go through this. Finding love in our lives is something to celebrate. It should be something the people who love us want for us and celebrate with us. But not everyone will always be on board, even with something so wonderful -- for a giant range of reasons, mostly to do with someone's own personal growth work that needs doing. If and when someone is trying to keep control over us, love we find with someone else can be something unfortunately viewed as a threat, not a blessing. In my experience, sex is usually a red herring in situations like this, rather than the sole issue its being presented as. It's pretty easy, after all, to use religious doctrine or belief about sex to scare or control someone, and that is also a lot easier for someone to justify than simply saying, or admitting to themselves, that what's really going on is that they just want to keep you in their control, and things like love with someone else, or sex, scare them because those things are largely out of their control and about you, not them; about you moving into your own life, separate from them.

Keeping your sexual life as private as you want it to be is a right everyone should have, and having a sexual life you didn't share with her is not a betrayal of trust. Children do not owe their parents every detail -- or even any detail -- of their sexual lives, especially once they're adults. You didn't betray your mother's trust, and I'm sorry that she is presenting it that way. In fact, this sounds a lot to me like the way she was talking about boundaries between you and your boyfriend when she should be looking at boundaries between the two of you. If there has been any lack of trust here, it's probably about you not trusting her when it comes to sharing information about your sexual life, because you suspected she'd react the ways that she has rather than being someone you could trust to receive this information without using it to try and control or punish you.

You talk about what your mother has done in terms of laying down rules for you. But. You're a legal adult, so she actually can't do that anymore unless you allow her to.

Reaching the age of majority doesn't give us a whole lot all by itself, but one of the biggest things it gives us is freedom from adults who once had the legal right to control us. Your mother doesn't have that anymore, and she can't keep doing this stuff without your permission and your cooperation. I'd encourage you to stop cooperating, and to start resisting and taking a real stand for yourself. You already have the right and the power to do that: now you just need to claim it.

Some parents have a hard time letting go of control over their children's lives as they are becoming adults. And often, the more a parent controlled their children growing up, the less likely they are to want to relinquish that control. But however they rationalize that, and however scary it may feel for them to let go of it, controlling you is not at all good for your relationship as a family, nor for the other relationships in your life. The person it's worst for, though, is you. Letting your life be controlled by someone else has a huge and negative impact on your relationship with yourself: on your self-esteem, and as you observed, on your mental health. You sharing what you did with your mother wasn't something you had to do.

Parents need to evolve in their relationships with their children as they grow and become adults. Part of parenting -- not just doing it well, but doing the job that is parenting at all -- involves helping your children transition from childhood into adults who can live independently and separate from you in healthy ways. If and when parents don't do that, or worse still, behave in ways that intentionally hold you back from living your own life as an adult, everyone suffers.

You obviously can't control them, either. But you don't need to: you just need to take control of yourself and your own life, and change your own behavior with them. What's missing here most are some healthy boundaries, and you have the power and ability to change that, regardless of how they behave. Changing that for yourself will at least curb some of this, and at best, may wind up changing the dynamics within your whole family for the better over time, which is good for everyone. I know that it can seem like parents who have behaved the same way will never change, but them staying stuck like this really isn't a given. Plenty of parents who mucked things up in some ways do manage to turn things around later on, and our relationships with our parents as adults can sometimes turn into something radically different -- and better -- than the relationships we had with them growing up.

I suspect a big part of the reason that those car rides felt so utterly hideous is that you were in a situation, as an adult, where your mother was treating you like a child, and you let her, probably because you just didn't feel able to stand up for yourself or didn't know how. I'm not saying her behavior was or is your fault: it wasn't and it isn't. She's responsible for her behavior. If you feel this powerless in the face of it, this kind of behavior is probably common, and facing it as a legal adult, with power and agency you didn't have until recently, is new and unfamiliar. (You may not even fully believe you have it, but I promise, you do.) Learning to take a stand for ourselves when the stakes are high, and they always are with family, is something that takes time and practice to learn, and when we haven't been supported in doing that by and with family, it's much more challenging.

So, what you want -- and need, if you want things to change, and I'd say for your well-being, they have to -- to start doing is setting hard, clear limits with them. They can't keep behaving the exact same ways if you start behaving differently: changing your behavior can effectively make them have to change theirs, because they can't keep responding the same ways to you when you're responding differently to them.

I'd suggest you sit down with them and talk about this -- you already had one very hard talk and took a stand with something big, so you know you can do this -- and plan to come to them with an opening that goes something like this:

I know you don't agree with the choices I am making, and it's clear that we have different ethics and beliefs about some of this. We're different people, so that will happen sometimes, and I hope we can work together to find a way to respect and accept our differences, rather than any of us trying to force the other into being someone they're not and don't want to be.

I am not going to ask you to change what you believe, and I ask that you start trying to do the same with me: I need you to start affording me some real respect as a person, even when that person is different than you want her to be.

I need to set some boundaries here, and I am asking that you respect them. Even if you don't, though, I will still hold them for myself. It's past the time in my life for you to be making rules for me: it's time for you to now trust that you did your job in raising me the best you could, and allow me to take what I choose to from all of that to live my own life. I need you to let me make my own choices with this relationship and my sexual life: they are not yours to make, they are mine, and I am an adult who has the right to have them and be responsible for them as my own. Starting right now, I am asking you to stop trying to control me in this regard, and to start learning to recognize me as an adult with the ability and right to make my own choices. If I want advice or help from you, I promise I will ask for it.

I am asking that you try to learn to support me in my choices -- whether you agree with them or not. If you do not want to do that or do not feel you can, then at the very least, I ask you step back and allow me to make my own choices. You may not force me to do things anymore. The kinds of things that happened over break need to stop, now. If you won't stop trying to do them, I will make what changes I can so you don't have the opportunity to try, like limiting my contact with you.

I love you and I do want you in my life. I do care about what you think, and I care about being your daughter. But what I hope is that I can keep having you in my life, and being your daughter, in a way that's much more healthy and appropriate for parents and their adult children. The way things have been going isn't. If you need some time to sort all of this through for yourself, I understand, but even if your feelings or thoughts about any of this need time to shift and change, the behavior that has been happening here needs to change right now. Know that I am going to do what I can on my part to create that change.

Those are my words, so they might not feel like a fit for you, but something along those lines is what you'll want to really start setting and holding boundaries and standing up for yourself. I don't know what style of communication feels like the best fit for you with something like this, so if something like this face-to-face feels impossible or just too scary, it may be that doing it in a letter or a phone call works better. Whatever kind of communication works best for you, and makes you feel your most capable and safe is fine.

You may have some arrangements or adjustments you have to make, as well, to hold your lines. If you are living with your parents over break, and they refuse to honor the limits and boundaries you are asking for, you'll need to find somewhere else to stay, or may need to stay at school for breaks for a while instead of at home. You and your boyfriend may need to get creative about ways to visit each other that don't rely on you being at home. If your folks are footing some or all of the bill for school, or related things like money for your housing, phone or food, they may even threaten to remove that help and support, so you may need to start looking into more financial aid, loans, work study or some part-time work apart from school. I hope they don't behave that way -- and of course, since your mother is saying school matters so much, if they did pull that one, it'd be awfully hypocritical -- but not knowing the bigger picture of your family and exactly how controlling they are, and how badly they want to maintain that control, I do think things like this are sound to prepare yourself for as best you can. They also may refuse to honor your boundaries when you have this talk, which may mean you need to go ahead and limit your contact with them so that you can hold those boundaries without their cooperation.

For things to really change, you will also have to start to let go of wanting their approval so badly. I know it can sound weird to think strategically like this with family, but if they can tell you're really hungry for it, you give them a pretty easy in to control or manipulate you. Caring less about our parents approval is part of our development into adults, but that doesn't mean it happens automatically or easily. This is just another one of these things, like setting boundaries, where you start working on it, and it will become easier over time.

I'd also try and remember that approval and support aren't the same thing. If all we've ever gotten is approval or disapproval, we may have approval confused with support (or go for approval because we feel that's the only way we'll get something resembling support), but I assure, you, they're very different. Support feels better and is more substantial and meaningful than approval. Support also tends to come with far fewer conditions than approval. Often, when we want approval very badly, what we actually want is support, which can happen with or without approval, and is a lot more emotionally nourishing than approval can ever be. Odd as it may sound, when we let go of seeking approval with people, that's usually how we find out who really is or isn't going to give us support.

I want to add that some of this may sound scary as hell. It's always at least a little (if not very) intimidating to start to be independent, and it can feel especially scary if you grew up in a family that exerted, and continues to try and exert, a lot of control and who clearly resisted or are resisting your independence. We may feel scared that if we don't do as they want, they'll just ditch us: and with some families, that is what happens, temporarily or permanently. I think you and I can agree, though, that anyone who'd dump you entire if you insisted on being your own person, and one deserving of respect, isn't a person to keep investing your heart in, nor someone to spend any more time around than you have to.

I know that's an awful possible reality to face, and hopefully, that won't be how this goes. But if you can hold basic lines like that -- like having it be a given you won't go bonkers trying to hold on to people who don't treat you with respect and care, but will just let them go, even if it hurts -- it does make it far more likely your life will be full of healthy people and relationships that benefit your life, rather than unhealthy ones who try and keep you from your life and what you want from it. In the event they refuse to work on learning to treat you with respect and real care, this may be the kind of choice you're looking at. Should that happen, I hope that you feel able, however hard it is, to stand up for yourself and insist on only having people in the deeps of your life who don't make you feel this way; who are supportive, respectful and kind, and who aim to make you feel good about yourself and strong in navigating your own life, not humiliated and powerless.

Extra bonus: if your parents are earnestly concerned about you being able to commit to your own goals in life in a relationship, then you learning to create healthy boundaries, stand up for yourself and insist people in your life do not control you is not only excellent evidence they needn't have that concern, it's also good practice for you to assure you don't wind up with more people in your life who try and control you. Strong boundaries and an insistence on being treated with respect is seriously powerful repellent against controlling people, be they parents or partners.

You already took a big step by disclosing you'd been sexual, knowing they weren't going to be happy about it. That's strong evidence that you know how to stand up for you and you can. The outcome so far has been utter crap, sure, but here you are, still standing, and still making efforts to claim your independence. Chances are good that if you just keep doing that -- paired with setting and holding some healthy, hard boundaries -- your parents will not keep acting the same way, and will probably start to do some growing of their own.

It may take them time to come around. They may react poorly to this, and may even shut you out for a while, or you may need to stay away from them for a while to really hold your ground. Obviously, you're going to have to figure out how you feel about that, and figure out what you need in order to handle that possibility, like getting some extra support from friends and your boyfriend, or support from a counselor who can help you learn how to set and hold these kinds of boundaries and cheer you on as you work through all of this. However hard making these kinds of changes may be, however, I think you're way more likely to feel better about making them -- even in the rough parts -- than you are staying stuck in how things have been. Most of us who have gone through situations like this and did what we could, even when it was terribly difficult, to stand up for ourselves will tell you that looking back, we're so glad we did, even if and when our families reacted poorly. It's a lot easier to deal with even the worst of things when we are being our own strong advocates, and giving ourselves support and respect, and it makes the best of things life has to offer feel even better.

I hope, should you take these steps, that they go as well as they possibly can. If you find you need more help and support as you make them, or just want to talk about considering them, please feel free to use one of our direct services: we're happy to talk more with you about any of this as needed. You've got my very best wishes and support in forging ahead with the life that you want for yourself, and one where you're afforded the respect you very much deserve.