When Worlds Collide: Dating and Dealing With Parents
You’ve met someone who makes your heart go pitter-patter, who gives you butterflies, who makes you want to shout your feelings for them from the rooftops.
That’s great, except that now you’re facing down a process that, according to a bazillion sitcoms and teen dramas, ought to fill you with dread: introducing this person to your parents and trying to peacefully navigate your parents’ feelings about your budding romance.
Can that process be stressful and difficult? Oh, yes. Is it survivable and often informative? Also yes.
One of the biggest factors in how well that process goes is your willingness to play a proactive role in it. It’s tempting to cross your fingers and hope that everything will shake out okay, and that the number of awkward or difficult interactions will be minimal. But you’re going to have an easier time if you take active steps to figure out how your parent(s) feels about you dating someone and ways you can ease their worries and help them get to know your new love, and act accordingly. That’s where this guide comes in.
(Before we dive into the details: I’m using parent as shorthand for any adult who is a caretaker for you in your life and/or someone with legal responsibility for you. That could be a grandparent, foster parent, sibling, or someone else entirely.)
Where are they coming from?
Whether this is your first foray into the dating world or you’ve already had several partners, some of the biggest obstacles you may run up against are parental expectations.
Odds are you’ve encountered expectations before about things like how you behave at home, how you do at school, or what you’ll do with your future. When it comes to expectations about your love life, a parent could be harboring expectations as big as “I thought you’d be dating girls instead of guys,” to more minor ones like “I thought you’d bring home someone more (insert adjective of your choice).
Some expectations pop up because your parent is using stereotypes, standard stories from the wider culture about people of your gender, race, or personality type, or their own experiences to formulate their understanding of how they think your love life should to play out. Sexual orientation is a prime example of this. For instance, if you’re a girl, even pretty open-minded parents may be carrying around the assumption that you’ll date men and will need to adjust that if you come out as lesbian, bi, or another kind of queer. Expectations attached to more trivial parts of your identity can come from a variety of assumptions your parent makes about your life. To use an example from my teen years, because I was stereotypically nerdy my parents assumed I’d date people of an equal level of nerdiness. When I brought home someone who didn’t fit that mold, it took some time for them to recalibrate. Once I realized that was what was going on, I was less confused about their reactions and better able to address their misconceptions and help them understand why I was dating the person I was.
Understanding where a parent is coming from doesn’t mean you have to agree with their perspective (sometimes they may very much be in the wrong, after all). Adolescence is a time where your developing sense of self kicks into high gear. It’s completely normal, and developmentally sound, to find places where your values, beliefs, and goals differ from your parents’. Their expectations for you have built a sketch of your life in their head, but that’s all expectations are: a sketch. That sketch doesn’t have the final say about who you are and what you believe, and you don’t have to bend over backwards to fit into it. It’s just a rough idea someone else has, that may or may not be part of the real picture of your life that you make. Your love life is yours to control and, while many people can and do factor in their parents’ opinions when making choices about dating, you get the final say in what you prioritize, believe, and do in that part of your life.
It can help to take an inventory of those places where your worldviews don’t match up. That way, when your parent voices a concern or opinion, you can evaluate if it’s a viewpoint you share and decide if what they’ve said is relevant or useful to you. Having a sense of what’s just their views and just yours can also make it easier to stay cool and calm with any disagreements.
Some examples of places where your opinions on dating may differ include:
- What the “right” age for dating is.
- When (or if) to have sex with a person you’re dating.
- What dating even looks likes or what “counts” as a date.
- How much privacy or alone time you’re allowed to have with a someone you’re dating.
- How people of a certain gender, race, embodiment, ethnicity or religion should behave when dating.
There’s some serious, big-picture stuff on that list, stuff that could lead to major disagreements and arguments between you and a parent.
Ideally, your parent knows you, knows you won’t always agree with them, and they’ve been doing some work on their end to get used to that idea and learn to make room for it as you’ve grown up.
But even then, there may be times where you have to lay out a disagreement for them and ask them to respect your point of view (I really love the example of that Heather gives in this advice column). Disagreeing with your parents are a time where having and using tools for effective conflict resolution is super-important, because it can help keep arguments from turning into knock-down, drag-out fights, and help steer things towards negotiation instead. If there are times where you don’t feel up to arguing with an opinion expressed by a parent, that’s okay too. You’re allowed to give non-committal answers like, “Hmm, I don’t know,” or end the conversation with a statement like, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.” . You can also always ask for some real time to each think things through and reconnect on another day to talk more.
It’s also important to understand there is an incredibly high chance that your parent is having some Very Big Feelings about the fact you’ve entered the dating world. To them it’s a sign that you’re growing up, that you’re expanding your horizons and your relationships beyond the bounds of your family. Time went by much faster for them than it has for you, so while this may feel right on time for you, or even like it took forever, for them, it can feel like you were in diaper yesterday, so this can seem too soon from their perspective. You dating someone also introduces potential outcomes they’re afraid of: heartbreak, pregnancy or STIs, an abusive partner. If a parent hasn’t already begun to realize they can’t protect you from everything bad in the world, you dating someone will bring on that realization on quickly. That fear they feel can manifest in a ton of different ways, including disapproval, attempts at controlling your life, making the person you’re dating into the bad guy (when they aren’t), or other kinds of conflict.
Those times are when it’s crucial to understand the difference between approval and support. Your parent is not going to approve of every choice you make in your life. And that’s okay, even if in the moment if feels like a huge blow. Part of growing up is learning to make choices based on what matters to you rather than what matters to others, and learning to be able to do things you know you want and are right for you without everyone’s approval. What’s far, far more important is that your parent supports you as you move through life. Support is deeper and less conditional than approval: it means that even if they don’t understand or agree with a choice you make, they’re not going to stop loving you or trying to help you as you move towards adulthood. So, even if they don’t approve of who you’re dating or how you’re dating them, odds are they’ll still love and support you.
Your parent may think you shouldn't be dating at all. This obviously poses big issues if you do want to date someone. In this spot, you may be tempted to get sneaky and date without telling your parent. We generally don't advise doing that, for a few reasons. First off, having to hide out often takes a toll on dating relationships and makes them far less enjoyable and far more stressful than they would otherwise be. It can also be harder to spot red flags in relationships or the people in them if we're dating in opposition to parents, and if something goes wrong with the person you're dating and you need help, sneaking around introduces a barrier to help or support from your parent. The odds are also high your parent will find out eventually, and whatever fallout there is from that will often be worse than if you'd just asked them about changing their stance first, because then they'll be reacting to your dishonesty on top of everything else.
Instead, I think it's better to try talking to your parent about why they're setting limits on if you can date and see if you can understand their point of view while helping them understand yours, with the aim of finding somewhere to meet in the middle you both can live with. A lot of the communication tips in this article can help you out with that conversation. The more you can get them to talk about specific concerns (heartbreak, cultural expectations, unplanned pregnancy, et cetera), the better chance you have of finding ways to address those concerns realistically. If they keep saying, "It's inappropriate at your age," you can ask why they think that, and what they think "appropriate" romantic relationships at your age could look like to try and find room for compromise. Hopefully, the two of you can come to an understanding that allows you to be honest while still getting to pursue the relationships you want.
To TMI or Not TMI
How much should you share about your dating relationship with your parent? That depends on how much you talk to them about other things, and how comfortable you are chatting with them about personal topics. You might be able to chat about your relationship in an open, casual way with them. What’s going on with you and your partner can potentially be talked about in the same way you talk about what’s going on at school, or with your friends; you can mention things you’re worried about, things you’re excited about, or ask for advice if you’re feeling stuck on how to deal with a particular situation. It can be good to have the sounding board of someone who knows you better than most, and who — if you have this kind of parent — cares for your deeply and truly wants what’s best for you.
On the other hand you don’t need to, and often shouldn’t, share every single detail of your romantic relationship with your parents. It might feel weird to suddenly have parts of your life that you don’t share with a parent, especially if you have a close relationship with them, but just like you might have started not talking to them about every single thing happening with your body as a way to develop some healthy boundaries and separation, the same can be true with dating.
We don’t usually share every facet of our lives with every person in them. We don’t tell our parents the same things we tell our friends, and our close friends get different information from us than we give to casual acquaintances. We choose what details of our lives we share with someone based on things like trust, closeness, and even appropriateness of sharing that detail with that person. For example, your parents probably aren’t sharing the details of their sex or love life with you, because they understand that’s an important boundary for both of you to keep your relationship together healthy. So, you get to develop similar boundaries about what parts of your love life you share with them.
If you are going to talk in detail with your parents about the person you’re dating, you want it to be a conversation that happens in good faith, where everyone involved is coming at the conversation with honesty and openness, and genuinely wants to hear what the other person is saying. If your parent keeps asking you about your love life, but it is less interested in hearing what you have to say and more in sharing all the ways your partner is lacking/ways you could be acting differently/ what they think you should be doing, that’s a sign that you may want to dial back how much, if any, information you share with them about that topic because they are showing you they don’t actually want to know about that part of your life; they just want to pass judgment on it. If something like that is going on, you can even be honest and let them know that you’re going to be sharing less with them until they change their behavior and become more supportive, if you want.
It can help to decide what you’re looking for from conversations about dating or your partner. Do you want support? Advice? Is there something you want them to do with the information you give them? Or are you just super-excited that your partner got you flowers and want to share that happy feeling with an important person in your life? Having a sense of what you want to come from the conversation can make it easier to communicate your feelings and needs and helps your parent figure what their role in the conversation ought to be.
Give it Time
As with friendships, relationships with family can fall to the wayside when you’re in the midst of a new romance. Something you can do to help your parent adjust to the fact you’re dating someone is make sure you’re still putting real time and energy into your relationship with that parent (that’s assuming you have a positive, or even just an okay, relationship with them). It’s helpful to deliberately make time for the two of you to connect, and to be the initiator in that sometimes. It gives you a structured means of maintaining the relationship that is workable and enjoyable for you, or at least fairly painless. It also helps you and your parent with your transition into greater independence. You get a chance to still feel connected to each other while cultivating lives as individual people.
How you decide to spend your bonding time is up to you. If you’re living at home, maybe you have a regular movie or game night, or a night where you make dinner together. Maybe you take a class together or a spend time on a shared hobby. Or maybe you simply set aside an hour once a week to take a walk or a hike together and talk. If you’re not living at home, setting up a regular schedule of communicating, like a once a month phone call, can serve a similar purpose of letting you and your parent feel connected to each other without that connection dominating the rest of your life.
An Intro to Introductions
What’s the best way to introduce your partner to your family? That’s going to depend on your family dynamics, cultural expectations, and what everyone involved is comfortable doing, but there are a few things to consider that can make the situation as low-stress as possible.
Avoid high-stakes or stressful situations when possible: Stress doesn’t tend to bring out the best in people, and you ideally want both your parent and your partner to be able to be their best selves when they first meet. If you can avoid it, don’t introduce your partner to your parent during a moment where emotions are running high or people are on edge. For example, is someone in your family going through a major emergency? Now may not be the best time to bring your partner over after school. Likewise, are you or your partner in the middle of final exams? Maybe save the introduction until after those tests and last-minute cramming sessions are finished. By doing that, you’re helping create a situation where everyone is more relaxed and can concentrate on getting to know each other rather than on the stressful things looming over their head.
Make a meeting where everyone can have something else to focus on besides just meeting. This is the same advice I give parents when they ask how to have conversations with their kids about sex. When people are doing an activity, rather than staring at each other across a quiet table, it can make the situation feel more casual and comfortable. That’s not to say inviting a significant other over for dinner to meet your parent is a bad idea; it works great for lots of people. You can even do that in a way that involves some activity, like making dinner together, or grilling out on your apartment deck. Think of a pleasant outing or activity that gives everyone the chance to get a feel for each other without anyone feeling like they’re being interrogated or stared down. Zoos, sporting events, walks, or museums all work great for this because they offer built-in things to talk about other than you and your partner’s relationship.
Maybe the most important part of getting through this process is accepting that there is going to be at least some awkwardness, tension and discomfort between you and parents once you start dating. But that doesn’t mean your relationship with them is ending; instead, it’s going through a natural shift, one of many that comes with growing from adolescence into adulthood. If you do what you can to communicate, connect, and fight fair with your parent as you move through that process, you’ll be doing a ton to help it be easier for everyone.
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