Scarleteen Confidential: When You Don't Like Their Partner
This is part of our series for parents or guardians. To find out more about the series, click here. For our top five guiding principles for parents or guardians, click here; for a list of resources, click here. To see all posts in the series, click the Scarleteen Confidential tag below, or follow the series on Tumblr at scarleteenconfidential.tumblr.com.
It's a perennial cliché in nearly every coming of age movie, book, and sitcom. An adolescent or emerging adult character brings home a new boyfriend or girlfriend, who is met with dismay or disapproval by parents. Perhaps there is a joke (because threats of violence are apparently hilarious) made about shotguns if the daughter has brought home a boyfriend. Often, the scenario is played for laughs, or for soap opera levels of drama.
In real life, it's not unusual for parents to not immediately like the partner of their teen, or to feel wary or cautious when it comes to supporting their romantic or sexual relationship. But that situation is often emotionally fraught for both parent and child, and if those feelings aren't handled constructively, it can deteriorate the relationship between them. And in the event a parent's concerns are truly warranted, such as when a partner seems in any way abusive or dysfunctional, parental nonsupport not only creates a rift between parent and child, it also will often only further cement the romantic or sexual relationship between that child and the other person, putting them more in harm's way rather than helping them to stay or get safe.
By all means, sometimes, the things you don't like about a partner are actual, legitimate red flags that you can see, but your child can't. So how do you go about working out whether or not your concerns are valid, and what to do about them if they are?
"My partner and I have been together for nearly two years, but it seems as though my family wants to tear that away from me because he doesn't live up to their standards"
A good first step is to take a long, honest look at what your objections to this partner are and where they might be coming from.
For instance, if your child is relatively new to dating, there's a decent chance much of the discomfort has to do with your own feelings about them growing up and expressing themselves as a romantic/sexual being; about separating from you, having relationships of their own that don't really include you or aren't also yours, and just your general worries and concerns about all that can some with and be part of romantic and sexual relationships. You might be worried that they'll get their heartbroken, or be taken advantage of, or a myriad of other bad or difficult things that can emerge in relationships.
If that's the case, it can help to remember that many parents feel growing pains as their children... well, grow up. But, what's equally important to remember is that your child is becoming more and more autonomous, and part of that process is navigating the world of romantic relationships. And yes, odds are that they will have a bad break-up or two. That's part of how this whole game works, and there's not anything you can do to stop it from happening. What's more important than trying to run interference and somehow prevent them from ever being hurt is to let them explore, make their mistakes and feel their hurts, and support them when they ask for it. If you're supportive and there for them, and doing what you can to stay connected to them, rather than pushing them away with control or negativity, they'll be far better able weather the hard stuff, because they've got you.
It feels like my parents really don't approve of my relationship, that they feel it's not something mature and serious, that they don't like him or that they just plain don't trust us. I can't really explain why I get this impression as they've not really said anything specific, it's just their overall attitude about him when he's not around, the odd comments they make about him etc.
My mum has commented that my Dad "doesn't trust boys" and that "he always expects the worst of their intentions". I assume she means that they expect him to be making sexual advances. I'm not sure how to handle this because actually - yes, he does. We have fooled around and talked a lot about sex...but it's nothing to do with his "dishonorable intentions" it's just something we both want and feel comfortable with and it really isn't that big a deal for us. My Dad, on the other hand said that it was 'inappropriate' for my bf to see me in my pyjamas.
I've tried talking to them about this. I explained the other day that we felt that they didn't really approve of us and that sometimes things felt a little awkward. I said that if they weren't happy with him coming around our house so often, then I could let him know. They turned around and said I was being childish.
It's also safe to say that, for many parents, much of the discomfort with a child's partner is tied up with worries about your child being sexual, both in general, and with someone else. After all, a partner might pressure them into having sex they don't themselves really want or feel ready for. Or, even if there's no pressure involved, and sex is wanted, it comes with all the potential risks and hazards that sex with other people always does.
But as they move further and further into their teen years and their emerging adulthood, odds are good that they're either having sex of some kind, going to, or are at least considering it. Again, it helps to remember that this is part of them growing up, and your job as a parent is to help them to become adults, not keep them from it. You cannot prevent it. What you can do is give them tools to think about and weigh the risks around sex, and reassure them that you'll be there for them if they need someone to talk to about what's going on. You can check in with them and keep the lines of communication about all of this open and relaxed to make it more likely they'll keep you in the loop, and come to you with any concerns, asking for your help as they need it.
Continuing the self-examination, consider whether or not you've been harboring any expectations about the type of person you were expecting your child to date. It may be that they are of a different race, gender, or class than you imagined. Or maybe their personality is a little different than what you were anticipating (like your nerdy child bringing home a punk kid). If that's the case, then it helps to remember that appearances don't tell you everything, and that there are likely things about this person that are drawing your child to them that may not be immediately apparent to you. Too, part of what's exciting about being new to dating is getting the chance to explore and experiment with the types of people you're interested in an see what works for you. So dating someone who seems a little unexpected is actually pretty standard. You've had years to get to know and grow to love your child: this person is brand new to you, so you may just need to give it some time.
One other possibility is that you and your teen's partner just don't mesh, personality-wise. This isn't actually weird when you stop and think about it. We don't get along with everyone who comes into our lives or the lives of those we love. You probably have coworkers, friend's spouses, or even relatives who, while you feel no animosity towards them, you don't really feel any desire to be around or great interest in. Who a teen might choose to date may be someone who falls into that similar category. If that's the case, fall back on being polite and welcoming when you see them, and remember that it's not you who is maintaining the relationship here, nor is it you who it's for.
But it may be that your discomfort is because you're noticing behaviors that concern you. You know how it goes for yourself, no doubt: it's often hard to see someone's flaws when we're in thrall, especially when all of these kinds of feelings in general are so new and so heady.
What you may be noticing that's got you feeling like this may be red flags, behaviors and mindsets that indicate a relationship that may not be healthy. Either with your child or with others, like you or other family members, someone showing red flags may:
- Be controlling, or trying to control, who their partner sees, talks to, spends their time with, or what they wear or do.
- Get jealous or possessive if their partner interacts with others -- including their family members -- besides them.
- Belittle, criticize, or mock their partner or you and the things either of you likes or values.
- Treat your feelings, or their partners feelings, as unimportant or foolish.
- Try to convince you or their partner that things are not happening as you or they perceive them; be gaslighting in some way.
- Make you feel anxious or afraid when you're around them, or their partner may appear to feel that way about or around them. Their partner may become more isolated and start to feel less connected to people who aren't their partner.
- Blame you, or their partner, for everything or hold you, or their partner, responsible for their feelings.
- Threaten their partner or you physically.
Relatedly, you may be observing that since they got into this relationship, when their partner is around -- or when they're not, in-person, but are texting, messaging or calling them -- your child appears more unhappy than happy, or more nervous and fearful than comfortable and excited.
Conversely, there are also green flags to pay attention to. Someone who is a healthy partner will:
- Treat a partner, and the partner's family and friends with respect, and care including listening to your requests and minding limits or boundaries.
- Be someone around whom their partner, and you, feels happy and safe.
- Manage their feelings in healthy ways, even when in conflict with you or their partner. While you probably don't enjoy arguing with them, the thought of what they might do, or how they might react, with you or your child, doesn't frighten you.
- Have a whole life of their own outside of their relationship with their partner, and support and encourage that partner having the same.
- Seem clearly supportive of their partners interests, talents, thoughts, feelings and values, as well as your own, even in ways they may be different from theirs.
Neither of those lists is at all comprehensive (and they apply to non-romantic relationships as well), but they can give you a general sense of what red and green flags look like in practice.
What do you do if you notice red flags coming from your child's partner?
If you're concerned about possible abuse happening, you may also want to read In Love and in Danger by Barrie Levy, a great starter book on the subject.
Talk to your child about your concerns, and keep the talk about those concerns and behaviours, rather than talking about the quality of their partner as a person (such as, "He's just a jerk," rather than "I feel worried when I see how scared you are not to answer his texts right away."). Try to do this as tactfully as possible. The more you show open disapproval, or the more you try to forbid any sort of interaction, the more forbidden and thus desirable the relationship may seem. Too, if they feel that you're judging their relationship or partner, they may stop talking to you about it, which will make it even harder to take the temperature of what's going on. Make your concerns as straightforward and clear as possible: "I've been noticing that partner treats you x way, and I have to say I'm a little concerned about it. How do you feel when they do X?" Find out how they are interpreting the behaviors that concern you. It may be that the issue has not occurred to them before, or that they're perceiving the red flag in a very different way (for instance, it's common for people to initially view a jealous partner as flattering). Too, a partner who is being deliberately manipulative will often play on the idea of "our love is so unique that nobody could understand it," so be aware that you voicing your worries may been seen or heard through that lens.
When you have this conversation, try to focus less on your feelings ("I don't like it/I think this is wrong/I think that you should") and more on theirs. That may make them more receptive to what you have to say, because it feels like you expressing care for them, rather than you trying to impose your opinions onto their relationship or control them.
It may be that, even after you voice your concerns, your child does not end the relationship. You cannot force them to do so, and attempting to may make them just double down or go behind your back. Instead, if they seem reluctant to end the relationship, let them know that you will be there for them no matter what, and if they want to talk about anything, you're there to listen. That way, if things go sour, they will be more likely to come to you for help, as they won't be worried about you saying "I told you so." Check in gently and often.
It can also help to do your best to include their partner in your family and things you do together, rather than keeping them separate. That way, you can better observe how things are going, call out any problematic behaviour right to this person, themselves (again, tactfully, please: not in front of everyone, ideally, and with respect and grace), and show your child that you are supportive of their relationships, and are not interested in just shutting anyone and everyone they date out. If and when you have concerns based on these interactions, then it's also more clear they're not baseless guesses, but based on observation they know you were there to make.
Talking to a teen about how they feel about their relationship will also help you gain perspective on what ideas they have about relationships that are off or, conversely, pretty sound. Ideally, well before a teen starts dating, parents have both had conversations about relationships and what makes one healthy rather than unhealthy, and have been modeling healthy interactions within the family in their own behaviour.
Pop culture can also be helpful in this instance. Is there a book you and your child have both read, or a television show you both like that has some relationships you can discuss? Then use that as your starting point. What do they want from their relationships? How do they imagine a partner should treat them? What do they think are important traits in a partner? How would they not want to be treated? Start them thinking about relationships as something that they get to have an active part in, rather than as a something that just happens to them; as something that isn't outside their control, and is just a matter of fate. And, if it becomes relevant to your conversation, you can even direct them to some tools for thinking about and evaluating the relationships they do choose.
By having these conversations, regardless of whether or not they're seeing someone, it will feel more natural and less forced when you check in with them about their relationships. Too, it's a good habit to check in with them about how they're feeling in their relationship even if you aren't seeing red flags, and may not be the world's biggest fan of their partner, but they do seem generally okay, even if you think your eyes may roll out of your head if they go on one more long monologue about that video game or band that is JUST THE BEST EVER, or their half-baked political ideas. This doesn't have to be a daily conversation, just touching base every so often, just like we do with friends when we ask how their relationships are going. This shows that you do care about what's going on in their life, that you're interested in what's important to them without you having to pry into things they want to keep private, and demonstrates support.
In the end, the best thing you can do is to keep the lines of communication open before, during, and after your teen's relationships, even if you like their partner plenty. But letting you teen know that they can talk to you about what's going on, be that something they're happy about or unsure about, you're helping keep your own bond strong while allowing them the space they need to grow and learn.
- Potholes & Dead Ends: Relationship Roadblocks to Look Out For
- Supermodel: Creating & Nurturing Your Own Best Relationship Models
- Does Your Relationship Need a Check-Up?
- First, But Not Last: On Finding, Navigating, and Losing First Loves
- Hello, Sailor! How to Build, Board and Navigate a Healthy Relationship
- Love is Respect