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Dating Advice #108 - Leaving the Nest

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Some bad energy at her parents' house has him worried. Is this what their future marriage will look like?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I am 24 years old, just graduated university and am starting to earn a living. I've been dating a woman for two years and we are committed to continuing this courtship until we are able to pay for our expenses and wedding. All this is fine, but there are some problems I consider sensitive.

Lately this woman’s family has been coping with some legal and economic problems), and this is taking a toll on her mood. She's getting depressed!

Her parents and siblings act very differently from how I would like my own "future family" to act. The kids are not getting good grades, most of the time they fight, and they are often disrespectful. My in-laws-to-be are not looking for ways to improve this, and my impression is that they don't care so much about what kind of people their kids turn out to be.

My future fiance is not at all like this. She is respectful and polite, but lately she has been uncomfortable about all this. Living with them has not been easy because she has to cope with this and she is starting to become more insensitive to these conducts. She is 20 years old and just came back from a one-year Jewish experience in Israel which enriched her life enormously and changed her very positively in many ways.

My big question is this: I am willing to marry as soon as I make some money to start renting our own place, but it keeps bothering me the thought of marrying someone whose family I do not like because of how they think and act toward others. I've heard a number of times that a woman's children tend to resemble her own siblings, and I would definitely not want my kids to be that way!

How can I measure and weigh to make a correct decision before continuing this courtship? What should I look for in this woman that will give me hints about what she will become once she leaves her parents? Will she turn into many of the things she grew up with at home, or will she continue to nurture the string Jewish values she has acquired in recent years? Is her current depression a serious thing, or should I hold on for some better times? How can I figure out what to do?

I am happy dating her, but I am starting to become uneasy about these situations. I want to make the right decisions in life. What do you suggest?


Dear Hank,

Dear Hank,

Returning home after a spiritually uplifting year in Israel can depress anyone. It must be especially difficult for this woman to return to a home environment that is bringing her down spiritually and emotionally. We hope that as she "lands" from her Israel experience, she can discover how to incorporate much of what she has internalized, so that she can be her own person despite her less-than-ideal surroundings.

It may help her to adopt the attitude of "grin and bear it." In a relatively short time she should be able to leave home. Perhaps the two of you will get married, perhaps she can live in a university dormitory... there are many possibilities, and she should formulate a plan for when to move out.

In the meantime, she can adopt coping mechanisms that can help her be much happier. First, we recommend that she structure her day to spend less time at home. School, work, volunteering, Jewish learning, and going out with friends are productive ways to fill her week, and will also enable her to continue to grow intellectually, spiritually and emotionally.

Most 20-year-olds don't spend much time at home, so nothing we're suggesting is unusual. When she is at home, she should try to balance her own need for quiet, personal time with the fact that her parents would appreciate, and possibly even expect, her to participate in some family activities and/or to help around the house. Despite her unhappiness with the situation, she should be able to discuss these expectations with her parents so that there aren't conflicts about how and when she helps out, and how and when she is with the family. And, of course, despite the fact that she doesn't see eye-to-eye with the way her parents conduct their home-life, she should speak to them respectfully.

As the two of you mature, you will both come to understand that her parents have settled into a way of coping with family life that is best for them. That doesn't mean that she will emulate this style when she has her own home, but it does mean that she will have to make a concerted effort to act differently, beginning now.

First, we suggest that the two of you discuss the values that are important to you, and what you would like to impart to your children. You can also discuss the ways you would like to relate to each other as a married couple. When you have this discussion, depersonalize what you have to say. Don't say, "I don't like the way your parents have no ambition for their children," because even if your girlfriend agrees with you, this approach will put her on the defensive. (And a general rule is that you should always avoid speaking negatively about your in-laws, even if she herself criticizes them.)

Instead, both of you can talk about the qualities you have seen in many families that you admire and would like to emulate, as well as aspects that you would like to keep out of your home. Then you can talk about ways to emulate those positive qualities in the way you conduct yourselves day-to-day, even before you get married.

Of course, the two of you cannot expect to see eye-to-eye on everything, but you will probably find that you agree on most things. The important thing is that she accepts the fact that she won't be able to change the way her family behaves, but can find ways to cope with their behavior.

It will also help for both of you to have a mature attitude about behavior modification. It is easy for anyone to fall into the same patterns of behavior they observed while growing up, but it is possible to change negative behaviors and replace them with positive ones. It does take time, however, and when two people are married they may have to patiently work together to help each other make gradual changes. You can see how this is done by reading our book, "In The Beginning," and by reading an excellent guide to marriage by Rabbi Simcha Cohen called, "What Did You Say? Making Yourself Understood In Marriage."

That being said, we'll close by answering your question about the qualities a couple should look for when they think about getting married. First, you should have compatible values and goals. Then you can look at the acronym P-A-I-R, to help you remember the qualities that form the building blocks in a good relationship:

1. P = Physical attraction.

2. A = Admiration, affection and acceptance. There are qualities that each of you should admire about each other -- for example, that she's a dedicated doctor, he is a talented carpenter, that she does a lot of kindness, etc.

Affection means caring about someone else. Notice that we don't use the word "love" to describe a basic ingredient for a relationship. That's because everyone has a different definition of what love means. In addition, most couples find that their love for each other doesn't really grow until they live together as a married couple.

Acceptance means that you accept each other as human beings who have flaws as well as good points. Each of you will have some character traits the other isn't crazy about. What's important is that the positive qualities far outweigh any negative ones, and that you accept the whole package without thinking that you are going to change them.

3. I = Intimacy, particularly emotional intimacy. This is the emotional closeness of being very good friends who can open up, trust, give emotional support, and enjoy each other's company.

4. R = Respect. Each of you has to respect each other's opinion, lifestyle, etc. Respect is vital to a relationship, and when it's missing, the relationship is in trouble.

If you have all these ingredients, you have the foundation for a good marriage. We wish you the best of luck.

Rosie & Sherry

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