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Dating Advice #275 - Sister's Mistake

May 8, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

She believes her sister is too immature for marriage. Should she try to stop it?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

My sister has been dating a man for a year, and they are considering marriage. At first, I did not like the boyfriend. He has always treated her well, but he was not someone I would have chosen. After making an effort to get to know him better, I believe he has many good qualities.

However, I still do not think my sister is ready for marriage, nor am I sure this is the right guy for her. I feel that my sister needs more time and life experience to become more self-reliant, better at making her own decisions, better with money, and to develop a higher self-esteem. She is 25 and most of her friends are getting married and having kids. Yet this is her first serious courtship and she is in transition -- she recently finished graduate school and began a new job.

I am scared she is going to get engaged to this guy soon, and I don't know if or when I should voice my concerns. Several of my sister's friends have voiced concerns and she became very upset. Should I say anything? Please advise!


Dear Sharon,

It's often hard for a family member to know if, when, and how to express concern that someone they love may be making a bad choice that will have a lifetime effect. While there are no clear-cut rules about when to intervene, we have some suggestions that may help you make a decision about whether to speak up.

Our first suggestion is that you ask yourself, "What am I really concerned about?" This isn't an easy task, because many of us rationalize one reason for our concern, when we're actually motivated by something else. For example, a mother could be upset the woman her son is dating is poorly suited to him and wonder why he would even be attracted to such a girl. If the mother looked a little deeper, she might be able to admit that the young couple genuinely likes each other, but that she's unhappy because she wanted her son to bring home a woman who is more attractive, talented, thin, whatever.

He doesn't fit the picture of who you want your sister to marry.

You've made a big stretch by being able to look beyond your initial wariness and see that this guy really is a good person who treats her well. It may also have been difficult for you to admit that the reason you didn't like him at first was that he isn't your "type" of person. Could these two issues still be coloring your uncertainty about whether he's right for your sister? Perhaps you're unsure about him because he doesn't fit the picture of who you expected your sister to marry.

Our next suggestion is that you examine all of your feelings about the idea of marriage in general, and your sister getting married in particular. When do you think is the optimal time for a person to get married? Do you expect that marriage should take place after a person has established their career and their financial well-being? Perhaps you believe that someone fresh out of graduate school, who may have student loans or a non-existent bank account, is too young or unsettled to get married. These perspectives may color your view of your sister's readiness for marriage.

Can you look a little closer at the worldview of your sister and her friends? They're focused on marrying young and beginning families, and are willing to build their careers and financial futures as a couple. Perhaps your disagreement with this outlook makes you view your sister as immature and irresponsible.

There may be other reasons why you think that your sister is not ready for marriage. Perhaps you're older, and always see her as a little sister. If you're not yet married, you may have mixed feelings about the possibility of your younger sister getting married before you. Or could it be that you don't want to get married at this point in your life and can't see why your sister feels ready to take this step.

If any of these are the case, then the problem is with you, not her, and you should not be raising objections about her possible marriage.

Defining Immaturity

On the other hand, you may have valid objections. We'd like you to look more carefully about your specific concerns and find examples that back them up. For example, is there something about the way your sister and this man relate to each other that concerns you? Is there frequent conflict that the couple has trouble managing? Do they fight often? Does one of them seem controlling or disrespectful toward the other? Have you seen or suspect physical or verbal abuse? Do you believe that one of the parties seems unstable, irresponsible, or has another serious issue that may impact upon the health of the relationship?

These are what we call red flags, and might indicate significant problems that you'd want to discuss with your sister.

We also suggest that you look more closely at the belief that your sister is too immature to get married. How do you define immaturity? What are the concrete reasons why you think your sister is not mature? Readiness for marriage isn't only defined by a person's age and position in life (e.g., 25 and just out of graduate school). Many young adults don't have a great deal of career or life experience, but are nevertheless mature enough to be married. "Immaturity" means not being able to manage one's own day to day affairs, not knowing how to manage money, exhibiting poor judgment, not having goals or a sense or direction in life, inability to make major decisions on one's own, or not being able to follow through on responsibilities. Unless one or more of these warning sings are present, then it's up to you sister to decide if she is ready for marriage.

You've mentioned that your sister's friends have expressed concerns. What are they? What are the examples they can point to that back up their worries?

Concrete Examples

In our experience, when one person has problems accepting another's courtship, it could be based on many factors that have little to do with objective circumstances. However, it is often the case that when more than one person is uncomfortable with the situation, a genuine problem does exist.

Acknowledge that you may be overstepping your boundaries.

If the concerns that you and your sister's friends have are based on her immaturity or on the health of the relationship, you can sit down with her and voice what you're worried about in a non-confrontational and non-judgmental way. Begin by telling her that you love her and want the best for her. Acknowledge that you may be overstepping your boundaries, but are doing so because you feel you must say something. Enumerate your concerns and give concrete examples for her to understand why you feel as you do. Ask her to think about what you have said, and tell her that that's the sole purpose of your talk. You can also suggest that if she wants more clarity on the situation, she should seek out a third party whom she respects.

There are many different ways your sister may react to your talk. Even though you will be careful not to attack her or her judgment, she may become defensive. Or she may admit that she also has concerns and may want to talk about them with you, or she may prefer to talk to someone who is less emotionally involved in her life. Or she may thank you for your concern, but politely tell you this is not your business.

In any case, you have to respect what your sister decides to do, and not argue with her choice or take offense that she won't "listen" to you. Once you tell her your concerns, she has to decide what to do about them. She's an adult and she has to be in control of her own life.

And that's the bottom line, even though it may be one that's difficult to accept. Our loved ones sometimes make decisions or choices we don't agree with or which we believe are mistakes, but they have to be free to make them.

We wish you the best of luck,

Rosie & Sherry

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