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Dating Maze #333: My Parents' Red Flag

May 8, 2011 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

My parents want me to break up with a great woman I've been dating. Should I listen to them?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I'm a 32-year-old man who has been dating a great woman. She's bright, personable, kind, and fun to be with. We had chemistry from the start. We also have similar life goals and religious values. I like her and would like to continue seeing her.

So why am I writing? My parents are pressuring me to stop seeing her. They are friendly with relatives of hers, and have learned that her parents have had serious marital problems in the past. My parents are also concerned that a medical issue in the family may have a genetic component.

I want to be sure I’m not ignoring a red flag.

I can understand my parents' concern, but I want to know how much consideration I should be giving this. As far as I can see, this woman is physically and emotionally healthy. She's a professional who works with handicapped children. I admire what she's doing, and her exceptional personal qualities make her perfect for this work.

My parents and I have different outlooks on many things, including different views on what's important for marriage. I just want to make sure that I’m not brushing off something that may really be a red flag. Should I be concerned that she may have grown up with parents who don't have a good relationship? Should I be worried that her parent's marital problems have harmed their children emotionally? Should I be concerned that the medical condition my parents are worried about may be hereditary?

And how do I handle the fact that my parents are so opposed to my moving forward with her?

-- Mitch

Dear Mitch,

You're right – it sometimes can be hard to distinguish between a "non-issue" and a genuine "red flag." You're wise to realize that even though you and your parents have different criteria for choosing a marriage partner, their concern about this woman’s family background might be a valid one.

We always urge daters to view a prospective marriage partner as a whole person, who has positive as well as negative qualities. It's important to be able to accept a potential spouse for all of their qualities.

Unfortunately, many people put on blinders, ignoring the negative and focusing only on the positive. They correctly look for someone who shares their values and goals, and whom they like, admire and respect. But sometimes they're so caught up in the moment (a phenomenon that can be exacerbated by sexual involvement) that they push aside something they really need to consider, such as an annoying habit, an ongoing medical condition, a difference in expectations for the future, signs the other person has difficulty coping with stress, or a difficulty in the way they relate to each other. But the issue doesn't go away, and at some point it will have to be dealt with. If it turns out to be something that can't be resolved, the result is usually a broken engagement, a divorce, or a strife-laden marriage.

So how can you know when something is a real issue to consider, versus trusting your gut feeling that it's not something that really matters? A general rule to follow is to explore anything that might have a long-term impact on a marriage, even if it presently doesn't effect how you are relating to each other.

Role Models

As for your specific situation, yes – this woman’s family background may be an issue that seems innocuous, but can have a long-term effect on her and her future family.

The reality is that as we are growing up, we learn about relationships by experiencing how our families and other close people interact. From these experiences, we begin to decide what we want our own relationships to be like, and conversely what we don't want to model in our own lives. Someone whose parents don't have a harmonious marriage may not be troubled by certain dynamics of a relationship that would concern another person. Or, they may be very conscious of the problems in their home and not want to emulate them, but may not have learned better relationship skills. That doesn't mean such a person can't have a great marriage. But it may take more of a conscious effort to learn how to do that.

A home that lacks marital harmony may not be teaching good relationship skills.

It's always important for a couple whose courtship has become serious to talk about what it was like growing up in their homes, what positive qualities in their families they'd like to bring into their marriage, and which ones they don't want to emulate. This is even more crucial when one or both of them comes from a home that lacks harmony. It is helpful for the couple to be able to acknowledge that because of their backgrounds, they may need help learning healthy relationship skills, even if they are determined not to follow their parents' example.

There are a number of ways to learn these skills. One is by spending time with couples who get along well, and observing how they relate to each other. Another is by attending workshops or courses that help engaged and newly-married couples develop healthy relationship skills together, such as the internationally-reknowned Prepare and Enrich (Known as Choices of the Heart in Israel) or the Shalom Task Force S.H.A.L.O.M. workshop in New York for engaged couples.

As far as the medical condition in this woman's family, it would be a good idea to explore the situation. Even if it doesn't trouble you now, it is important to know how it may affect your lives in the future.

Find out exactly what the condition is, how it can affect anyone who has it, how it is treated, how it affects quality of life, how well it can be managed, what expenses are entailed, if it can be cured, or if it will require a lifetime of management. It's also important to know if it is hereditary, and if so to find out from a genetic counselor if there are ways to prevent it from being passed on. Once you have all this information, you can make a well-informed decision about how you assess the risk of having a partner with this condition or who may pass it on to your children. This is a deeply personal decision that only you can make.

Parental Role

As for your parents’ role in all this, it is important to keep one fact squarely in mind: Your parents care about you and are very well-intentioned.

It is normal for parents of adult children to be concerned about their choice of a marriage partner. In many healthy adult child-parent relationships, parents express their concerns, offer advice, and give emotional support. But there comes a point at which parents have to step back and allow the child to make his own decision, even if they don't agree with it.

If you choose to go forward with this woman, you should tell your parents that you've listened to their concerns and have taken them into consideration – but ultimately need to make your own decision. This is what an adult who has separated and individuated from his parents is able to do. Making a decision that runs contrary to the parents' wishes can cause friction between them, but that's a consequence of raising emotionally healthy children.

Even when this friction occurs, it's important to continue to show your parents respect. Many times, parents eventually come to accept the child's choice, as they recognize how it is in fact the right thing for their child.

We wish you success in navigating the dating maze.

Rosie & Sherry

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