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Written by Paula Jones Last updated: June 6, 2006
You think he’s Mr Right ‐‐ they don’t. Here’s how to cope with that classic engagement dilemma ‐‐ parent disapproval
So he finally popped the question and you’re over the moon ‐‐ but your parents couldn’t be any further under it. They can’t stand him and they think you’re making the biggest mistake of your life. What are you going to do? Colette Harris investigates.
Emma, 28, and now married to Joe for two years says her parents told her she had to choose between them or him because they thought he just wasn’t good enough for her. This happened after she let it slip that she thought he might have a crush on his boss at work.
‘I so wished I had never said that to my mum. Although Joe wasn’t even remotely interested in his boss, as it turns out, my parents are convinced he’s not morally upstanding enough for me. I told them I wouldn’t choose as I loved them all, but it was up to them to choose whether or not they saw us both after the wedding. They chose not to and we haven’t seen them for two years, although I do write to them a lot.’
Sarah, 33, decided to set up a dinner party for herself, her mum and her fiancé Martin, so that instead of throwing insults from afar, her mum had to meet him and get to know him as a person.
‘It’s the first thing my mum and dad had agreed about since their divorce three years before,’ says Sarah. ‘I think they were using it to test my loyalty to them as parents to show I still loved them even though they’d split up. Poor Martin got stuck in the middle of this ridiculous campaign against him, set up by parents who had hardly met him. So I arranged the dinner and, fortunately, they got on fine although I accept that things are never going to be fantastic.’
So if you want to avoid family disharmony or a cold relationship between your partner and your folks, what can you do?
Psychotherapist and relationship expert Sue Quilliam, author of ‘Love Coach’ (Thorsons, £7.99) says, ‘There’s no doubt this is a big problem for a surprisingly large number of families, but there are steps you can take to minimise damage and encourage good relationships.’
Often, there are two types of difficulties which can bring objections from your parents. The first involves concrete reasons, such as his long‐term unemployment, large debts, drinking problem, child from a previous relationship or continuing emotional entanglement with his ex.
‘If your parents are generally emotionally happy about your partners, but this particular person has a problem, they need to see the two of you together tackling the problem and to know you’re making progress.’ says Susan. ‘The worst thing you can do is say that there isn’t a problem. ‘You need to acknowledge that there is a difficulty but you’re dealing with it.’
Call a family conference and explain that you are standing firm. You have made this decision and have to be allowed, as a grown‐up, to make your own choice about the person you spend the rest of your life with. You can even anticipate their ultimatum by saying, ‘If you don’t accept him, you will lose me, although obviously I don’t want this to happen because I love you.’ ‘This puts the decision about family harmony firmly back in their ballpark,’ says Susan.
On the other hand, if you know there are underlying issues about your parents worrying about what on earth they are going to do with their time once you’re married and ‘don’t need them anymore’, you can take the ‘parenting approach’ yourself.
‘You can decide to start talking to them about what is going to happen as you create your own family,’ says Susan. ‘Ask them, ‘So what are you going to do with all your free time once I’m out of your hair?’ Get them to talk about plans for their holidays or taking up hobbies that they used to enjoy before they had children, or visiting friends they haven’t seen for a long time. You can also reassure them by telling them that you love them and you do need them in your life.’
‘In the end, you may simply have to say, ‘I love you dearly, but this is my choice and I’m going,’ says Susan. ‘Unless they come to terms with the fact that this emotional objection to your partner to be is actually a deeper‐rooted issue about your relationship with them, nothing you ever do will be good enough.’
For example, if your partner has a child from a previous relationship, try saying to your parents, ‘I understand it’s tough, so I’m spending time with Charlotte, talking to friends who do have kids, because, as you say, I haven’t had any of my own.’ Or if you have met up with his child’s mum, tell them that you are trying to build up a good relationship with her.
If his employment status is a problem in their eyes, you could let your parents know that you are making progress together by dropping into the conversation the fact that you and he are really excited because you sat down and typed out a new CV for him. Or explain that you have been looking out for relevant courses at night school.
If you have only been together a few weeks before getting engaged, talk to your parents about it. ‘I know it might seem hasty, but we both feel it’s right. We’re going to live together before we go ahead and get married and don’t worry, I’m on the Pill, so I’m not going to go and get pregnant.’
In this situation, you can end up feeling that you’re giving progress reports to your parents in a way that undermines your trust with your partner. But Susan explains, ‘It’s not that you’re reporting back, but that you are showing that, as a couple, you’re making an effort to tackle your problems together. This is showing your parents that you are making your own family unit now and have to be allowed to do the problem solving without them, if that’s what you choose. Just slide it into conversation rather than reporting, or, if you think you can manage it, have a meeting with all the people involved where your partner can say, “I understand you’re worried, this is what we’re doing about it."’
If that doesn’t convince them, you could be dealing with the second type of problem that often comes up ‐‐ an emotional issue. This can appear in the form of your parents saying your partner isn’t good enough for you, that they don’t trust him or they don’t think he can make you happy. It’s more of a ‘feeling’ that they’re getting which makes them object. They may also use a concrete excuse, such as worrying about his lack of employment, as a smoke screen for more emotional reservations.
‘This type of problem can be as much about your parents and their feelings about their changing role in your life as it is about you and your partner,’ says Susan. ‘It can even be that they’re scared of facing up to their own relationship when you have gone and they have to get back to being just a couple together.’
Don’t rule out the fact that maybe, just maybe, mother (or father) does know best and is pointing out a fatal flaw in your would‐be partner for life. If anything she says makes you have any doubt at all, then maybe you have to do some thinking. But if you know that he’s the one for you, there are two main ways to tackle this sort of issue.