Should Parents Be “Involved” in Their Children’s Love Lives?

Blogger That Mom recently began a series on courtship. I don’t know where she will take the subject as she goes on through the series, but I did want to touch on the premise she begins with—that parents need to be involved.

The Necessary Parent

When we attended Bill Gothard’s IBLP Basic Seminar back in the mid-80s, one of the topics he covered was dating. This was before he had moved into his courtship teachings and even before anyone we knew of had started discussing things like courtship and betrothal. In fact, courtship, to us, was how our grandparents and sometimes even our parents would refer to meeting, getting to know, and preparing to marry each other. In fact, they didn’t often refer to relationships with the opposite sex outside of the goal of being married one day.

Our grandparents on both sides had been in “til-death-to-us-part” marriages and each of our parents were close to celebrating golden wedding anniversaries. We made the same commitment and we knew that, as parents, we wanted to encourage our own children to do the same. But we also knew we had not always chosen wisely along the way and hoped to see our children avoid some of the bumps in the road we had encountered.

Isn’t it interesting that often parents will do this with children when it comes to making career or educational choices, involvement in extracurricular activities, and financial decisions but it is hands off when it comes to dating and marriage?

So we began listening to the many voices of instruction and took away one really important truth that, I believe, is central to the whole discussion of dating, courtship, marriage, and our children.

Parents need to be involved.

In The Joy of Relationship Homeschooling ~ when the one anothers come home, a central theme I discussed is the importance of relationship building beginning before birth so that mentoring our children through the big decisions of life will be a natural, organic process. Too often we believe that once children reach a certain age, we are supposed to sit on the sidelines and watch them makes choices, for good or for bad, without giving them any input. This is folly. Scripture commands us to practice the one anothers of Scripture with our brothers and sisters in Christ, beginning with our precious children! As they become adults, we approach them just as we do other believers, admonishing, exhorting, bearing their burdens, forgiving, etc., all aspects of the dating, courting, and marriage years.

“Parents need to be involved,” That Mom says when speaking of dating, courtship, and marriage. What exactly does it mean for parents to be “involved”?

My landlady, Linda, once told me a story about her relationship with her own daughter. It seems when her daughter was a young adult she entered a relationship that soon became abusive. Linda wanted her daughter out of the situation, but her daughter was insistent that she loved her boyfriend and that the relationship was fine. Linda knew that trying to convince her daughter to leave the relationship would likely make her daughter pull away from her, so she simply voiced her concerns in a natural way and then dropped it. Then, instead of trying to extricate her daughter, Linda focused on being there for her daughter.

Linda told me that she wanted to make sure that when her daughter eventually realized that she needed to get out she would know she could come to her mother for help. No judgement, no guilt trips, no manipulation, no constant hinting. Just love and acceptance. And sure enough, after a few years her daughter realized that the relationship was broken and came to her mother, because she knew that her mother accepted her, and loved her, and would be there for her. No “I told you so,” no pointed looks, no judgement.

Was Linda “involved”?

When I was in college I met a young man named Sean. Sean was not homeschooled, but in other ways his background was similar to my own. Sean and I quickly gravitated toward each other, and eventually our friends took us aside separately and told us we were perfect for each other and really should try making a go of it. So Sean and I approached my father about beginning a “courtship,” given that that was what I had been raised to expect. My father spoke with Sean and then gave his permission to begin a courtship.

Sean was asking some big questions at the time, but my father believed he was what he called “an honest seeker,” and that everything would work out in the end. My father had always told me that it would take a particular kind of man to make me willing to submit, and he hoped Sean might be that man. But then I concluded, after some intensive research into the issue, that God had created through evolution rather than in six days. My father took this as a sign that Sean was leading me astray, and he ordered us to break up.

I couldn’t do it. My father was a stalwart young earth creationist, and I had just realized that he was fallible. I didn’t feel that I could obey my father in this when I knew Sean so much better than he did and his only problem with Sean was that Sean, too, believed that God had created through evolution—something I no longer saw as wrong or a problem. I told my father that I would not break up with Sean, and I took my love life into my own hands.

And here I sit, happily married to Sean for over half a decade. We have two children together. Sean is a wonderful father, partner, and provider. Even my parents have warmed up to him, and enjoy him when we come visit. But even as I made good relationship choices on my own and have a solid relationship with a wonderful man, my relationship with my parents was utterly and completely destroyed.

My parents believed they had a right to vet my partners and set the pace of my relationships, and when I told them no their response ruined our relationship. I stopped coming home because they made living there an utter torture of guilt and manipulation. My family almost didn’t come to my wedding, and when my parents decided to come at the last minute, they chose to sit in the back. My siblings were not allowed to be in the ceremony. What relationship we have today was built over the rubble of shattered dreams.

Were my parents “involved”?

When Sean and I first started “courting,” we spoke to his parents as well as mine. His parents were surprised that we had come to them, but when we asked for their advice they gave it. Some of their advice we followed, and some we did not, and they never gave us any trouble for the parts we did not follow. They accepted that we were adults capable of making our own decisions.

When Sean and I got engaged, his parents thought we were marrying a bit young. They told us that we were still young and that we would face hard times if we went ahead with our plans. But they didn’t tell us this with the expectation that we would do as they advised, and they didn’t make involvement in our wedding plans contingent on their timing. They simply offered advice, take it or leave it, no guilt, no manipulation, nothing. When we decided to go ahead and marry as planned Sean’s parents immediately pitched in however they could and helped with the planning of the rehearsal dinner, the wedding, and the reception.

Were Sean’s parents “involved”?

Do you see what I’m getting at here? At issue is how we define “involved.”

Parents should absolutely be there for their children, and they should absolutely offer advice, both solicited and (at times) unsolicited. But (adult) children have are not obligated to follow this advice, and their parents have no business calling the shots. When parents think their (adult) children are under some sort of obligation to follow their advice, or that they as the parents have a right to call the shots, the results are incredibly toxic. So if by “involved” we mean Linda, or Sean’s parents, I’m all for it. But if by “involved” we mean my parents, I couldn’t be more opposed.

Even today, thinking about everything that happened before Sean and I married brings up a whole host of painful feelings that swirl around in my chest and my gut. My relationship with my parents will never be fully restored. There was too much hurt between us. I have many friends today who had the same thing happen, and watched the courtship process destroy or severely damage their relationships with their parents.

I also have a problem with the way this culture approaches “mistakes.” 

You can’t keep your children from making mistakes, and frankly you probably shouldn’t. My parents embraced courtship because they believed that it would help us children avoid some of their own mistakes. Both of my parents dated before meeting each other, and neither was a virgin when they married. They felt that these things had had made things harder for them, and they wanted to spare us that. But sometimes children need to make their own mistakes. We learn from our mistakes, and sometimes things parents think are mistakes turn out to be growing experiences.

I can’t say whether Linda’s daughter wishes that her relationship with her abusive ex had never happened, but from Linda’s telling of the story it’s clear that her daughter learned and grew through the experience. More to the point, Linda could not have prevented her daughter from making her mistake, and trying to do so would only have damaged her relationship with her daughter. Sometimes we simply have to make mistakes for ourselves, as painful as it may be for our parents to watch.

As for Sean and I, marrying as young as we did did result in several years of economic hardship. I remember months when I had to decide between buying meat and buying ice cream. That may sound silly, but I agonized over decisions like that. But I wouldn’t give up those early, hard years for the world. Sean and I scraped by, and we grew together through that time. Sean’s parents were right that it wouldn’t be easy, but Sean and I were not wrong in choosing to give it a go anyway.

Yes, I parent differently from my parents. Yes, I want to give my children things I never had. But parenting that is at its heart reactionary can be dangerous—as can parenting that attempts to realize an impossible utopia. I once heard it said that we won’t repeat our parents’ mistakes, we’ll make new ones, and I see some truth to that. My parents might have been trying to save us from their mistakes, but they made a whole host of other mistakes while trying to protect us from those mistakes.

Oh and also? Parents don’t “need to be” involved in their children’s love lives.

My parents’ involvement in my relationship with Sean ended when they decided to devote all of their energies to ending our relationship, and you know what? Sean and I are happily married all on our own. Believe it or not, young adults are perfectly capable of making responsible and healthy relationship decisions on their own. Advice without strings or guilt or manipulation can be helpful (especially when solicited), but we really can make our own decisions without bringing down disaster, I promise.

I wish these parents would stop trying to butt in on their children’s love lives and instead simply focus on being there for their children. Without strings. Young adults need support and encouragement from their parents, not guilt trips and emotional manipulation. Their parents should be their children’s cheerleaders, not their referees.

I want to finish with a comment from reader MrPopularSentiment:

There’s another kind of involvement that I wanted to bring up. When my husband and I started dating, his parents treated our relationship seriously. Everyone else rolled their eyes and assumed that we’d break up within a short span of time, so there was no need to really get to know us as a couple, but his parents treated me like I was there to stay and worth getting to know.

And it was with no strings attached, too. When my sister-in-law had a stormy, abusive relationship, they treated her husband as a permanent fixture when he was there, and they just didn’t mention it when he wasn’t (the “punishment” phase of the abuse cycle). When she finally left him and found someone new, they treated the new guy as her permanent partner.

It was wonderful to feel like we were being taken seriously by adults, and it did so much to build up my relationship with my in-laws. Soon after I started dating my husband, I was going out on day trips alone with his parents and hanging out with his mother. And now, nearly 15 years later, we have a really good relationship with them.

It also meant that they were the ones we felt comfortable coming to when we needed help or advice, because we knew that it would be given without judgement. So not only is this style of involvement so much healthier for the parent-child relationship, it also meant that we were more open in talking to them, which meant that they knew more about our lives and had more opportunities to give us pointed advice that really has helped us avoid mistakes.

I couldn’t agree more.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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