My parents don’t like my boyfriend

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 9, 2005

We’d like to stay together, but I’m not sure I could handle the rift that would create.


Dear Cary,

I am a bright, personable woman in my late 20s who works full-time in a law firm and attends graduate school part-time. I am in love with a man who is a decade older than I am, a struggling musician and carpenter who has also found some very creative (read: not completely legal) ways to make money. He is bright, sensitive and caring. He is extremely proud of me, loves me, comforts me, gives me good advice, makes me laugh all the time and wants the best for my future. He is always telling his friends how wonderful I am, and he lets me know he thinks the world of me. He is my best friend and confidant, and we live together.

His father died when he was very young, but his family held off telling him until he finally realized for himself that his father was dead. As you can imagine, this created a lot of emotional turmoil for him. He was also a drug user most of his 20s; seven years ago he decided to quit cold turkey. He joined a construction business and used the physical labor to get off drugs. I should add that he still drinks and smokes pot. He’s been in a band for five years, and they’re getting a record together, but he’s said if this doesn’t pan out, he’s going to give up the idea of working professionally as a musician (or making it big). He’s even been speaking about going back to college. He’d started, but had to drop out because he couldn’t afford it, and his family didn’t see the need for it because he didn’t have a planned major. He’s also uninsured, even though he does dangerous work every day. Writing all this down, he sounds terrible. I can imagine that you will be completely able to understand why my parents feel the way they do: My parents and he do not get along.

I see how hard my parents have worked to get what they have. They grew up without money and are now comfortable (if sometimes still struggling), but they managed to provide me and my two brothers with great educations (although we kids all worked equally hard to secure academic or sports scholarships). My dad runs a landscaping business that frequently occupies him 24/7, and my mom worked her way up to vice president of a small company (she started 20 years ago as a secretary). My parents have had huge arguments about my decision to date this man. They also cut themselves off emotionally from me, and I’m not allowed to talk about him to my family.

I don’t wish to have strife between me and my family. They are the most important people to me. I know I’m still young. Honestly, though, if my parents and he really got along, if they had thought he was wonderful that first dinner, I think I might want to spend the rest of my life with him, but because they don’t, I do seriously reconsider where our relationship might end up. I know my boyfriend doesn’t sound good on paper. My friends don’t think he’s good enough for me, either, but I can’t help what my heart feels. We don’t want to struggle for the rest of our life. He’s been working really hard recently in construction, and he has a lot of contacts in the town we live in. We’ve also talked about having children (in the very distant future). But is all this a silly fantasy?

Where do I go from here? I had a dream last night that I broke up with him, then I yelled at my father for treating my boyfriend so poorly, and I spent the rest of my dream running through paths in the forest, crying and wailing for my boyfriend. When I finally found him, we reconciled, and I felt utter relief. I feel like I’m acting like a child, though. He sounds like a 39-year-old loser. I’m not trying to fix him up, but rereading this, it sounds like I am. I really don’t know what to do. I know it seems simple; I should find a doctor or a lawyer like my parents want. I probably sound sarcastic, but I’m not trying to be. My mother always tells me that it’s easier to marry rich. I know that he loves me and would make me happy and support me for the rest of my life, but I’m pretty sure my parents and he would never come around to getting along. Am I willing to make that sacrifice? Am I just too young and inexperienced? We’ve been together for four years now. I don’t know what I should do.

Torn

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Dear Torn,

The ideal solution, in my mind, would be for your boyfriend to approach your parents with an open heart and tell them that he’s in love with you, that he wants to marry you, and that he would like their blessing. If rebuffed, he would begin a campaign to win their consent — not their love, necessarily, merely their consent. He would endeavor to discover if there are any concrete conditions he might meet. He would analyze their objections and attempt to satisfy them. And he would be willing to give you up if your parents did not consent.

But you asked what you yourself can do, not what your boyfriend can do. Should you try to talk your boyfriend into approaching your parents as outlined above? I don’t think so. If he did it of his own accord, it would show that he has a certain kind of character. They might correctly see him in a new light. If he did it only after you persuaded him, it would have a different moral flavor, pragmatic and faintly cunning. It might in fact confirm their doubts about him.

But we do not know precisely what their doubts about him are, or where they come from, or what they mean, do we? It’s very complicated. Do they see something in him, some fatal flaw, that you are blind to? Do they just dislike him? Does he make them nervous? Does he lack manners? Was he disrespectful in some way at that first dinner? And is their problem truly with him, or is it with you? That is, are they trying to change something in you by objecting to him? Are they still trying to mold you into the person they think you’re supposed to be? Perhaps it’s all those things and more.

Now, in an ideal world, maybe love would triumph over family. But I take you at your word when you say how important your parents are to you. That’s the way things are right now in your world. Your soul desires this man — and that may be part of the rift as well, that he gives you something your family denied you, or that your family is repressing or trying to deny. In fact, he may represent your family’s past struggle itself, which they want to shield you from but which you must undergo on your own, anyway, as all children must learn their lessons themselves.

But assuming that your boyfriend were to ask for their consent, perhaps they would realize that they do have some concrete expectations or conditions. That would be a sign of progress. However crass it may be to discuss such things, they might have income requirements below which they would consider their daughter needlessly impoverished. From their standpoint, you may be sliding back into the very morass of economic struggle that they have climbed out of. So perhaps your boyfriend needs to make a proposal to your parents about the level of economic support he plans to provide. Perhaps your father might consider inviting your husband into his business. After all, they have been involved in similar work. And it might give your dad a shot at molding your boyfriend and having some control over him. Sure, such a position could be very uncomfortable for your boyfriend. Again, though, if he were willing to risk that, it might say something about how much he’s willing to do for you. Or, in a more practical vein, he might present your father a counter-proposal that they form some kind of partnership.

The possibilities, both tangible and psychological, are endless and fascinating. For instance, let us not forget that your boyfriend grew up without a father. I do not know what effect that had, but it’s possible, is it not, that as a result he never learned the culturally defined masculine style of deference and respect that a young man shows to a father, or to a father figure? There may also be something in his nature that bridles at a father figure — a mixture of anger, resentment and envy in his heart; your father may have picked this up at their dinner meeting (I mean, it had to be fairly tense to begin with, right? Meet the parents and all that?). Such a combination of conflicting feelings can make a person seem unbalanced, ill at ease, perhaps even frightening. Only vaguely sensing this, your father may have concluded that there’s just something “off” about your boyfriend.

So perhaps he could talk honestly to your father about what it was like to lose his own father under such baffling circumstances. He might suggest that because of his past he is probably in some sense searching for a father, and that if your father were to give your marriage his blessing that he would be like another son. But then that opens a whole other can of worms. The question of your age difference enters into it. If your boyfriend is too close to your father’s age, the idea of his being a son-in-law could be weird to your father: Rather than feeling that he is gaining a son, your father could feel he is gaining a competitor.

So there’s no end to how tricky and weird this situation could be. Bottom line, the more I think about it, what you need to do is tell your boyfriend that as much as you would like to marry him, unless the rift between him and your folks is healed, you cannot face a life with him, and you are going to have to move on. In saying so, do not suggest any particular course of action. Leave it up to him. See how he responds to the challenge. See what comes of it. Give it some time. But be ready to move on if nothing positive happens.