Maurice -- a dear friend of mine -- called to ask me what he should do. He was beginning to question the wisdom of marrying at all.
I felt a combination of anger, compassion and concern. I knew that, for this woman, her son was her whole life. She had a wonderful daughter who had begged her to come live with her, but, steeped in the traditions of an old world culture, she felt firmly that her place was with her son.
She was a dragon when it came to defending her primacy in Maurice's life. She treated his girlfriends so rudely, so disrespectfully, that most fled within a short time. But Marilyn had stayed. Marilyn and Maurice truly loved each other. A widow with grown children and grandchildren who also loved Maurice, Marilyn was a blessing in his life for many years -- through countless joys and sorrows. When he was diagnosed with colon cancer and went through a tortuous year of surgery and chemotherapy, Marilyn was by his side. And now, after 18 years together, she wanted to get married. He did, too. But his mother was hysterical. As far as she was concerned, there could be no other woman permanently in his life.
He felt angry and ashamed. "My mother is a very selfish woman," he told me. "And I'm a fool to even think of being talked out of marrying Marilyn. I know that my marriage will be a game-changer, but so we all compromise, we adjust...."
While most parents don't cling quite so tenaciously and most families don't face the kind of prolonged, tempestuous pre-marital scenario my friend endured, the marriage of an adult child can, indeed, be a game-changer.
When adult children marry, it does change your relationship with them -- for better or for worse.
While some adult children grow closer to their parents when they marry and have children of their own, many more feel new conflicts as they struggle to maintain relationships with their parents while building a marriage and an independent adult life.
There are the difficult logistics. With most younger adult couples, both partners work outside the home with long hours and commutes and with chores largely relegated to evenings and Saturdays. For many, Sunday may be the only day they have to rest and spend time together. So some Sundays may go by without a call or visit to one or either set of parents. While it's true that some married adult children do call or visit their parents frequently, these are often the adult children whose calls are greeted with joy instead of accusations.
There is the challenge of divided loyalties: A young married couple is faced not only with building a life together, but also with maintaining relationships with not one, but two sets of parents -- more, in the case of divorced and remarried parents. When one set of parents feels competitive with the other and is always keeping score, finding a balance can be difficult.
There is the challenge of differing family values. Maybe one partner in the new marriage has a different concept of family -- having grown up with a vastly different sense of what it means to be close as a family and what keeping in touch involves. One partner may feel that being close means talking with a parent daily while his or her spouse may feel that once or twice a year is quite enough. And so the young couple may struggle for a time as they try to find a balance between time together and time with parents and other family members.
Differing values -- from religious beliefs to child-raising philosophies -- can also drive a wedge between parents and in-laws and their adult children.
There is the challenge of established family patterns. Some families eagerly embrace new members and welcome the spouses of adult children warmly. Other families have what we psychotherapists call a closed family system and they exclude newcomers emotionally. Still others cling to old ways of being, not wanting the marriage of adult children to change anything about family dynamics.
And yet the marriage of adult children does change the dynamics by necessity. While they may love their parents dearly and forever, the spouse and subsequent children do need to come first. A daughter-in-law might always feel closer to her own parents. And differing values and beliefs can be a strain, especially when your own young adult child adopts these as his or her own.
So how does one keep close when marriage intervenes?
Honor the fact of shifting loyalties: Don't set up conflicts where your adult child is forced to choose between his or her spouse and you. Although there can be some adjustment pains, as there often are with change, there is likely to be room in their lives and yours for each other. Understanding their need to spend time with the other set of parents as well as alone together is critical to building a caring, adult relationship with the younger couple. If at all possible, try building your own positive relationship with your son or daughter-in-law's parents. This can help to prevent competition and to enable all of you to grow in love and acceptance as an extended family.
Instead of making demands, offer help with time pressures: If a young couple has only one day free a week, they won't always be spending it with you. Understanding their time constraints, find ways to be helpful, especially if you have more free time. Offer to run an errand, fix a home-cooked meal or babysit on occasion to help make their life a bit less hectic. If you're willing to give, they may be more giving with you a well.
Don't use money to control adult children. A number of parents I've seen -- both in therapy and here in Sun City -- use money in an attempt to keep close or to maintain some modicum of control over their adult children. In many instances, these parents give money they really can't afford to part with in their efforts to stay close -- and then feel resentment when their adult children don't respond as they had hoped. And adult children -- while enjoying the benefits of the money -- may see the move for what it is: an attempt to maintain control and they often resent this hidden -- or not so hidden -- agenda.
Treat differences in values gently. Religious and cultural differences are practically inevitable these days as our society becomes more diverse and marriages more likely to reflect such diversity. Whether adult children are religious or not, whether they worship within the same denomination, whether they observe all the religious holidays or not is less important than whether they are happy, living with love, and able to care for themselves and their growing families.
And if you're feeling judged by a new son or daughter-in-law, you might choose to see such judgments as insecurity and find ways to build ties despite your differences. Don't criticize or judge in return.
It can, admittedly, be difficult to keep your mouth shut when you're feeling hurt and newly distanced from a much-loved son or daughter. Some friends I'll call June and Steve recently told me that their relationship with their 30-year-old son had deteriorated considerably since his marriage to an evangelical Christian woman whom they described as "so hate-filled and judgmental of everyone that a relationship with her -- actually, now with both of them -- has become impossible."
Another parent of a young adult, a single mother named Paula, describes her son-in-law as a "militant atheist who makes fun of my religious beliefs and doesn't want the grandkids around me."
Agreeing to disagree without engaging the grandchildren in the battle may help. Respecting the views of another, even when you disagree, can made a difference. So can making the most of your time together -- making an effort to enjoy each other -- instead of allowing grievances, arguing and nagging to define visits.
Letting go of old expectations that you will all agree on the essentials, that your relationship with your son or daughter will never change, that adult children will always behave in the way you raised them to behave and believe will free you to rebuild your relationships with adult children and their families and to live your own life as fully as possible.
And if you're feeling cut off, keep the communication channels open and live life fully. Send birthday and Christmas cards and short, loving notes. Text them with positive comments. Make a brief call with no accusations, only love.
Cultivate other pleasures, interests and relationships in your life. One doesn't truly replace another, but when you can create a life for yourself independent of your adult children, you may feel begin to feel more at peace. You will, undoubtedly, continue to feel sad and disappointed about the changes that marriage and/or young adulthood have brought to your relationship with your son or daughter. But when the focus of your life shifts more to your own pursuits, the pain may lessen somewhat.
Closeness can't be forced. The only behavior you can control is your own -- and feeling in control of your own life can be empowering.
Admittedly, it isn't always easy. And sometimes the turn of events can feel terribly unfair.
There are instances where parents behave wonderfully and still get rejected by adult children. There are times when the attitudes and demands of adult children and/or their spouses are totally unreasonable. There are many times when life does, indeed, take a decidedly unfair turn.
There isn't a lot you can do in such instances except to express love and to go on with you life.
This loving letting go of your adult children and your expectations for and about them may free you to be happy in other ways and free them to live their own lives. This sense of freedom and emotional independence may bring you closer over time -- because being close will be an active choice, not a dreaded obligation.
All of this is so easy to say -- and so very hard to do.
But the alternative can be even harder. Fighting change, clinging to the status quo and not letting go with love can lead to years of unhappiness -- for you and for your adult children.
My friend Maurice never did marry Marilyn, the love of his life. As time went on, sad, angry and tired of being demonized by his dragon-mother, she left. Maurice and his mother continued to live together -- tempestuously -- until she died last summer at 104. Maurice, now 82, alone and in ill health, looks back with regret and resignation.
"She couldn't let go and neither could I," he says now. "And I never stopped resenting her or berating myself for that. If only she had been able to open her heart and her mind -- and if only I had had the courage to follow my heart."
In trying to please his mother, Maurice ended up pleasing no one -- and losing the love of his life. In winning her battle to come first with her son, Mala also lost. Despite the fact that they continued to live together and share all the remaining days of her life, their relationship -- simmering with anger, recrimination and regret -- was never the same once Marilyn walked out of their lives forever.