The Family Dynamics of Dating Dilemmas

What are Catholic parents to do when they disapprove of their daughter or son’s dating relationship?

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What are Catholic parents to do when they disapprove of their daughter or son’s dating relationship?

Kathryn, a retired schoolteacher from Stuart, Fla., knows what that’s like. When her son was a freshman in college, he began dating a young woman of whom Kathryn was not at all fond. She didn’t like the forcefulness with which the young woman treated her son. Furthermore, she was greatly concerned about the changes she was seeing in her son: He changed the way he dressed, the way he wore his hair, and even his attitude was different. To Kathryn and her husband, this clearly was not a good match. In fact, they felt that the relationship was detrimental to their son.

“It was hard on us,” she said. “He wasn’t the boy we had raised. We didn’t like what the relationship was doing to him.”

Because they knew their son’s temperament and reaction style, the couple knew that trying to offer friendly, constructive advice would only backfire.

“We knew that, if we pestered him, he’d date her even more,” Kathryn said.

Rather than words, they chose to use prayer to influence their son’s dating choice. They let the issue rest in God’s hands and actively prayed to the Holy Spirit, asking him to speak to their son in their stead.

“We didn’t pray that the Holy Spirit would convince him to stop dating her,” Kathryn said. “We prayed that the Spirit would give him the wisdom to see his way through.”

Then Kathryn and her husband did something else: They enlisted the confidence and prayerful support of two close friends. They knew they needed others to whom they could confidentially vent their frustrations and could lean on spiritually.

“We don’t know what we would’ve done without the prayers of our friends,” she said. “They supported us and prayed with us. Parents need this kind of support, and it goes both ways. We can’t be afraid to ask others to help us, and then we must do the same for them.”

Six months later, their son stopped dating the girl on his own. Today, he’s married to a wonderful woman who has truly become part of the family.

Calm Caring

Clinical psychologist John Mayer agrees with the approach that Kathryn and her husband took. He has been a consultant to Catholic schools in the Chicago area for more than 25 years and has counseled many families with the same problem. He has also experienced the issue in his own family. The first step, he says, is to maintain a balanced and calm demeanor with your child, just as you would in any frustrating parenting situation. Yelling, being punitive or being out of control will harm your relationship and will only make the situation worse. Additionally, if you forbid your child to date someone that you feel is undesirable, you’ll create a “Romeo and Juliet” effect in your own household.

“Why do you think that that story has withstood the test of time?” he asks. “It’s a fundamental part of human nature. The more you try to prohibit someone from something, the more they will want it. Remember what happened in the Garden of Eden?”

“Parents have to know that they can stand strong without standing nasty,” says Dr. Ray Guarendi, noted family therapist and regular Register contributor.

“I remember the trouble I gave to my own mother,” recalls Deborah, a mother of five from Waukesha, Wis. “I was dating a guy that my parents disapproved of, but my mother never said a word. Instead, she was kind and welcoming. I ended up breaking up with that guy on my own on a Friday. On Saturday, I met my present husband. If my mother would have nagged me, things probably would have been different.”

So, when Deborah’s daughter began dating someone of whom she and her husband disapproved, she knew what to do. She was kind and welcoming. Her daughter ended up marrying the young man, but things have been improving ever since: Soon Deborah’s first grandchild will be attending Catholic grade school.

“Who would have thought?” Deborah remarked. “We never know how things will turn out, even when they seem to be going in a bad direction.”

Mayer recommends that parents of dating children continue to be excellent models of Catholic values, approaching the situation with love and understanding. A response suited to the individual is important. Parents know their child and how they can best reach him or her. For some, that means prayer more than dialogue, like Kathryn and Deborah’s stories. For others, focused dialogue will be key.

Be honest with your child, and point out the facts. But also be honest with yourself. Are your dislikes based on your own prejudices, ignorance or fears? Or are they based on tangible evidence? It’s important to know the difference.

Next, Mayer says that parents should look into their own relationships with their spouses, assuring that they are modeling a healthy Christian relationship for their children. Children must see and know why their parents love and chose each other. They will benefit from knowing the story of how their parents met and how the relationship grew.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, children should always respect their parents, including their concerns: “As they grow up, children should continue to respect their parents. They should anticipate their wishes, willingly seek their advice, and accept their just admonitions. Obedience toward parents ceases with the emancipation of the children; not so respect, which is always owed to them. This respect has its roots in the fear of God, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit” (No. 2217).

And in No. 2230, the Catechism states, “When they become adults, children have the right and duty to choose their profession and state of life. They should assume their new responsibilities within a trusting relationship with their parents, willingly asking and receiving their advice and counsel. Parents should be careful not to exert pressure on their children either in the choice of a profession or in that of a spouse. This necessary restraint does not prevent them — quite the contrary — from giving their children judicious advice, particularly when they are planning to start a family.”

There are, however, times when things are so bad that they require immediate parental intervention. Dialogue isn’t enough. This has to be done with patience and discretion.

“If your child is embarking on a high-risk relationship, or if the relationship is adversely affecting other members of the family, especially younger siblings,” says Guarendi, “then you have the obligation to speak up. You wouldn’t consent to your child taking cocaine, and so you wouldn’t consent to your child being in a harmful relationship.”

Guarendi recommends sharing your concerns with your child in a calm, charitable and straightforward way. Make it clear that your motivation is love, not control. Sometimes parents overreact to situations because they fear it indicates they’re incompetent as parents. Others are afraid to take a stand because they’re afraid of losing their child.

“Make your point, but don’t keep hammering at it,” Dr. Ray says. “Don’t discontinue your relationship with your child, because you’ll lose all the way around.”

Parents do have some leverage to exercise, he says. If the child has listened to your concerns and still insists on continuing the dating relationship, there should be consequences. You can discontinue paying their car insurance or decrease the amount you’re paying toward their tuition, for example. You also can limit the contact the dating partner has with your family by making certain events such as holidays forbidden.

“Simply tell your child that, given the extreme state of the relationship, you can’t allow that person in your home,” he advises.

Finally, Guarendi reminds parents not to take the relationships of their children personally: “To expect our grown children to listen and obey everything we say is to ignore the free will God gave them.”

As Kathryn says, keep close to God through it all. “I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true. We have to let go and let God. Faith and trust in him are No. 1.”

Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.