So your young adult child has come home and announced he’s getting married. After you pick yourself up off the floor — your mind spins. How will this change your relationship — and what can you do to help the new couple succeed?
One challenge young married couples may face is being the first in their social group to take the plunge. Recent data from the National Center for Family & Marriage Research reveals that young Americans are waiting much longer to get married, and many are not getting married at all — living together has lost much of its social stigma.
“Telling adult kids they lack the necessary life experience and expecting them to listen is highly unlikely.”
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Today, the average age for a first marriage for women is 27 years old, and for men it’s 29 years old. In major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., that age is even higher.
“I married at 23 and was the first in my group to marry, and I missed going out,” one wife and mother of three from Boston, Massachusetts, told LifeZette. “Luckily, my husband and I were close, and we weathered that sense of separation from our peers together — and even provided a marital ‘roadmap’ for the couples that married several years later.”
What can parents do when their young adult offspring announce they want to get married? The answer, according to Dr. Jason Stein, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Brentwood, California, is a direct, “Not much.”
Surprisingly, you will be leaning more on the relationship you have built in the past, and less on all the words you could say in the present.
Parental influence on fully independent children who live on their own and have financial independence is, in fact, minimal. The reason, Stein said, is that most 20-somethings simply want to learn things on their own.
Makes sense — so concentrate on less advice and more real connection. The best-case scenario, Stein said, is that at this point in the child’s life there is some form of friendship that has formed between the adult child and parent.
“The best you can do is to just offer to talk about their plans,” advised Stein. “Telling them that they lack the necessary life experience — and expecting them to listen — is highly unlikely. Receptivity is the key to effectiveness, and this goes back to the long-term relationship you’ve developed with your child. But even the most receptive child will be resistant, simply because he or she is grown.”
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Bringing someone else into the picture further separates a child from the biological family, noted Stein. Ideas and advice simply cannot be forced on kids who have bonded to a spouse, or this will be perceived as an attack on the couple’s happiness and their choices.
A feeling of helplessness on the part of the parent is natural. It can be particularly unsettling if the person your child has chosen is clearly not the right match.
“If this new person is perceived as a legitimate risk to their health or safety, you will have to take the risk and raise concerns [to your child],” said Stein. “If not, however, it’s best to sit on your hands and bite your lip. There’s just no upside.”
There is hope. Ideally, the relationship is strong enough that talking about difficult issues as adults is possible when issues in a young marriage arise.
Whether this is the case or not, Stein stressed a caring benevolence. Parents “have to be almost Buddha-like, sending love and good energy to the child so they feel that you love them unconditionally, are neutral, and will not judge them,” he said.
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With any luck, the adult child is willing to have a conversation about what he likes or doesn’t like about his chosen spouse. It is critical to listen without judgment, and hope that in vocalizing any concerns, the adult child becomes more aware of them himself.
The greatest challenge for parents is realizing their time of influence has mostly passed. That grown child is going to make mistakes that the parent can no longer protect the child from — or should. As badly as parents may feel that their child has made a wrong decision, Stein advised understanding that that is just how life is — and not to carry guilt around over it.
“You aren’t a bad parent,” he emphasized. “You can’t control your adult child’s behavior any more than you can any other adult’s. One hopes any mistake is discovered early, and that you’re there for your child if things fall apart. That’s the best you can do.”