Editor’s note: Setting boundaries with adult children is hard, and we’re so grateful for the healthy advice detailed below. Want more? Check out this article about being a new mother-in-law!
I felt comfortable with this new guy by our second dinner out together. After a weekend hiking trip in upstate New York, I knew. I really liked Jack. He’s smart, thoughtful and funny—not to mention those piercing blue eyes. I could easily imagine a future with Jack in my life.
I’m trying hard not to fall for him. I’ve been down this road before. And boy, have I been burned.
Still, I’m trying hard not to fall for him. I’ve been down this road before. And boy, have I been burned. I just hadn’t seen the last break-up coming after four years together.
Of course, that could be because it wasn’t my relationship. It’s my daughter’s boyfriends I’m talking about.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not a crazy cougar or a Mrs. Robinson. My interest in Jack is not romantic. I’m happily married. I want my daughter to be happy. I want her to find someone who will be as good a partner to her as my own husband has been to me.
Setting Boundaries With Adult Children: How Much is Too Much?
But I’ve learned the hard way not to get too attached to the guys she’s seeing. Face it—this is tricky territory. Relationships come and go, and, in the case of your kid’s significant other, you don’t (and shouldn’t) have any control. In the heat of either their passion or their battles, it would be deeply creepy if “What would Mom think?” were any part of the equation.
As the years go by, do you hold back, or do you grant these significant others “member of the family” status and affection before they technically qualify?
Yet, when your kid is in a long-term relationship, you want to be inclusive. You welcome the significant other into your home. If your son or daughter loves this person, it’s only natural that you hope to grow fond of them, too. But how much is too much? As the years go by, do you hold back, or do you grant these significant others “member of the family” status and affection before they technically qualify? (The pain of losing a son- or daughter-in-law through divorce is another story.)
My daughter’s previous boyfriend—I’ll call him Matt—attended my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary party. He came to family weddings and birthday celebrations. Matt’s photo is scattered in family albums. He knows intimate—and a few mortifying—family stories. After four years together, Matt and my daughter broke up. We never saw or spoke to him again.
Adult Child’s Romance: Easy Girl
Of course my primary concern was for my sweet girl. Although my daughter initiated the breakup, she was sad about the end of their relationship. Their lives had been deeply entwined. I tried, with only modest success, not to mention Matt’s name.
To be clear, I’m not talking about high school romances. Most parents realize teenage relationships are transient. But my daughter was 26 when she started dating Matt. Now she’s 32, and she and Jack have been together for a year. They seem so happy together that I can’t help wondering, “Is this it?” My next instinct is “Let’s embrace this guy,”
But now I add, “Easy, Girl.”
I’m not alone. My friend Stephanie simply assumed her daughter Molly would marry her boyfriend, Jeff. After all, the two started dating as college sophomores and lived together for two years after graduation. Jeff was an easy fit—he’d grown up in a farming community just 20 minutes away from Stephanie’s hometown. “His parents were just like the people I grew up with,” Stephanie told me.
Good fortune allowed Stephanie and her husband Bob to travel widely, and Molly and Jeff often joined them. “We took him to Africa, to Scotland, and to Costa Rica,” Stephanie said. They were happy to treat “the kids” and marveled at how smoothly Jeff blended into their family. Molly’s younger brother, Liam, is autistic with major challenges. On family trips, Molly, Jeff, and Liam often shared a room. “Jeff would help Liam brush his teeth, shave. He was like a brother to him,” Stephanie remembers. “Of course we invested in Jeff. We loved him.”
Stephanie’s husband, a tough-minded litigator, actually cried when Molly and Jeff broke up.
Then came the breakup. Trouble had been brewing between Molly and Jeff, but it caught Stephanie unaware (given, of course, that it wasn’t her relationship). One morning, Molly called her mom, weeping and angry. Jeff had moved out, and it was over.
“There was no goodbye, nothing to us,” Stephanie says. “We never had any connection afterwards. He never reached out to us. It was really surprising because he was a sensitive, sweet guy.”
Over-invested and over-identified mother? I’ll plead guilty. But Stephanie’s husband, a tough-minded litigator, actually cried when Molly and Jeff broke up.
Adult Child’s Romance: Drawing the Line
Where do you draw the line between supportive and interfering?
It’s all about boundaries, says Dr. Daniel Blake, a clinical psychologist and analyst in Michigan. “Of course you want to be nice to the person, but it’s in service to your children. It’s knowing where your own needs end and your children’s begin.”
That’s a lesson that Donna, an engineer and the mother of two daughters, learned the hard way.
“I was never the sort of Mom that became buddy-buddy with my kids’ friends,” she explains. “I’m totally comfortable with my girls, but not 100 percent with the guys they dated. I don’t always feel like I can be myself.”
In the end, Donna was more enamored of Brian than her daughter was.
But with Brian, her daughter Lila’s boyfriend, it was different. He hung out with Donna, asking about her work and chatting about music. Brian wasn’t close to his own family, so he was often in Donna’s kitchen, where the two would cook or do crossword puzzles together—even if Lila was out.
In the end, Donna was more enamored of Brian than her daughter was. When Lila broke off the relationship, “it took me a long time to get over Brian,” Donna admits. “I really missed him.” Things got worse when a depressed Brian began emailing Donna, lamenting that he’d never find anyone else as wonderful as Lila.
When Donna attempted to plead Brian’s case, her daughter drew the line. “Lila was really clear,” Donna says. “She said, ‘No, Mom, that’s not happening. Now stop.’” Donna realized she’d overstepped and cut off communication.
“If you feel bereft, it’s a sign you’ve been over-involved in their relationship,” says Dr. Alan Entin, a family psychologist in Richmond, Virginia, and past president of the Division of Family Psychologists of the American Psychological Association. “You have to realize it’s their relationship and you’ve really got to watch yourself.”
Adult Child’s Romance: Mourning A Break Up
Clearly, Donna crossed boundaries and became over-involved with Brian. But is simply feeling sad about your kid’s breakup pathological?
Karen, a nurse, felt bereft with her son James broke up with his girlfriend, and so did James’s brothers. “She was an instant part of the family,” Karen, says. “We became very close. Chloe just folded right in, they were clearly in love and we all just assumed she’d be part of the family.” But after three years together, Chloe wanted to get married and start a family. James, restless, wanted to travel the world. He broke it off.
Is simply feeling sad about your kid’s breakup pathological?
“The rest of us thought, ‘What? It’s Chloe! It’s a mistake. He’s crazy!’” Karen recalled. “But we kept quiet. It’s James’s life to live as he wants, and I told him he shouldn’t take on something he wasn’t ready for.”
James traveled for the next year a half, working his way through Asia and South America. Chloe married someone else and now has two children. “For me, it’s like—‘Wow, those could have been my grandchildren,’” Karen says. “There’s a little wistfulness there.” To me, Karen doesn’t sound inappropriate. She sounds human.
Anyway, I’m controlling myself as best I can from getting too attached to Jack, my daughter’s now not-so-new boyfriend. I get it, I get it: it’s not my relationship. I’ll remain friendly and welcoming, and their relationship will be what it will be.
But I really do like this guy.
Kate Stone Lombardi has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She work has appeared in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Ladies Home Journal, Parenting Magazine and other national publications. Lombardi is the author of The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger.
A version of this article was originally published in December 2017.