In the movie Gloria Bell (2018), a budding romantic relationship between two divorcees fizzles in part because one of them has two adult daughters who behave badly. Needy and spoiled, they call at inopportune moments and prove a suffocating presence.
It’s easy to watch this unfold and think, “How can a parent let their adult kids get away with that?”
There’s no simple answer. But it makes dating a drag for the besieged parent—and their partner.
Older folks who pursue romance often contend with a son or daughter who demands attention. The challenge for the other partner is to withhold judgment and avoid making pejorative comments.
Let’s say you are the other partner. It drives you crazy to think you’ve found a desirable mate, only to discover their adult child is a royal pain.
The best advice is also the hardest to apply: Keep your opinions to yourself.
“Most people are very sensitive about their adult child and their parenting,” said Dr. Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., a California-based clinical psychologist. “Proceed with caution” if you’re tempted to offer input on the parent-child dynamic.
If the parent starts complaining about their adult child, listen intently. Show empathy. But don’t use their comments as an excuse to pile on and unleash your own invective.
Driven by good intentions, you may feel compelled to offer what you deem constructive feedback on how your new love could parent more effectively. But your unsolicited input can backfire.
“A difficult adult child’s problems may appear more solvable than they really are, especially if the adult child is troubled,” warned Coleman, author of “Rules of Estrangement.” For example, you may champion the virtues of “tough love” without fully appreciating the complexities of the situation.
Of course, you’re entitled to express your concern if things start to deteriorate. But use diplomatic language.
“Resentment can set in if you feel your mate is giving in to the adult child’s needs,” Coleman said.
He suggests leveling with your partner while focusing on how it affects you. For example, say, “Your son calls at 5:30 and we end up missing our dinner reservation. I feel that’s interfering with our plans and I’m uncomfortable with that.”
That’s better than an unfiltered, judgy comment such as, “Your son is a brat. You need to set limits.”
Even better, preface your remarks with a dose of empathy. Start by saying, “I know you love your child.” Then add, “I’d feel better if you could prioritize our time together.”
“That way, it’s not blaming or shaming,” Coleman said.
Another approach is to invite your new love to explore potential solutions. Position yourself as a compassionate ally.
When your mate complains about their son or daughter, don’t join in the criticism. Instead, acknowledge the situation and ask gentle questions. Examples: “Wow, that sounds hard. What do you think is going on?” or “That sounds challenging. What do you think are your options?”
“Focus on supporting and validating your partner,” said Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of sociology at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. “Don’t try to fix it. You don’t want to intervene. You want them to work it out for themselves.”
Orbuch, author of “Secrets to Surviving Your Children’s Love Relationships,” says that even if your partner enlists your help to play fixer, you don’t need to oblige.
“When people are given your advice and it doesn’t work, then you are to blame,” she said. “Even if it does work, it’s a short-term change. For long-term change, you want them to discover how to do it on their own.”