Questions About Your Child’s Marriage
Empty Nest Parenting
by Richard and Linda Eyre
In the last column we talked about some common questions relative to our grown children’s jobs and careers. This time let’s look at what Empty Nest Parents wonder about when it comes to their kids’ marriages.
Your child’s marriage may be the biggest emotional peak of all – and the biggest role and relationship change. Nothing marks your child’s departure from your family like starting a family of his or her own. Is it time now to really turn them loose? To think of them as equals and peers? If they are to “leave father and mother and cleave to spouse,” does that mean we just get out of the way?
Here are some common questions along with a variety of ideas and suggestions from ENPs and LTNs. (Remember that parents’ responses are indicated by a first name and last initial while children’s responses are a first name only. Our own comments are labeled R&L.) This is a rather long column, because the subject has so many facets. You may want to scan through it and pick the questions that interest you most.
What’s my role in my children’s marriage decisions? How can I get to know someone they’re talking about marrying? How should I treat their fiancs?
Katelin J.: I think the thing you can do is help them go through the right process to make a good decision. Help them ask the right questions about the relationship and encourage them to have a long enough courtship to really answer those questions.
Crystal N.: Be careful not to get too involved. It’s got to be their decision. What if you somehow pushed them apart and sidetracked a marriage that would have been great? Or what if you encouraged too much and your child married the wrong person? I’d stay pretty far away in this one. But once they have decided, support and welcome the decision with open arms.
Saren: While your kids want you to fully respect their decision once they decide to get married, they really do want their parents’ approval. They want their parents to take the time to meet their serious boyfriends or girlfriends and perhaps even spend some time alone with them to really get to know them.
As a parent, you’ll probably have some concerns that arise – let’s face it, no one’s perfect, and very few people could be good enough to marry your son or daughter. But keep your minor concerns to yourself, especially once your child has made the decision to be married. Major concerns are a whole different story. But any small, negative thing that you mention about a prospective spouse can really hurt your children’s feelings and may encourage them to see you as possessive and petty and even an “opponent” to their loved one. Look for and point out the good in a prospective spouse. Welcome him or her to family activities.
I suggest that you don’t push your children too much toward marriage or too much away from it. I’m sure you’ve noticed this – your kids, no matter how old they get, tend to shy away from anything they feel like their parents are pressuring them to do, even if it’s something they’re actually already inclined to do.
What should I do if I’m worried about marriage decisions my children have made?
Jim R.: I think about the only thing you could do would be to discuss the process by which the decision was made. How and when did they decide? Do they know enough about each other? Questions like this might help your children reexamine their decision without too much resentment.
Betty T.: Quit worrying. You’ve got to trust them on this!
Saren: From every LTN talked to about this question, it seems best for parents to meet and get to know any serious boyfriends or girlfriends, and then, in a timely way, express everything they like about each person along with any concerns they may have. Then, most important, completely respect a marriage decision once it has been made. Once your kids decide who they want to marry, they’ll expect and need you to support their decision. If you don’t like their fianc, try to learn to like him or her. Your kids are adults, and they’ll ultimately make their own decisions. If you’re really worried about a marriage decision, your children will probably listen best to your concerns once you’ve shown and stated that you respect their right to choose. Once they know that you recognize that this is completely their decision and that you trust that they ultimately know more about the situation than you do, they’ll be more likely to listen to any concerns you may have.
What if my child is seriously dating (or marrying) someone of another faith?
Carolyn M.: You should have been warning them about this for years, so now it may be too late. That sounded terrible, didn’t it? I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really know what I’d do. My heart would be telling me to discourage the marriage in every way I could, but that might just distance me from my own child.
Katherine P.: I think we jump to conclusions and prioritize the wrong things sometimes. I’d rather have my daughter marry someone with genuinely good character – an honest, honorable, gentle man who may be, for whatever reason, inactive or even wasn’t a member than an active member who was two-faced or even abusive. I think if the choice is a truly good person, everything will work out over the long run, even in the Church. I’m not saying it would be easy.
Bill T.: I think all you can do is be honest. I’d tell my son or daughter how much the Church has helped in our family and how much eternal temple marriage means to me. I’d just lay it out, but I’d try to respect their free agency.
Lydia: My husband is totally inactive. We got married five years ago, and he went inactive a year after we were married. He was really bothered by the attitudes of many of the members who looked down on us because we have an interracial marriage – plus, he figured he could be a good Christian without necessarily going to church all the time. He is fine with the fact that I go to church, and he thinks that it’s good for our two kids to go as well – he wants them to be good Christians and feels that they’ll learn a lot at church as they’re growing up. I hope and pray that he will become active again one day. It’s hard for me that he doesn’t have the Church as a priority in his life right now. I appreciate the way my parents have handled the whole thing. They never say bad things about Paul and show nothing but pure love for him. I have friends in similar situations whose parents treat their nonmember or inactive spouse in very un-Christlike ways. It’s sad. I think people who are inactive need extra love and don’t need to be judged. I think it’s important for parents to see the good in their son-or daughter-in-law, regardless of their church activity.
Shawni: This is tough because all parents in the Church want their children to find strong Church members to marry. But the truth is that even kids who have strict rules to date only members and who have grown up with strong testimonies sometimes end up marrying nonmembers. I think it’s important for kids who marry out of the Church to be realistic and realize how hard it’s going to be for them to do this, but to also realize that not just Church members are good, strong, Christlike people. I have friends with nonmember spouses who have become stronger by being the one to take their kids to church all by themselves and teach them gospel principles all alone (very difficult), and other friends who have gone inactive because they are influenced negatively by their spouse, and still others who are great missionaries and end up helping their spouse get baptized. It’s a tough road any way you look at it. I feel so much for those whose relationships suffer because of their beliefs. I just think some kids who get into relationships with nonmembers don’t realize the tough road ahead of them if they get married.
R&L: This is another huge question, because most LDS parents sense that if their children make a great decision about marriage, all the other decisions of their life will likely be easier and better.
There is no question that our children’s best chance for a happy and lasting marriage is to find someone worthy to go to the temple with. The eternal covenants of temple marriage and the unity that is possible between two people worthy to kneel across that altar amount to an immeasurable advantage! Still, we all know that temple marriage is no guarantee, and its promises are fulfilled only as its commitments are kept. The quantity or duration of a temple marriage is eternal only if the quality of that marriage meets the standards the Lord has set. Thus Katherine P. (above) is probably right when she says she’d prefer her daughter to marry a man of honorable character outside the temple than a scoundrel who somehow got in. The former is capable of progression that may someday be eternal, while the latter is probably doomed to retrogression and failure.
So it’s one of those answers that is simpler than it is easy! Strive all your lives to help your children prepare for and find a partner worthy of temple marriage. (In the early dating years, even as you encourage children to date strong members, it is probably unwise to unilaterally and unconditionally forbid them to date people of other faiths or inactive members. Hopefully you have raised them to “influence more than they are influenced,” and they will pull their friends toward the Church rather than themselves being pulled away.) Help your children work toward a temple marriage by example, prayer, discussion (your children should know your feelings and know that statistics are against them if they marry out of the temple and even more against them if they marry out of the Church). If, after all you can do, your child falls in love with a person who can’t go immediately to the temple, look at that person’s true character and work toward a later sealing.
If circumstances and distances allow, go with your children to the temple for their endowments before the wedding so they can concentrate entirely on the endowment the one time and entirely on the wedding the other time. Encourage the spouse-to-be to do likewise with his or her parents (perhaps together with your family).
Back to the original question: Temple marriage and eternal families are the goal, but if it doesn’t happen initially, remember that it is a lifetime goal and that nothing can stop you or your children from working toward it all their lives.
What will my children go through during the first few months of marriage? What will they need from me?
Winnifred R.: There will be adjustments, that’s for sure. Your children will probably miss you and appreciate you in some new ways, which is good. Hopefully they will tell you this. I think parents should give a listening ear – but not even very often. The newlyweds need to learn to depend on each other. If we just support them and tell them we have confidence in them, it will help. We can also tell them that we had a few adjustments to make too, when we were in their shoes.
Marilyn J.: I think our kids need to know that we approve, that we love them, and that we’re happy for them.
Peter J.: The funny thing is, they need just about everything. They need furniture, they need recipes, they need plane tickets, they need a fast modem, and they need to go with us on our vacation. And they need money -and more of it now!
Saren: Marriage can be hard, especially at first. But I’d say parents should leave their kids alone and let them work things out themselves. Third parties just get in the way. I think if kids start saying bad stuff about their spouse to you, it’s good to suggest that they keep those things inside their marriage. If things are really bad, they probably need to get outside help. But as they work out the business of living together and planning a future together and dealing with each other’s quirks and needs, it’s detrimental for parents to be too involved.
Call regularly, ask sincere, non-prying questions, spend time with them – as much time as you are comfortable with – compliment them, and make a point of spending quality time with your new son- or daughter-in-law. Assure them that the first year of marriage is supposed to be hard and that the better they can communicate with each other, the more they’ll grow together. I think it’s good for parents to selectively share stories of the hard times and great times they had at the beginning of their own marriage.
R&L: Spiritual advice is probably both the easiest and the most important to give with your children’s new marriage. Simply encourage them to make their marriage a three-way partnership with the Lord as the third (and managing) partner. Encourage them to pray together over every decision. If they do this, they will succeed – and the pressure will be off you because they will be relying on their true Father.
What sort of relationship should I hope for with my married children?
Tom M.: Once they are married, I really think we should try for a horizontal, friend-to-friend relationship. They’ll understand so much more about us now, and we’ll just have a lot more in common. I really think we should visualize how we talk and relate to a friend, and then treat our married kids the same way.
Kenneth W.: It’s like you child has now become the president and you’re the chairman of the board. Let your child run his or her own marriage and family, but call your child in for a corporate meeting from time to time.
Saren: Talking with a group of friends one evening, we stumbled onto the topic of how our relationships with our parents should change once we find a spouse. Everyone quickly agreed that parents need to recognize that they should take a backseat once their kids marry. Once we’re married, the foremost relationship in our lives should be the one we have with our spouse. Some of those I interviewed said that they had been away from home long enough to begin to see a gradual shift from being under the stewardship of their parents to being their own stewards – and that the next natural step took place quite easily as they entered into a relationship with their spouse and became each other’s stewards. Others talked about how their parents seem to have a hard time letting go of the custodial and controlling aspects of their parental role – complaining that parents called them up too often and asked too many questions. One friend said his mother made his wife’s life miserable by constantly comparing everything the wife did to the superior way that she, the mother, had always done things. Overall, everyone agreed that parents need to:
Acknowledge, verbally and through their actions, that their married child’s first allegiance and priority is his or her spouse.
Regularly express love for and confidence in their child and his or her spouse.
Talk about what sort of role the child wants the parents to play now that he or she is married.
What should I do if I see something going on between my child and his or her spouse that worries me?
Kenneth W.: Bite your tongue! The last thing you want to get into is a marital problem between your kids.
Fred J.: My own mom wouldn’t even intervene in a playground fight. If I’d come in and tell her about some kid who was beating me up, she’d say, “Well, you go on back out there and try to talk to him and work things out.” And, amazingly, I usually did. Well, if it works that well on playgrounds, the same approach may be good for marriages.
Shawni: My parents have some good friends who are very concerned about some of the things going on in their daughter’s marriage. The wife was talking to my mom about some of her concerns – nothing specific, just hinting at the seriousness of her concerns. My mom asked what her friend was going to do about these concerns. “Do?” she said. “I certainly can’t do anything. It’s really not my place. Well, I guess I’m praying for them, and that’s doing something. They need to work everything out themselves, don’t you think?” My mom agreed that they certainly need to work things out for themselves – no one else could possibly do that for them. But she tried to politely suggest that talking to her daughter about some of her concerns and asking if she wanted any advice might be appropriate.
I don’t know whatever happened with that situation. But when my mom told me about the incident, it made me wonder whether there are a lot of parents out there who feel like they should never say anything at all about their children’s marriages. I’ve certainly heard of parents who go way too far the other way, criticizing their children’s spouses or kids all the time and bringing up worries unceasingly. That can be very destructive to both the children’s marriages and their parent/child relationships. But I do feel that loving parents should always share any serious concerns and persistent thoughts they have about what’s going on in their children’s lives.
I think it’s a really good thing to regularly notice and tell your children about all the good things you see in their spouses. This helps you maintain and enhance positive feelings toward the spouses, and it helps your children keep looking for the positive themselves.
How much financial support (if any) should I offer my children now that they’re married?
Bill N.: I think you’ve got to just wait and see what they need – and then hope you’ve got the means to help.
Mandy E.: It’s really dangerous to help now that they’re married. It can cause more problems than it solves. It can pull them apart from each other. I even think you should talk to the other in-laws and agree together to let them be on their own. Give timely gifts – something for their house or apartment – but not money.
Saren: It’s really important to set up clear expectations about money issues. And it’s very important to be consistent – consistent between siblings in a family and consistent in that you say what you’ll do and do what you say.
Financial independence following marriage seemed to be a universal value and expectation in most families I spoke with. Kids want and need to be independent financially once they start to create their own family. When times are hard, it’s good to know your parents will help out a bit. It’s very important to make expectations clear about any financial help you do plan to give your kids once they’re married. Among those I talked to, I found that parents frequently help with visits home once a year, down payments on homes, and graduate school expenses. Most people felt grateful and positive about help they received in these areas, provided expectations were clear up front.
What sort of relationship should I try to cultivate with my children’s spouses?
Meg L.: I think it’s easier, in a way, to have a good relationship with a new son- or daughter-in-law than with your own daughter or son. They respect you more and listen better. And there’s not so much baggage.
Marilyn J.: Just treat them like your own children. I think this is what puts everyone at ease. Tell them that’s how you think of them and that there will be no secrets or false fronts. Just agree to totally accept them and to be real with each other.
Shawni: My husband has always been so thankful to my mom for how welcoming she was when bringing him into the family. My dad was great too, but from the very beginning my mom has always looked out for Dave and made him feel so at-home and comfortable when he’s at our house. She always seems to know what he needs and will even buy extra little things especially for him when we visit. I think this is so important. I was so lucky to marry into my husband’s family too. His family has always been so accepting of me. They have a lot more kids married in their family than we do, and they really have the hang of it with the in-laws. It’s their family joke that the in-laws become the favorites instead of the kids once they marry into the family. It just feels so good to be so unconditionally accepted and loved.
Dave: I like calling my father-in-law Dad and my mother-in-law Mom. Why not have two dads and two moms? I don’t think it diminishes or lessens my love or respect for my own parents.
Rob: Don’t ask your son-in-law or daughter-in-law to call you Mom or Dad! My wife’s parents asked me to call them Mom and Dad, and I just can’t do it. I have a mom and dad – and they aren’t my in-laws! I just avoid calling my in-laws anything. It’s awkward. Most of my friends call their in-laws by their first names. I think that’s a lot more comfortable and appropriate.
Saren: Here is a summary of the suggestions that came up in a discussion I had with several LTNs on this whole in-law subject:
Set aside time to get to know your son- or daughter-in-law. Get to know them by doing stuff with them, your spouse, and their spouse (your son or daughter), and also doing stuff with them one-on-one. Examples include going to lunch together, going on a hike together, having them ride with you on a road trip, and taking them to a special event (a ballet, a game, a museum) that represents an interest you share.
Immediately include new sons- and daughters-in-law on all your family phone lists, e-mail lists, birthday lists, and so on.
Look for all their good points and be free with compliments. In general, don’t say anything bad about your son- or daughter-in-law and his or her family – what’s the point?
When you call your son or daughter, spend a few minutes talking to his or her spouse. Ask about and remember details about his or her job, hobbies, and important events.
Ask your sons- and daughters-in-law about traditions in their families and ways that their families handle certain things. (Their family may do some great things that you could adopt.)
Let them call you whatever they’re comfortable calling you. Don’t insist on “Mom” and “Dad,” but welcome it if they are comfortable with it.
Make a real effort to get to know their parents and families. Point out what you like about their families to your son- or daughter-in-law and to your own family.
R&L: What a joy to get new sons and daughters via the marriage route! As you are gathering through these pages, Dave, Jared and Jeff are totally like our own sons, and Aja like a lovely fifth daughter. Everything about our family is better and more complete with these four on board. They are true brothers to our sons and sister to our daughters. They are helping to complete our family as well as their new spouses. It’s an exciting adventure to get to know each of them that caused our daughters and son to fall in love!
What sort of relationship should I try to cultivate with my child’s spouse’s parents?
Kate P.: This is really important for your married kids. If you know the other parents well, you can agree on how to do certain things and have a more united front. Also, you can work out (or help your kids work out) how much time your kids will spend with each of you on holidays and such.
Larry L.: Unless you knew them before or live pretty close, it’s unrealistic to expect to get to know them very well.
Saren: It’s really important to spend time getting to know your child’s future in-laws before the wedding. Go to diner together early in the engagement and work out together some of the issues about who’s paying for what at the wedding. Then spend all the time you can getting to know your kids’ future in-laws further through inviting them to things, phone calls, e-mails, whatever works for you.
A few weeks before my wedding day, my dad and I made a five-hour drive up to Ashton, Idaho, so that Dad could meet Jared’s parents and see the farm where he was raised. My dad’s a very busy man, and it meant a lot to me that he’d take the time not just to meet Jared’s parents but also to meet them in their element and see this place that was such a part of the Loosli family. My parents and Jared’s parents are from different generations (I’m the oldest in the family, and he’s the eighth of nine kids). They share a lot of similar experiences in the Church and have both raised very large families. But they’ve had very different life experiences and careers. I loved seeing my dad so interested in everything about Jared’s parents. He asked for and received a full tour of the Loosli farm, asked all sorts of sincerely interested questions about the farm and the family, and showed genuine admiration for this family I was joining. The Looslis were wonderfully hospitable to my dad and clearly enjoyed his company as much as he enjoyed theirs. It was so wonderful for me and Jared to see our parents’ mutual admiration for each other and to have them get to know each other.
My mother did a wonderful family dinner and program the night before our wedding – just for my family and Jared’s family – so that everyone could casually get to know each other and relax together before the “big day.” She made everyone feel so welcome and made sure that everyone got to know everyone else. During the program, she made sure that everyone got a chance to say something about me and about Jared – a great way for everyone to get to know more about us and about everyone else in the room. My mom has made a tradition of having these special night-before-the-wedding parties for both families, and I think it’s really helped as two families get linked up.
I’ve never heard either of my parents say anything remotely negative about my in-laws or my sister- or brothers-in-law. I think it’s so important that they’ve taken the tie to get to know the families that we’ve married into. I think it’s vital that they’ve been so completely positive about the families we’ve joined.
R&L: Right on! What better way to make good new friends than to have your daughter marry their son. Isn’t that how the old kings and queens consolidated and expanded their kingdoms?
What should I do if my child complains about his or her spouse to me?
Tom M.: Don’t ever talk to one of them about the other one. If one complains about the other, you should probably keep your mouth totally shut. (Maybe your ears, too!) If you do want to talk or try to help, insist that it will be with both of them together.
Le Ann D.: Well, you’ve got to listen, don’t you? If they’re having problems, they’re probably not speaking to each other, so they’ve got to find someone they can talk to.
Saren: Here’s a collection of responses I got from LTNs on this question:
Don’t listen. Cut them off and ask them whether they’ve shared this concern with their spouse yet. If the answer is “no” tell them to talk to their spouse and then if they still want to talk to you, you’d love to talk.
Listen, but gently remind them that they chose to marry the other person. Tell him or her that communication between spouses is very important and that marriage isn’t a bed of roses, but it can be (and should be) the most wonderful relationship you can have!
If they have some really serious worries or complaints, perhaps they should talk to a marriage counselor – not to you. They should talk to someone who’s really trained to help with marriage problems. You may have some good ideas and advice for them, but you may not have enough information or knowledge to really help them. Plus, you could be perceived by the spouse as messing up the relationship, and things could get sticky. It’s better to suggest that they go to a specialist and avoid getting in the middle of things yourself.
How do I deal with married kids dividing their time between two sets of parents?
Kenneth W.: Well, this always hit us at Christmas and we finally did the obvious thing: every other year.
Katelin J.: I think the kids have to make their own decisions on this, but is’ not a bad idea to talk to the other in-laws before you make invitations. This way you can avoid conflicting schedules and maybe avoid putting your kids in a difficult dilemma where both sets of parents want them at the same time.
Dana: Since we’ve been married, both my parents and my husband’s parents keep “score” of how much time we are spending with the other family. This drives me crazy! They will say, “You spent two weeks with them, why are you only spending one week with us?” Dealing with the demands of a new marriage in addition to new in-laws takes a careful balance and I wish our parents understood that we are trying to be as fair as possible, considering both families’ circumstances.
Review: Backing Off While Staying Close
When your children marry, they’re not just under a different roof, they’re part of a new and different organization. They’re not just playing a road game, they’ve joined a whole new team. The Bible says it best; they must now leave you and cleave to their spouse. This priority sift, this emotional leaving and cleaving, can be a traumatic transition for your children, even if they have lived away from home for some time. They have just jumped over an invisible barrier out of your immediate family and into their own. You and your children are now part of each other’s extended families.
But that is the amazing thing about families B they expand forever without contracting. They break the law of equal action and opposite reaction because they’re always additive and never subtractive. Your children get married and start a new, additional family, yet they are still part of your family, and their spouses are added to your family. Net result: a larger family for you and a new family besides. And so it goes, on and on.
What does have to equalize and balance is your time and your priorities. Your family will keep growing, but your time and your mental energy won’t grow along with it. You’ll have the same fixed amount of hours and of effort, and you’ll have to spread them thinner and over a larger number of family members. But each of your children will generally need less attention as they become older and more independent, and your grandchildren will have their parents to take care of most of their needs, so although you have more people in your family, you have less day-to-day responsibility for them. And your now-married son or daughter will (and should) devote most of his or her family time to the new souse and new family.
Once we empty-nesters see this process clearly, and accept it, we can be happy with our evolving role. We can gladly let go of control and responsibility and yet still preserve closeness and confidence. With gratitude and grace, we can step nimbly aside and into the remarkably joyful roles of trusted adviser and friend.
There are a lot of “paydays” or joyous times in parenting, but probably none greater than seeing a faithful, grown child kneeling at an altar of the temple across from a worthy, chosen, eternal companion.
There is a certain relief in our joy- we’re glad they made it to this vital place in their lives and in their eternal progression. And along with the relief, we feel a certain release, as though we are released from being our child’s closest confidante and most significant eternal relationship. We’re never released as parents, of course, and the family kingdom just expands, never divides. Still, this child now “leaves” us and “cleaves” to a new eternal partner and companion. It is about as close as parents ever got to “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
That unique joy – the deep happiness mellowed by a subtle relief and release – is perhaps the biggest parenting transition of all. We must now support in a different way, respect the sanctity of this new family, and look to our children as respected equals.
If the moment isn’t quite that perfect – if the initial marriage isn’t in the temple – think of the glass as half full, not half empty. Soak up al the joy that is there and know that no glass is totally full and that the joy is in the ongoing process of filling.
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.