At the back of every parent's mind lurks the fear that their child will settle with someone they dislike, or, even worse, someone who makes their child unhappy. Unfortunately, whereas a repellent neighbor or work colleague can be avoided, a son or daughter-in-law cannot. Indeed, should your relationship with them break down entirely, there is the danger of not only losing contact with your child but even your grandchildren.
Such problems are as varied as the relationships themselves. For example, a son may fall for a beautiful woman who is more interested in his bank balance than in him. Some parents find themselves in the odd position of liking their child's partner while disapproving of the relationship. For example, their daughter may marry a lazy, irresponsible spendthrift, the sort of man who is only really happy standing at the local bar buying drinks and making jokes. And yet he is funny, charming, generous, and kind. They can find nothing fundamentally bad in him, though they know that their daughter's life will be stressful and insecure.
Perhaps the two most common concerns are infidelity and emotional coldness. Most parents can tolerate dullness, laziness, ignorance, and so on; such flaws do not necessarily make a bad husband or wife. Indeed, their child may still be very happy. But a man or woman with a compulsion to cheat is different. No one can have a happy relationship with such a person – especially when they become stuck in a vicious cycle of betrayal and forgiveness. Equally worrying is a son or daughter-in-law incapable of love and warmth – the sort of person unable to grasp the most basic of human emotions, someone who will not be there when it counts.
Then there is the question of how they make you feel. Just as someone may be a likeable person but a bad partner, they may make your child happy but make you miserable. For example, your daughter's husband may be a hard worker and devoted husband whilst also being crude, oafish, and ignorant. Or your daughter-in-law may be loving and loyal to your son but arrogant and aloof when speaking to you. Unfortunately, whereas you can avoid a neighbor or work colleague who behaves in this way, you have to bite your tongue when it is a son or daughter-in-law. To make matters worse, while contact with unpleasant neighbors or work colleagues tends to be brisk and superficial, with your son or daughter's partner there will be Sunday dinners and Christmas vacations.
Should you tell your child how you feel? Obviously, this is up to you. You alone know the circumstances and you alone know how your child is likely to respond. In general, it is probably best to keep your dislike to yourself, assuming the dislike is based on nothing more than petty irritations. If you are sure they will make your child's life a misery, however, you are duty-bound to raise the matter.
When you do, stay calm. Remember, your child is likely to take your concern as a criticism. After all, you are in effect calling them foolish, naive, and a poor judge of character. And you are telling them something they don't want to hear. In many cases, your child may be aware of these faults but have chosen to suppress the knowledge. Discovering that their mother or father also believes their partner will be unfaithful, or has also noted his arrogance and insensitivity, may frighten and enrage them. So be calm and logical. Stress the fact that it is them you are worried about, not yourself. And stress your fear that their life with this person will be unhappy. Finally, listen to what your child has to say in response.
When you talk it through, you must bear certain things in mind. If your child is young, they may view the relationship as some kind of tragic romance. The young often find disapproval romantic and thrilling (stories like Romeo and Juliet or Wuthering Heights remain popular for a reason). If you are too harsh, your teenage son or daughter may come to see themselves and their partner as tragic, outcast lovers. Time and again people are drawn to criminals or people from chaotic, dysfunctional backgrounds for this very reason. You have probably heard neighbors speak of "such a nice girl, from such a nice family" who ran off with a drug dealer and how they can't understand it. What they fail to realize is that it is this very disapproval that makes it so exciting and thrilling. The more extreme your criticism, the more extreme your child's response is likely to be. If they are adults, on the other hand, be wary of slipping back into the role of scolding parent. This will seem unbearably patronizing.
Finally, be careful not to draw a line in the sand. Put another way, resist the urge to make threats or ultimatums. Never say "it's me or him/her." This is likely to backfire. After all, your child's partner has evolution on their side. The hormones are raging and are pushing your child into this man or woman's arms. They may have been about to leave anyway but, enraged by your threats, will now stick with him or her to make a point. Quite simply, no one old enough for a sexual relationship will appreciate being treated like a child.
In many cases, parents just have to get used to things. Have faith in your child. Maybe they see something in this man or woman that you cannot. And remember, you are not the one in the relationship. Every relationship involves the strange alchemical mix of two personalities. And this is never predictable. Just as some people who seem suited have a thoroughly miserable time, so others, who seem an odd match, are very happy. Maybe this person makes your child happier than you realize. Maybe they are different when you aren't there (after all, they may sense you dislike them, resent this, and so behave badly when you visit).
When your child tries to explain what it is you are missing, do you really listen? Are you being fair? People can develop an obsessive hatred towards a son or daughter-in-law that becomes irrational. And, as Oscar Wilde observed, hate blinds you. Take time to honestly examine the reasons you dislike this person. Are you jealous perhaps? This is especially common among parents of the opposite sex. A father may secretly resent being displaced in his daughter's affections, just as a mother may resent her son's love for another woman.
An unspoken agreement often develops in these situations, with both sides establishing certain patterns of behavior, never explicitly stated but clearly understood. For example, you may find it wise to steer clear of religion or politics if the two of you hold opposing views. And it would also be sensible to avoid alcohol when near them (and to steer clear of them when they are drunk). When people drink, they blurt out their true feelings. This is why occasions like birthdays, weddings, Christmases, thanksgiving etc are often so dangerous and fraught.
Try to find something to admire in them as well. Will yourself to focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. O.K., so he is a tedious show off and know-it-all, but he does work hard and he is a conscientious and compassionate doctor. O.K., so maybe your daughter-in-law did go to Oxford and does speak to you as though you have a subnormal IQ, but she loves your son and seems to make him happy, and she is a good mother. It is also important to bear in mind that your child may be the one to blame for an unhappy marriage. If their partner behaves in a nasty or unreasonable way, this may be because your son or daughter has hurt them very much. They may have done or said things about which you know nothing.
People also change. And our feelings towards them change. As the years go by, you may find you grow to like this person more than you ever thought possible. Time reveals hidden sides to people. Anyone who goes through a trauma or bereavement, for example, learns that you never really know people until tested. Often, those you most admired prove themselves shallow and selfish, while those you had previously believed stupid or callous reveal deep compassion and courage.
Of course, sometimes people simply get off on the wrong foot. Parents may feel intense resentment and jealousy, no matter what the person is like. He or she may be from the wrong sort of background or represent a way of life they cannot stand. The first meeting is thus charged with anger and dislike. Their child's partner senses this and reacts with hostility of his or her own. Thus you never actually know the real person.
The relationship with a son or daughter-in-law is rarely smooth and easy. If you love your child, no one is ever going to be good enough. Plus, you are always likely to take only one side in any dispute. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution. This person isn't going away, and so you must do your best, not for them, not even for yourself, but because you love your child.