DEAR CAROLYN: My fiancé is currently starting a nonprofit and does not have a very high or stable income; I also work in the nonprofit field. We will not be wealthy, but I feel we will be able to have a stable life. My mother, however, has expressed her concerns about his ability to provide for a family, and let it be known that if she had her way, I wouldn’t be marrying him. She, and thus my dad, clearly does not like him.
In addition, my parents have been very adamant about what they want for our wedding, have never prioritized what my fiancé wants and have not respected our wishes.
In all these situations, unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve stood up for my fiancé strongly. He has stopped talking to my parents, and tells me I should threaten to cut off relations with them unless they apologize to him and become much kinder to him. He feels hurt and upset because I have given in to many of their wishes.
My mother especially has long been very controlling and rarely sympathetic or kind, and I am honestly scared to stand up to her.
Should I threaten to cut off my parents? How can I gain courage to stand up for myself when I am basically afraid of my controlling mother? Is my fiancé being too harsh in telling me I should stop talking to my parents, when I am an only child? I don’t know how to fix this situation.
My Fiancé Blames Me
DEAR FIANCE: These are decisions and actions for an adult, and, unfortunately, you’ve been denied a chance to become one.
A controlling parent sets the agenda, makes the decisions, draws lines on what others should and should not think (“and thus my dad”?!), plans the events – and cultivates in her family an abiding fear of her displeasure.
So, what practice did you ever have as a child at making your own decisions? Expressing your own opinions, defending your own choices or arguments? Reconciling your preferences with the conflicting preferences of others? The last one alone is a huge part of navigating the adult world: We all have to find a way to share space – a home, a neighborhood, a workplace, a country, a planet – with those who passionately disagree with us on something.
The easiest way to learn these skills is in small increments from a very young age, in the safety of home with parents who let you know their love for you is not conditioned on your doing everything perfectly to their liking, and who give you enough room to make your own, age-appropriate choices.
Learning firsthand from the consequences of these choices, good and bad, is how you discover who you are. That, in turn, gives you the self-knowledge and confidence not only to make tough decisions, but also to stand up for them while remaining open to new information.
This is the easiest way for kids to gain experience, but it can be the hardest for parents. It requires two kinds of letting go: on the micro level, where you let go of goofy outfits as kids learn to dress themselves or of messy kitchens as kids learn to feed themselves; and the macro level, where you accept your child might not reach adulthood believing what you believe, valuing what you value or doing what you expect.
This is what an insecure parent fears most – and that fear is the root of controlling behavior.
I won’t advise you which side to choose here, especially since a fiancé who insists you do X is hardly an emotional step up from a parent who insists you do Y. As right as he is to be outraged at your parents’ disrespect, not to mention at a wedding tailored to your mother’s whims – his asking you to cut ties to your parents takes that frustration too far.
And, more important, it fails to address the underlying problem, that you’re not strong enough to advocate for yourself, much less for somebody else. Which means marrying anyone is premature, even if this man turns out to be great for you.
I’ve mentioned the easiest path, which is obviously not possible without time travel. The hardest, though, is still available to you: choosing never to learn these lessons at all. That’s the choice you make by default if you keep trying to appease both your parents and your fiancé. Always torn, always disappointing someone, always wondering who’s right.
Finally, there’s the path that’s difficult now but so much easier with time: getting help, and getting that education your mother was too cowardly to allow you. A good, reputable family therapist can serve as that safe place as you learn to tune out parents, fiancé, friends, and a lifetime of expectations long enough to identify your own voice.
Your honesty says you have courage; you just need your own convictions to show you when and how to use it.
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