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What’s a Parent to Do?

Jacinta and Mark were engaged. Jacinta’s parents were concerned because they didn’t see in Mark
the capacity to love generously. Their dilemma was whether to share their misgivings with Jacinta. Would it drive her to defend Mark and alienate their prospective son-in-law? They decided to share their concern with Jacinta while reiterating that they trusted her judgment and would welcome Mark wholeheartedly into the family if this was her choice. They knew Jacinta and Mark would be attending a reputable marriage preparation program, so they prayed and said no more.

During the Engaged Encounter, Jacinta observed how other couples treated each other and that, by comparison, Mark acted like a spoiled teenager. She decided to break off the engagement. It was hard, but her parents’ words helped her to be open to this possibility and to make the decision herself.

A discussion of marriage such as the one above must begin before any wedding or, preferably, even before the engagement. I hope you find that you really like the man or woman with whom your young adult appears to be getting serious. Still, there are bound to be times leading up to the wedding and afterward when you see things differently.

Generally, these are relatively minor and can be handled by the overall rule of thumb: Intervene as little as possible, and trust your young adult’s good judgment.

Choose Your Battles: Your Young Adult’s Spouse, Wedding and Faith

The most common potential issues that you might face surrounding marriage are choice of spouse, wedding plans and, in the faith department, whether this marriage will support or weaken your young adult’s faith.

Choice of Spouse

If you’re pleased with your future in-law, great! The only caution here is that it is rare but possible to love your child’s fiance(e) too much. Make sure that he or she doesn’t replace your own child’s place in your heart. Maybe you hope that this new person will finally refine your daughter into a respectable, reliable person. You might find yourself praising and weighing the views of the fiance more than your
own child’s. Be sure to keep that in check, and you can happily move on to wedding plans.

If, however, you’re at the other extreme — you feel strongly that your young adult’s current love would be a disastrous choice — be aware that it’s still risky for you to criticize the partner. Often, this kind of criticism will drive him more quickly into the arms of the condemned.

You can, however, ask questions, such as, “How does it make you feel when Heather embarrasses you in public?” “Does her drinking cause you to worry, or do you think she has control over it?” If it’s clear to friends and other relatives who know and love your son that this particular marriage would cause grief, it may be time to enlist them to share their concerns. Always end any intervention with the assurance that if he does marry his fiancee, you will fully accept the choice and welcome her into the family. Once the engagement is official, it’s time to move from prevention mode into support mode. This is the time to support the marriage and help your child make it work.

Giving advice to adults of any age is risky. Marriage advice can be especially sensitive since it also involves your child’s fiance(e) or spouse. Two strategies that can help are:

Give options. “Well, the choices I see are to suck it up and ignore your husband’s criticisms, talk with him frankly but lovingly about your feelings, attend a marriage enrichment event, talk with a counselor or separate. Are there other options you can think of?”

You might follow it with sharing how you have handled a similar problem. The wording should be something like, “Here’s what worked (or didn’t work) for me,” rather than, “Here’s what I think you should do.” Make it clear that any advice you offer is a suggestion, not a command.

Give information that the young adult may not be aware of. There are ways of giving counsel without it sounding like advice. The secret is to focus on sharing information that your young adult may not be aware of. What she does with the information is up to her. For example, the Catholic Church and most mainstream religions in the United States require some form of marriage preparation for couples as they approach marriage. Even if the couple is not affiliated with any organized religion, it’s still wise to attend a marriage preparation program.

The Catholic Church has perhaps the most developed programs of marriage preparation, with many options from which to choose. Your young adult may not be aware of the range of options and be inclined to just pick the cheapest or quickest. Some parents offer to pay for a marriage preparation program as an engagement present for the marrying couple.

Similarly, the engaged couple may not be aware of how much money you can afford to spend on the wedding. That is information you should share if the couple is expecting you to pay for some or all of the wedding. As they get started in their married lives, they may or may not be experienced in financial matters, home maintenance and the like. It’s fine to share information about such things, as long as it is presented sensitively and as options to consider, not advice that you expect the couple to follow.

After reflection and exercising restraint, if you have a bone that you really must pick with your young adult, it’s always wise and respectful to do it privately so as not to cause public embarrassment (Mt 18:15). Finally, when dealing with in-law issues, remember counselor Bill Dougherty’s advice: “Blood should argue with blood.”

Wedding Planning

There are so many details related to planning a wedding that there are also grounds for many battles. It’s not really worth fighting any of these battles, even if you’re paying for the wedding. You can let your preferences be known, but your job is to support the couple in this momentous step. In other words, you have the fundamental job of raising your young adult to be a mature life partner. This role should be honored. In terms of wedding decisions, however, you are consultants and background

Traditionally, the parents of the bride pay for the wedding and reception, while the parents of the groom pay for the rehearsal dinner. Such a gift is nice, but it’s entirely appropriate to set a limit on what you can afford — even if it is nothing at all. Sometimes the tension is between the future in-laws, with one family expecting a fancier affair than the other.

Hold tight to your limits and remember that weddings are a celebration of love — not an occasion to impress, settle past grudges or prove your status in society. Of course, many couples marry later and have accumulated enough money to pay for much or all of the wedding themselves. In that case, support their independence and offer a nice wedding gift.

Weddings and Faith

Engaged Encounter reminds couples, “A wedding is a day. A marriage is a lifetime.” It’s easy to forget this when our culture and advertisers put so much emphasis on the wedding day itself. Although I’ve already stated that parents should be consultants, not decisionmakers, there are still some concerns and expectations that parents often carry about the wedding itself. While you may feel that the religion your young adult chooses to practice or not practice is up to her, you may still feel emotionally attached to the couple’s getting married in your church. Or, you may feel nostalgically attached to the tradition of the father of the bride walking his daughter down the aisle and giving her away. These potential battles are best left to the priest, minister, rabbi or imam to handle with the wedding couple.

For your own background, however, let me address the most common sensitive concerns that marriage ministers face and the current thinking about these concerns. Most ministers consider it disingenuous for a couple who have no explicit faith, nor intention to return to the practice of their faith, to use the church building to please their parents or to provide a beautiful setting. This can be balanced by the understanding that life transitions such as marriage are opportunities to reconnect with a faith that has been dormant. A wise minister will use this occasion to welcome young adults home and, it is to be hoped, inspire them to rediscover the faith they have been missing.

On the issue of walking the bride down the aisle, many of us support the tradition to have the father of the bride escort her to the groom and then “give her away,” a practice that originated when daughters were considered property over which men had control. However, since most religions consider marriage to be a free and mutual commitment of equals, the symbolic gesture of handing one human over to another contradicts the meaning of the vows. This is particularly the case with the Catholic sacrament of marriage.

Many couples resolve this by having both sets of parents walk them down the aisle as a symbol of the joining of two families. Alternatively, the bride and groom may walk themselves down the aisle and find another way to honor their parents. This is not your battle. Be supportive of whatever the couple works out with the person who presides at the ceremony.

Another wedding concern for some Catholic parents is the desire for the couple to be married “in the church.” This often means more than just being married in a Catholic church building; it carries the connotation of being married Catholic.

If both bride and groom are practicing Catholics, this is not an issue. If one partner is Christian but not Catholic, however, the couple sometimes wants to get married in the church building of the Protestant partner. Assuming the dispensation has been granted, the Catholic Church fully recognizes this as a sacramental Catholic marriage. Likewise, the couple may get married in the Catholic church building but not have a Mass. This does not in any way lessen the sacredness and import of the sacrament, but rather is an effort for the Catholic community to be hospitable to non-Catholics who are present, especially the non-Catholic spouse. Since marriage is a sacrament of unity, it might seem divisive to have part of the Mass (Communion) in which only one spouse partakes. Let the person who is responsible for your young adult’s marriage preparation deal with these issues.

Sometimes a Catholic wedding may be complicated by the fact that one partner is divorced. While there are many misunderstandings about the need for a divorced person to seek an annulment to be free to enter a sacramental marriage, it is best to let the priest or deacon who coordinates the couple’s marriage preparation deal with this in a pastoral manner. If requested, the parents’ role is to guide the couple to competent and pastoral ministers.

In addition to issues of the sacramentality of the first marriage, a marriage preparation program for couples entering a second marriage will help the couple sort through any issues that may linger from the first marriage. If your young adult is committed to both his faith and his beloved, encourage him to see the resources the church offers as an investment in a happy future, rather than hoops to jump through.

Finally, the couple may have no interest in getting married in a religious ceremony. As disappointing as this might be for parents who hold faith dear, you should respect the couple for not being hypocrites. It’s the developmental job of young adults to come into their own. This often means separating from the faith of their childhood and trying on other ways, even if the other ways are over a vast period of what appears to be nothing. They may return to some form of organized religion later, or they may pursue a more generalized spirituality. You may not like it, but you cannot force-feed faith. Concentrate on developing a loving relationship with the couple.

This article is excerpted from the book Parenting Your Adult Child: Keeping the Faith (and Your Sanity), St. Anthony Messenger Press.

Questions for Reflection

1. Which virtues seem most relevant to you at this stage of parenting? Consider especially giving counsel, renewal of resolutions, and wisdom. Which comes easiest to you? Which is hardest? Why?

2. If you’re married, how do you keep your own marriage fresh? If you’re not married, who are the friends who suport you in your life commitments?

3. If you could only give your married child one piece of advice, what would it be? Is this something you should keep to yourself, or would it be welcome advice?

4. What issue most tempts you to want to intervene in your young adult’s life? If, after prayer and reflection, you deem that saying something is warranted, how could you do it in a way that would build independence?

5. Have you ever sought counseling yourself? Have others sought advice from you? How has this experience been humbling or useful?