how do i stop my parents dictating my life?
April 16, 2014 3:00 PM   Subscribe

How do I keep my parents from being quite so upset, angry and unreasonable, while retaining control over my wedding, marriage and life?

Four months ago I got engaged. My parents would like my fiancee to phone them or meet them and talk to them to apologise for not being there when the engagment was announced. They're putting pressure on me and saying that I'm being selfish for not forcing him to come see them imediately. My fiencee lives a considerable distance away while he studies for his finals, and I've just come back from 3 months abroad. Coming to where I live has not really been an option, and won't be for a couple more months. He doesn't feel he owes them an apology (especially given how they've treated me) and regardless doesn't want to have a negative conversation with them over the phone.

I don't know how to deal with this situation. I feel stuck while I am told to jump through hoops to keep them happy. They're constantly insulting me and telling me which way to do things.

How do I keep my parents from being quite so upset, angry and unreasonable, while retaining control over my wedding, marriage and life?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You can't.

You can keep yourself from responding to them when they are angry or unreasonable. But you aren't going to get them to change or be different.
posted by jeather at 3:05 PM on April 16, 2014 [11 favorites]

You don't keep your parents from feeling any way. Stop caring what they think and feel. If they want to be giant assholes about your wedding, they can skip it, and you can help with that by not inviting them.
posted by xingcat at 3:06 PM on April 16, 2014 [13 favorites]

You are starting your life together. You are a team. You need to present a united front. You tell them "Fiancee doesn't owe you an apology because that is how we jointly decided to announce our engagement. No apology will be forthcoming. If that is not acceptable to you, we are happy to plan and pay for our own wedding."

The reality is that a lot of parents exert control through money around weddings. If you don't want to deal with that, then bow out now and plan your own affordable wedding.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:09 PM on April 16, 2014 [68 favorites]

Are you financially dependent on them in any way? It will be much easier to control your life if you cut the purse strings and in particular, don't accept any help with the wedding.
posted by florencetnoa at 3:10 PM on April 16, 2014 [11 favorites]

You can't keep your parents from being anything. What you can do is realize that how your parents are is their problem to solve, not yours. In other words, if they are upset with something, that is something they need to deal with. It is not your job to mollify them. They are adults, they should be well familiar with handling their emotions by now.

The correct response when one's daughter tells them that she is engaged is "congratulations," not "he needs to apologize to us immediately." They are inventing this drama so that they continue to be important. Your parents are trying to make your wedding about them, when your wedding, by definition, is not about them. (I hope I have your gender correct... you refer to the person you're going to marry as both your fiancee and as him, which is a bit confusing, sorry if I'm being too heteronormative here).

They want to continue to be the center of your life, when you are about to start a life in which they will play a supporting role, if they play a role at all. Which is their choice: they can play a supporting role, or they can play no role at all. It is entirely up to them which they choose. You will, tell them, respect their choice.

I suggest a quick perusal of the reddit section called RaisedByNarcissists. Even if your parents aren't clinical, you will find a lot of familiarity in the stories shared there.
posted by kindall at 3:12 PM on April 16, 2014 [11 favorites]

How do I keep my parents from being quite so upset, angry and unreasonable, while retaining control over my wedding, marriage and life?

These two things are not connected unless you connect them. You already have control of your wedding, marriage and life. You are an adult, they can't make you do anything unless you let them.

So don't. Tell them that their behaviour is upsetting you, that they need to back off. Draw a clear boundary and stick to it. You have leverage here; they want you in their lives. If they want to keep you in their lives, they will have to do it on your terms.

And yes, don't accept any funding from them for the wedding, because that will give them leverage over you which they will doubtless use.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:12 PM on April 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

You can't control other people's emotions or behaviour. You can only control your own. If you give in on this, your parents will feel entitled to try to run your marriage.

Put your foot down now by letting your parents know that what they want isn't going to happen. Don't justify that by saying why, because they can argue with why. They can argue for a little bit with "it's not happening" by saying "but whyyyyyy?!?!!", but if you don't give them any ammunition, there's not a lot they can do.

Congrats on your upcoming nuptials. You now have a partner in crime who will stand by you against the world. Your relationship with your fiancé is equally as important as your relationship with your parents, and you need to be focusing on that right now. Your parents get to deal, or not, as they see fit. There will likely be machinations and crying fits and temper tantrums, etc. This is an extinction burst. The good news is that if you weather this, it will get better. Your parents will realise that the old behaviour no longer works. They obviously care about you - if they didn't they wouldn't be acting out - so use that to your advantage. When they behave properly, interact with them. And when they act out, ignore them - hang up the phone, leave the house, etc.

If you're having your buttons pushed, I wrote a little here about how to deal with that.
posted by Solomon at 3:18 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

You will have to get over trying to please them when they make preposterous demands of you. They will be quite unhappy as you put up boundaries and reduce their influence in your life. Be clear and consistent and they'll eventually get used to it and adjust if they want to see you and be part of your life.

There's no magical way for you to both keep them happy while asserting your independence and resisting their inappropriate meddling in your life. They'll be quite unhappy for awhile. You probably will be, too. But, it's worth it to go through these pains in order to have an adult relationship with them. The only way they'll relinquish control over your life is if you wrench it back from them.

If you live with them, find a way to move out immediately. If you're planning on using their money for the wedding, don't. They'll hold your wedding hostage with their money. Neither you nor your partner owe them an apology for doing things your own way. Do not apologize to them and do not stick your partner into the fray. It's your family, you have to deal with them. It's your responsibility to shield your partner from their madness as much as possible.
posted by quince at 3:38 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you want your partner to apologize? I assume not. If you and he agree on that, you two should get on the phone and decide on a joint response: ignore it, call together, have him write a brief letter expressing his enthusiasm about meeting them post-finals, you telling them to back off, whatever. The important thing is that you do it together, and do it together in good humor. If you do it right, you won't even mind that you did something to make your parents feel better (assuming you decide to do that) because, as a couple, you both know you're placating your parent's behavior to avoid stress rather than knuckling under to their demands. It's a much better perspective.

I know I personally wouldn't want to call and apologize because (a) I don't think it's rude and (b) I wouldn't want to navigate a precarious social situation with my in-laws by myself over the phone when I hadn't even met them yet. So working together alleviates (b) for your partner, and knowing that you both agree on (a) will bring you a bit closer as a team (united against your parents, in this case, which is fine!)

If you do want your partner to apologize, then have that conversation with him instead, and find a compromise that works for both of you, because that's what partnerships are like -- no sense waiting to get married to start working that muscle.

As for their feelings: consider this a pre-marriage exercise where you learn that you can't control how people think of you or treat you as a couple or as individuals, but you can lean on each other for support to get through it.
posted by davejay at 3:54 PM on April 16, 2014

Knowing more about the situation would help. How old are you guys? How long have you been together? How expected was this engagement? Any relevant details about lifestyle, culture, background, etc? What's the wedding going to be like, who's paying, and how does that relate to your parents pre-existing expectations?

If you guys are like 22 and have been together for six months, half of which was long distance, and they've barely heard of this guy, yeah, sorry, your parents are going to be pissed off and there's nothing you can really do. If anything, you might want to listen to their concerns.

If you guys are like 30 and have been together for years but logistics made it difficult for y'all to involve your parents to the extent they wish in an ideal world they could be involved in your life, that's really different. In that case, I would probably declare the topic closed to further discussion and try to turn the conversation in a more positive direction. Make assurances that you'll do X and Y as soon as time and resources permit. I would also start thinking about paying for the wedding yourselves, even if it means drastically scaling back the kind of wedding you're able to afford.

Best case scenario: you're living completely independently as an adult and have been for years, you're paying for your own wedding, and none of this matters to them except as petty drama. In that case, just ignore them and do what you want. You're an adult. They're adults. This will all feel very silly approximately thirty seconds after the judge pronounces you husband and wife.

Agree with others that, regardless of your course, this should all primarily be a conversation between you and your parents, not him getting called out on the carpet by them. The ball is in your court to say what needs to be said to get the best possible result (which unfortunately might not be them completely coming around to your way of thinking).
posted by Sara C. at 3:55 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Dan Savage talks about how once you're an adult and have some financial independence, the biggest tool you have to use in communication with your parents is your presence in their lives. If they aren't going to respect you and your choices, you remove yourself. At some point, they either get the message and start acting appropriately or they don't and you're happier because you're not being disrespected.

Whether you're on the phone or in person, they get three strikes and you're out. The first time they say something disrespectful, you say, "Mom/Dad, I feel sad when say mean things to me because it makes me feel like you don't love me." The next time, you say, "Mom/Dad, as I mentioned, I feel sad when you say mean things to me because it makes me feel like you don't love me. I love you but I don't deserve to be treated this way and if you keep doing it, I'm going to hang up/leave." The last time, you say, "Mom/Dad, I told you that I feel sad when you say mean things to me. I don't like feeling sad so I'm out. Love you, hope we can talk soon without you saying mean things to me." Lather, rinse, repeat until they knock it off.

I'm sure it's hard to contemplate but your parents don't have to be in your life unless you want them there so if they are a net negative in your life, then back off.
posted by kat518 at 3:57 PM on April 16, 2014 [11 favorites]

He doesn't feel he owes them an apology (especially given how they've treated me) and regardless doesn't want to have a negative conversation with them over the phone.

Ok. Shit-talking your parents to your fiancé, won't resolve your problems. Quite the opposite. Why don't you see this as a situation where you have to get 2 parties to co-exist peacefully, rather than seeing one person as your ally, and he other person as your enemy?

Control yourself so that others can't.
posted by hal_c_on at 4:31 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

From the OP:
Hi all, thanks for your answers so far, some more information:

Firstly I am a woman. We've been together over three years. We're in our twenties. We have previously lived together for a year. I have been living at home for a little bit of time this year but plan to move back out soon and in with my fiance. We will be financing the wedding ourselves (partly to avoid control). My fiance has met my family before where they have called him part the family and he's met my Mum on a number of occasions, but my Dad works shifts and they've only met briefly on occasion.
posted by jessamyn at 4:33 PM on April 16, 2014

I will suggest you pick up the book "Getting to Yes." There are ways to assert yourself without actively provoking other people and/or while minimizing how negatively they will feel about it but it's something I find rather hard to describe. It is rooted in having very clear boundaries and being kind of nitpicky in separating out The Issues. That book is research-based and a quick read. There is a meatier book I sometimes recommend but for quick relief, that book might be more immediately useful.
posted by Michele in California at 5:04 PM on April 16, 2014

Haven't they already met him?

Anyway, if I were you, I'd be thinking long view. But this all depends on your relationship with them. Generally, do you have a decent relationship with them?

Do you want your parents in your life? Do you want to move forward into this new chapter of your life with a wonderful husband and a loving family?

I'm not advocating bending over backwards to ridiculous demands, but I don't see the terrible harm in having your guy call your parents and tell them how excited he is to be married to you and become a member of your wonderful family.

If they're upset about him not physically announcing it, would it be the worst thing for him to say that he understands his concerns and he's sorry they feel that way? He doesn't have to lie and get fighty.

All he has to do is calmly placate the people who love you. It'll be a useful practice for your lives moving forward.

I say he calls them. They will think of him a lot more highly.

Again, this is assuming that you generally have good boundaries with them and this is a one-off.
posted by kinetic at 6:24 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

My daughter got married recently and she had these sort of issues with my mom before the wedding. I firmly said, "We are lucky to be included in this wedding. Lots of people elope these days and tell people after everything is over and done. Do you want that? I do NOT, so we put on our happy faces and be helpful! If they want to do naked handsprings down the aisle and have everyone sing karaoke and eat KFC, we are going to put on our happy faces and be helpful because we get to be there! Got it?" Yes, I really said those exact words to my mom. I thought my son-in-law was going to crawl under the table, but it got through and things were better.

No apologies from your fiancé. Everyone can get together when you two are all finished with finals and settling back in from your travels.
It's your wedding, own it. If you have someone to run interference for you, like an aunt or godparent, maybe they can give your parents a reality check. I was happy to do that for my daughter because I wanted her to have happy memories, not angry ones.
posted by notaninja at 6:30 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Any boundaries you set should be for yourself. I won't engage when they try to argue with me. I'll tell them if I'm unwilling to discuss something, and then I'll politely end the conversation if they insist on talking about it. I won't raise my voice.

The hardest thing is that they aren't treating you with respect, and that's very hurtful. It's very hard for a person in their twenties to be firm with their parents, but it you deal with each individual incident or behavior, it's not as difficult as making general statements like, "You have a tendency to __________ and it's a problem."

You can expect an initial backlash with more drama and recriminations than ever -- your parents could be shocked and scared if you respectfully refuse to involve yourself in their criticism and anger.

I'm embarrassed to say that before I got married (in the 80's) I read a marriage-advice book by the TV psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers. She said that when you are engaged and then married, your mate becomes your primary family. You have a responsibility to honor this new family of two over your parents, siblings, and other relatives. This advice made a huge difference to my husband and me. When my parents were butting in complaining, I was able to feel like I was doing the right thing in refusing to listen and be hurt by it.

By the way, they did change their behavior towards me (and him). It took time, though.
posted by wryly at 8:32 PM on April 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

1. This drama is the price that you pay for having a family in your life. You cannot expect them to behave reasonably when they are not reasonable people. There is no magic way for you to get what you want without paying the price of putting up with their crazy drama. Drama is going to be inevitable from here on out, so you will have to learn to put up with it rather than appease it and cave in.

2. What wryly said about how you HAVE TO put your fiance first or else the relationship will end. You will be, most likely, pissing your parents off a lot more in the future because of this. I'M LOSING MY BAYBEEEEEEEE-type crap escalates the crazy. Ask me how I know! Actually, you can take a guess because I learn the hard way.

3. You are used to having to jump through their hoops to keep them from not picking on you, and you are used to them always picking on you. Your fiance isn't. I can't stress this enough. He hasn't been frog boiled into being used to their shenanigans, and is inherently going to be less interested (at least) in caving in to their demands. He's probably not going to "go along to get along" to the extent that you do.

What all of this means is that if you want control over your wedding and your life, you will be pissing them off. Frequently. I am not the person who can tell you about Boundaries And How To Maintain Them because I fail at it myself, but people tell me that you basically have to decide what you're going to do and then stick to it (and try to not get into arguments with them about it) no matter what they do to you. Never give up, never surrender.

Good luck with that. I'm not good at it myself, but everyone else swears up and down to me it's the only way, and obviously they were better at it than I and got it right.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:56 PM on April 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Elanor Roosevelt: 'No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.'

Similar idea applies - they cannot dictate your life without your consent.

They probably played the guilt card your whole life and are now pressing that button again to make you feel terrible. That is horrible and I empathize with you. The trick is to see their requests as simple requests (no matter now nasty/demanding it gets on their part) and oblige if YOU feel like it.

You gotta remove that guilt button for them to press. It's not your job to make them happy. You've got enough to be responsible for without them adding to it. Meditate on it until you really feel it, until you feel that separation from them.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:21 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tell them, "I love you, but you are being unreasonable. Fiancee and I have done nothing wrong, so there's nothing to apologize for. Full Stop. Our plans are X. If you would like to be included, we would both love that. We will not be dictated to, bossed around, ordered or involved in drama surrounding our wedding and our life as a married couple."

Then you have to erect your boundaries and protect them. If it means moving out and couch surfing until after finals, then that's what has to happen.

Once you are independent of your parents, they will cease to bully you into things you don't want to do or don't care about.

But make a stand and be united with your fiancee, because until you do, your parents will drive a wedge into your lives.

If you are adult enough to be engaged, get married and become a family unit, you are adult enough to tell your parents where they get off.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:25 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is a lot of advice about the big picture of how to relate to your parents, but if this is really just about the announcement and if they bring it up again, I might be tempted to use actual logic:

Mom, we were excited about our engagement and wanted to tell you as soon as we could, but Fiance is stuck at school for X more months and just couldn't take the time off. The choice was that I could tell you by myself, or make you wait until Fiance could be here together. We chose to tell you earlier, thinking you would share in our excitement and happiness.

Instead, you're focusing on the "how" and not the "what". By insisting on this apology, you are making us feel bad so maybe we should have chosen to not tell you at all until Fiance can get here. So here's the deal: be happy that we told you sooner, there isn't anything to apologise for so that's not going to happen, and once Fiance gets here, we'll be happy to talk with you both about any important things at that time. If you keep bringing this up that you need an apology, I'm just going to go back to Fiance's house and not be here any more. It's your choice.
posted by CathyG at 10:42 AM on April 17, 2014

I don't know how to deal with this situation.

Don't. Really. Tell them this matter is closed and you don't want to hear about it again. If they don't comply, ignore their calls and don't invite them to the wedding.

Whatever you do, do not have your fiancé play into their hands. In a relationship, it's one's responsiblity to run interference with their family for their partner.
posted by spaltavian at 5:22 AM on April 18, 2014

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