asking for friend: how to tell parent about relationship
November 14, 2018 1:56 AM   Subscribe

One of my closest friends has just gotten to the point with her boyfriend where they have begun to discuss marriage. As of now, their tentative plan is to move in together next year, see how cohabitation works, and if it does, they will get married. Yay! All good, right? Wrong.

Friend grew up in a house with a pretty cool stepmom and uptight father. Mom is no longer in the picture for reasons I am unclear about. Friend is worried about telling Dad and Stepmom about this development in their relationship...

... because Dad and Stepmom are not aware that Friend is in a relationship. Friend has found in the past that Dad has not reacted well to her bringing boyfriends home. Dad thinks he is woke but he's actually fairly patriarchal when it comes to his daughters and their boyfriends. Friend's sister kept her relationship secret until they were engaged.

Friend would prefer to be honest sooner than that but has no idea how to broach the conversation with Dad and Stepmom. Stepmom will prolly be happy for her. Dad may flip a shit.

Complicating factors: there is a bit of an age gap (Friend is mid 30s, boyfriend is mid 40s) - she isn't bothered by it but Dad might be. Friend also comes from an immigrant family - she and her sister were born in the US, but parents immigrated from overseas in the late 70s. Dad (and Stepmom) are US citizens now and thoroughly American in outlook and attitude; they don't cling to customs or attitudes from the old country and are generally fairly assimilated - or as assimilated as one can be without losing track of their home culture. That said, Dad and Stepmom are involved in their local community of immigrants from their country, many of whom are a lot more old-fashioned and hewing to traditional norms of the home country culture. Friend is concerned that Dad (who cares a lot about how others perceive him and has always thought of Friend as someone whose worth is only important inasmuch as it reflects well on him) will have a sort of "omg what will people think?!" meltdown about the age difference.

I am friends with Friend's boyfriend - he is a lovely and loving man and a good partner to Friend. They communicate well and they share similar values. They really love each other. I have no doubt that thsie relationship will succeed. But she is scared that Dad will get angry and that will obviously make things harder for Friend and Boyfriend.

How should she go about disclosing this information to Dad (and Stepmom)? She will be reading this thread and is happy to update with clarifications if needed. She is especially curious to hear from first-gen children of immigrants like her who have had to navigate this topic with parents who were weird about relationships.

Thanks in advance!

posted by thereemix to Human Relations (22 answers total)
So is the goal to make her dad happy, or to live her own adult life? Is it possible to do both, maybe, but examining one's priorities is important in a situation like this.

Is her dad violent to the point of fearing for her life, does she depend on him for shelter or tuition or medical insurance... or does she prioritize his ease and comfort over her own autonomy? Maybe she does, and if that's cultural I can't really naysay it. But I think she should be clear for herself what the real goal is.
posted by cage and aquarium at 3:00 AM on November 14, 2018 [14 favorites]

Friend would prefer to be honest sooner than that but has no idea how to broach the conversation with Dad and Stepmom. Stepmom will prolly be happy for her. Dad may flip a shit.

Advise Friend to ask Stepmom to inform Dad, and also to make it clear that (a) this is happening regardless of what Dad says about it and (b) any shit-flipping directed back at Friend will be met with hanging up and/or blocking on social media and/or walking out.
posted by flabdablet at 3:40 AM on November 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

I saw a quote in Dear Prudence the other day that seems relevant:

"Generally speaking, I think you’ll be better off if you resign yourself to the fact that your sister is going to choose the most exhausting and unreasonable response to any given situation whenever possible, that nothing you do can prevent or mitigate it, and that it’s not in your power to fix. "

Dad is going to be awful about this no matter what and there's probably nothing she can do about that or to mitigate that. Her sister kept the relationship secret until engagement for a good reason. Since the plan here is to move in together, I guess she's stuck having to be honest and tell and then pay the price of her father's upset.

I think I wouldn't expect that this would or could go well, but plan ahead that he's going to be bad about this and not want to welcome the boyfriend into the family, and then decide in advance as to how she's going to do that. Is she going to walk out/hang up when he flips his shit? Will she be skipping holidays with the family this year? How much does she want to try talking about the upset and letting dad rant and rave? Is the stepmother someone who can be her ally about this or not? Is dad just going to be upset or actively take unpleasant steps to express himself and make your life hell? Assume the worst, remember what happened when the sister disclosed her engagement and make a plan to try to get out of the drama as soon as you can.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:52 AM on November 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think an important part of sharing news like this is to not take on the part of the negative party. Do not approach the issue tentatively as if you agree that there is a problem somewhere. Present the situation with the confidence you (your friend) would have if your were informing a normal and supportive friend. Just tell him, if he goes off the rails do not join him there. Never validate his response. Don't prepare him, no 'sit down dad I have some news for you'. You set the tone and don't let him get you to change it. Don't engage in discussion or argument at length, and don't let him make you mad, he cannot have an argument all by himself.
posted by InkaLomax at 5:09 AM on November 14, 2018 [12 favorites]

Hi folks - here's some info from Friend that we forgot to mention and is a further complication: Friend is currently in grad school and Friend's Dad is helping pay for it. She has a small grant and a part-time job to make ends meet but she is concerned that Dad might be spiteful enough to pull his financial support. If it comes to that, it is what it is, but she will be heartbroken to have to drop the program. Not really sure if there is anything to be done about this except see it play out but we figured it was worth mentioning in case anyone has any suggestions for how to handle this with Dad or how to come up with a way to stay in school without his support.

And yes she realizes that in the current economic climate going to grad school not completely funded through the school was not the wisest choice but it is what it is and she has two more years remaining. She is asking if we could please be gentle with her on this front, she regrets not planning for this better and was not expecting to fall into a serious relationship at this time and is trying to find some sense of balance and self protection.
posted by thereemix at 6:01 AM on November 14, 2018

Also, Dad is not violent, just petty AF.
posted by thereemix at 6:02 AM on November 14, 2018

2nding InkaLomax so hard. Yes, do not meet the angry, irrational person where they are. Hopefully she can push her own cheerful, grounded narrative, and not let his interpretation taint it. If she can in some way present it in a happy enough way that he looks like a total ogre for fighting it, so much the better. Shame is probably all she can leverage-- the shame of fighting a child's obvious happiness and love.

And as an aside: I say this all the time based on my own experience with my own traditional culture: 'culture' does not get a pass on misogyny. It should be pushed back on. Just because men traditionally got to 'define' what my 'culture' is, doesn't mean women can't criticize that, and push back on it rigorously, and change it. And I don't believe others have to buy into the misogyny either, in the name of being respectful of others' culture. Men's preferences don't define what my culture is.

Seeing your added comment about school though: that is a really hard situation. I don't even know what the best move is based on that. it probably also revolves around shaming from taking away her education. This can go far in some traditional, patriarchal families, where nothing else makes a dent. Wishing her luck!
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 6:05 AM on November 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

I am a child of immigrants. My parents are very loving but they do have their cultural and generational hangups. (Don't we all, though.)

When my boyfriend/now husband wanted to meet my parents, I gave him a roadmap of easy-to-accomplish, largely symbolic things to get us on my parents' good side (in my case there was no age difference but my boyfriend was a divorcee and in sales, which was not on the approved list of suitable husband professions). We set up a first meeting at a Posh Restaurant; my boyfriend dressed up to Meet The Parents and brought a Fancy Flower Bouquet for my mom, and prepared a talk about what a wonderful daughter the parents have brought up and how he was going to Make Their Daughter Happy and so on. It was basically a two-hour long fest of "I respect you, dear future Mother and Father In Law" B-list movie cliches but it made a great first impression and things were smooth sailing from then on. In particular, my father has a lot of the bullshit typical for the men of his generation and cultural background but all that kowtowing from my boyfriend placated him very effectively.

Obviously your friend's mileage may vary but my suggestion would be for the boyfriend to "man up and suck up" because your friend's education is not worth proving some intra-family feminist point. I roll my eyes hard at the "tradition" of asking the father for his daughter's hand in marriage but my boyfriend did it and I consider it a small price to pay for piece in the family. (I am a big feminist myself and I fight for women's equality in my work and local activism so I don't say this lightly.)

Good luck!
posted by rada at 6:39 AM on November 14, 2018 [9 favorites]

I would not move in with or marry the boyfriend as long as she still needs his financial help, unless she is totally cool with dropping out of school. I don't have any magical ways for her to get funding without help if she hasn't found any already (assuming she's talked to her college and whatnot). If Dad's petty, he will withdraw the money. As Dan Savage would say, you don't have to come out right now as long as you're financially dependent.

Does the boyfriend HAVE to move in right now and soon? Is that dire? Can he wait two more years until she's done? Are they planning on having a baby soon or something? Maybe just have him live close by instead?

People like this will most likely make you pick between the parent and the boyfriend anyway. She probably can't have both in her life and things be ok. This just makes the problem worse if she HAS to depend on her dad's support. She is going to have to pick a side, at least to some degree. If you are not free to tell dad to bug off if he doesn't like it, then...don't.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:41 AM on November 14, 2018 [11 favorites]

Friend is mid-30s and boyfriend is in his 40s? That makes me feel differently about the grad school issue than if this were a younger person.

I think at this couple's ages, it's best that they create a life together that involves forming an adult unit focused on their own family. So before your friend talks to her dad and stepmom, she should have a plan with her boyfriend about what happens if the grad school family grant is pulled...will she take loans (like, does this degree lead to an income that will support the loans), or go more part-time, or go back to a different career? What are the boyfriend's financial resources?

This is what an adult couple adjust your work plans and dreams to meet the reality, you don't return to the bank of dad. I am not saying that with any tone of shame or blame, it's just that if she is making a choice to live outside of the "keep dad happy/get married before cohabitating" mode, then she needs to be prepared to go ahead with the way that works.

Otherwise, I would suggest she just wait the two years to move in together.

Once that plan is in place, then she should assume joy and ask her dad to join into that joy with her. Like "dad, I have great news about something that is making me very happy. I hope you'll feel the same. I have a special person in my life and we are going to move in together."
posted by warriorqueen at 6:46 AM on November 14, 2018 [26 favorites]

Is there any reason she has to tell her dad about the cohabitation at all? If they live close enough that he might come visit, I get it, but there’s no intrinsic reason it needs to be a point of communication for a 30-something woman to her parents.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:53 AM on November 14, 2018 [9 favorites]

The boyfriend seems strangely absent from this, especially for a situation where they are, essentially, auditioning each other as potential spouses. You would think that if he is looking to become her family he would also be concerned with doing what he had to to make sure his possible wife didn’t have to drop out of grad school just to move in with him.

Partners face problems together. The boyfriend’s apparent absence from all this is itself concerning, especially given his age.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:57 AM on November 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

any suggestions for how to handle this with Dad

lie to him. or convince herself that lying by omission isn't really lying (I in fact believe this, so it can be done.)

your update clarifies that the real problem is less a practical or relational concern than an internal ethical one. Maintaining his financial support after telling the truth might happen but can't be guaranteed, no matter how careful a reveal she plans. if she wants to be honest but needs to be supported, the priorities are clear. so the question is how to justify in her own mind the choice to continue taking gifts of money from him that she suspects he would not choose to give, if he knew more about her life. the simplest way is to decide that his values are bad (helpfully, they are) so his ability to make an informed choice about his gifts is not important, compared with her desire to finish her education without more debt.

this is a defensible position. genuinely. but the price of taking it is you can't defend it out loud.

and the answer to "how" is once you decide that it's ok, you just do it. you bury the feelings of anger over his attitudes and shame over your own actions until you don't need his money anymore, and you don't tell the truth until that's over. it isn't satisfying and it feels degrading, because it is, but it gets you a degree.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:58 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hi, Friend. Very gently... You are needlessly complicating your life. Keep lying and move on. Don’t move in with BF if Dad will find out.

When Grad School is over, tell your Dad.

I’m not going to lie to you. This is your chance to stop reading.

Your father is controlling and abusive and he is not a good person. Yes, you should not be in a grad program your abusive controlling father pays for. But you know what? You also shouldn’t be emotionally dependent on someone who is abusing you. Can you plan to extricate yourself from your parents? I don’t know why you want to stay close to them, they do not want your happiness. They “love” you only as much as they have control over you. (The stepmom is a victim, sure, but she also chooses to stay in the marital relationship with an abuser. She’s complicit in your father’s abuse of you and this is why I lump them together. She is has dangerous as him if you tell her, because she will eventually tell him.)

Very gently, it’s as though you are in HS, not a woman in your 30’s.

Can you get loans for grad school and get into therapy? Do that. Then you are free to live your life.

Get independent and get clear about the dynamics. You are an adult and you do not have to accept abuse! Walk out the next time your father blows up at you. Politely hang up the phone if he starts in. Do not agree to see him unless it’s in a public space (ex restaurant.) There are a hundred millions other tactics you will have to employ to stay safe around him, such as always have your own transportation, never let him pay for anything, being willing to call 911 if he escalates or threatens you. Accept that the outcome of you asserting your right of autonomy and safety may be estrangement.

All that is A Lot. It’s understandable you’ve gone along to get along up to this point. The truth is you can’t have your own life AND maintain this abusive relationship. I’m sorry.

In a way, your Dad is a fire. People lose things in a fire. You have lost a lot of things in the fire, you will lose more things if you stay near the fire. People DO rebuild after a fire, but step one is to get away from the fire. I’d say put the fire out, but you are not a fireman (mental health professional) and it’s highly unlikely your Dad is going to seek help and change.

My advice is for you to stop pretending your Dad’s behavior towards you (and others) is normal. It’s abusive. Seek recovery resources and professional support, it’s a big task to break the cycle of family abuse, but it is very doable. Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 7:07 AM on November 14, 2018 [13 favorites]

To tack on to schadenfrau’s point, the likelihood she will need professional help to create a healthy intimate relationship after a lifetime of this abusive dynamic with her family of origin is super high. As the friend unpacks her abusive upbringing and processes her past, there may be things she notices in her current intimate relationship that are dealbreakers, and that’s OK.

It’s maybe a blessing she’s not living with her boyfriend just yet.
posted by jbenben at 7:18 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Boyfriend is very caring and wants to do the right thing and is in a stronger financial position than Friend, though not in a position to take on her tuition payments. However, he is happy to shoulder their other financial concerns until she is through with the program and/or finds full time work. They are also doing couple's counseling (not because of any problems but because it seems like a wise thing to do before taking a big step).

The concern here is mostly how to manage Petty AF Dad, and she is aware that if Dad decides to be petty AF here she and Boyfriend will have to make some hard decisions, up to and including moving to a PT school schedule and cutting Dad off if he truly flips a shit. She says she is grateful for the advice so far and would be happy to hear more if anyone has any.
posted by thereemix at 7:20 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you are not independent enough to make decisions about how you live and who you live with, you are not independent enough to get married. Full stop. Either tell the father and take the fallout, and be prepared to pay for school yourself, or wait it out until you are not longer dependent on him, and then you can talk about marriage.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:19 AM on November 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

It's understandable why she would want to share this with her Dad - it's exciting news, and it just feels right to share this kind of the stuff with the people who care about you. And it sounds like they are both really struggling with the idea that hiding this would be effectively lying to her family, which probably seems wrong on a fundamental level. But Dad's behavior changes the situation, and I think he should be treated as if he has lost the right to know about this.

Think about why we aren't always 100% honest and forthright with young children. It's not because we want to lie and deceive them, its because we know their brains aren't capable of digesting and processing things in the same way that healthy adults can. I think that's how your friend should approach her Dad in this case - something in his brain just breaks down and is incapable of reacting in a healthy, reasonable way when it comes to his daughters' romantic lives.

To use another analogy, they could think of her Dad as something akin to an alcoholic. Say you're hosting a party at your place and a friend walks in - you'll probably offer them a beer or a glass of wine, and it might even be rude not to. But if that friend is an alcoholic, it's not rude to offer them a lemonade instead - it's a kindness to make it easy for them to avoid what would be an unhealthy choice. Her Dad doesn't want to hate his daughters, but something about them dating sets off an unhealthy reaction in him that he seems unwilling or incapable of controlling. By hiding this information, you're denying this unhealthy side of him a chance to take over and poison their relationship.
posted by parallellines at 8:36 AM on November 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Is there any reason she has to tell her dad about the cohabitation at all? If they live close enough that he might come visit, I get it, but there’s no intrinsic reason it needs to be a point of communication for a 30-something woman to her parents.

Oh nooooooo. I can think of many sitcom-esque ways that lying about that could go wrong. Even if parents live on the other end of the country or something, there's always, "Surprise, we just dropped in to visit you!" or "Who's that strange man who answered the phone?" or someone in the know accidentally slips up, or what if there's an emergency/you end up in the hospital? So whatever you do, don't move in together and not tell. You will be caught. I don't know if that would make it any worse or better on you to get caught vs. being honest in the first place, but if you don't move in together, at least you won't get caught.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:58 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

The question is, whose money is friend going to take? Her dads for tuition, or her boyfriends for living expenses?

Getting money for grad school is awesome. But taking out loans for tuition while having mitigated living expenses is pretty good too.

Id figure out the actual costs of full time vs part time and living expenses. And then factor pregnancy planning timetables. Maybe boyfriend would prefer you have less loans as a parttimer, even if that pushes back degree date/babies. Maybe he thinks its better to finish sooner, have more loans, in order to have a baby post haste.Maybe he thinks, fuck it, get the free ride from dad and lets skip cohabiting, get married maybe in 2 years free and clear of debt and start our lives.

Id put pen to paper and chart it all out.
posted by charlielxxv at 10:27 AM on November 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Edited to add:
There is one thing that patriarchal immigrant bs hates more than loss of control over their children: its unmarried children.
I bet if you do your risk analysis and talk to your stepmom, saying look, I have to choose between dads anger and potentially being childless forever, because you have this boyfriend you want to marry you and you're torn between husband and father, laying out $ and pregnancy timetables etc, it will trickle down to your father and you might just get Everything you want. Its gross, but its the language of the patriarchy.

You have to be ready to take the consequences though, if you go this route.
posted by charlielxxv at 10:51 AM on November 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have always thought that sharing the intimate details of one's life is a privilege, and if someone is going to disapprove, and make my life hell because of their reaction to my personal life, then that privilege gets revoked. I respect that you feel like you want to be honest about your living situation, but if he's going to be petty and try to control you, then he doesn't deserve to know about your life.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:52 PM on November 14, 2018

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