Here's What to Do If You Don't Like Your Adult Child's Significant Other

Is it possible to express displeasure in your child’s choice of partner without it driving a wedge between the family?

what to do when you don't like your child's significant other
Francesco Carta fotografo

When your adult child tells you they’re in a romantic relationship, you’ll probably feel eager (and maybe a little apprehensive) to be introduced to their special someone. But when you finally meet the individual who has captured their heart, you might be taken aback. Or maybe just plain old turned off. What do you do if you’re just not as crazy about the person as your child is?

First, understand you’re not alone.

“I see this problem all the time — it’s part of the human condition that we are concerned about our children, their well being and who they choose as a partner,” says Vijayeta Sinh, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. “It exists in every group and population and transcends culture, race and religion.”

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Those who specialize in relationship issues say that a common source of parental concern is a disparity of ambition and values between a couple. “Often, there is a difference in maturation and life goals between the pair — someone who is very hardworking, for instance, with someone who’s more of a slacker,” says Dr. Teri Friedman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. “Parents want to see an equality of values between their child and their partner, so that they’re going to have each other’s back for the long term.”

Of course, the reasons why you might not care for your child’s significant other can run the gamut. Perhaps your daughter’s sweetheart is openly critical of her, or your son’s betrothed swears so casually that your family get-togethers feel like episodes of The Sopranos. But whatever turns you off about your child’s partner, the advice of professionals about what to do in this tricky situation is the same: proceed carefully.

There’s a case for saying nothing.

So should you voice your objections? Like with most relationship issues, it’s complicated. Some things to consider include the nature of your concerns, the status of the relationship — are they married or is this a more casual romance? — and your relationship with your child. “If you already have good lines of communication with your child, almost anything can be heard if you say it kindly,” Dr. Friedman says. “But if you don’t, you run the risk of alienating them or starting trouble in the relationship.”

“Ask yourself what you’re trying to get out of this — besides being a troublemaker,” Dr. Friedman adds. She advises parents to determine what your end game is before inserting themselves in the situation. If your goal is to preserve your relationship with your child, it may be best to say nothing. “You don’t want to put your child in the middle and have them make an emotional choice between you and their significant other,” she says. If the reasons for your displeasure are more minor quality-of-life issues — Won’t he ever stop bragging about how much money he makes? Doesn’t she ever talk? — Dr. Friedman recommends that you strongly consider just letting things go.

Angle for some one-on-one time.

Remember that first impressions can be deceptive, and that there are reasons why your child is with who they are with. “Rather than making assumptions about them or their background, you may discover that this is actually someone whose values and goals are aligned with yours,” Dr. Sinh says. “You may miss out on that if you focus on appearances as opposed to trying to understand their strengths. Instead of getting overly caught up in things that displease you, try to look at what they’re doing well and how they’re positively participating in your child’s life.”

If you don’t know the partner well, experts advise, make a concerted effort to spend time with them alone, without your child — and maybe even initiate a heart-to-heart conversation. “If you want to discover what it is that your child loves so much about this person,” Dr. Friedman says, “you might say something like, ‘I see how much my son loves you and so I’d like to get to know you better.’” Engage in activities together, and actively work to develop a relationship by remembering their birthday or serving their favorite dessert. And if you make a misstep, Dr. Sinh says, own it and apologize.

If, even after giving it a good shot, you still don’t care for your child’s partner, don’t let that jeopardize your relationship with your child.

Of course, issues and personalities differ widely, so there is no magic “one size fits all” approach if you find that you just don’t care for your child’s significant other. There are, however, some things to consider doing — and not doing.

  • Make sure your child knows that you’ll always be there for them no matter who they are involved with.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. “You can say something like, ‘I hope you know that you can always come to me about anything and I will listen to and help you,’” suggests Dr. Friedman.
  • Choose your battles — and try to keep quiet about unimportant things.
  • Be careful how you express your concerns. Frame your comments in a positive rather than confrontational way. “It’s about how you bring something up,” Dr. Friedman says. Some suggested openers? “I can see your boyfriend means so much to you and that you really enjoy spending time together. What do you love most about him?” Then listen carefully.
  • Use specific, factual examples — not opinions — and avoid “I feel” statements. Ditto for provocative generalizations like, “Everyone says he’s obnoxious.”
  • Be careful how you respond if your child complains to you about the significant other. Listen to what they have to say, but don’t fall into the trap of piling on with your own criticisms. The partner you say is awful today might be the one that your child gets back together with tomorrow.
  • Watch how often you criticize. “Being critical about their partner might actually push your child to be with that person more,” Dr. Sinh says.
  • Don’t act in a confrontational way. Avoid inflammatory statements like, “I don’t understand what you see in this person,” or,“You can find someone so much better.”
  • Avoid taking passive aggressive actions by, for example, including everyone but your child’s partner on a family text.
  • Don’t frame things in an accusatory, negative way or commit “character assassination” with comments like, “She’s so lazy” or “Why are you being so blind about this?” Don't make it you-or-them, either. “You don’t want to create a wedge between the couple,” Dr. Friedman says. “It’s easier to talk with your child as you have a history with them.”
  • Consider seeking professional advice for yourself. A therapist can help you learn how to live with the situation or develop an appropriate course of action.

    “We can’t always change or like what our children do — and we may not always be pleased with their choices about such things as their partners,” Dr. Sinh says, “but we can and should keep the door open and maintain our connections to them.” It’s okay to have disagreements with and different points of view from your children, she admits. “But it’s important to prioritize your relationship with them — and not prioritize just being right for right’s sake.” And sometimes, that might mean not saying anything.

    Let your child know that you’ll always be there to help.

    If you see something that makes you concerned about your child’s safety, like unexplained bruises, frequent accidents, a partner who drives while under the influence of alcohol or drugs or one who has frequent bursts of anger, consider seeking professional advice for how to intervene. Dr. Friedman adds that domestic abuse is not just physical but may also include emotional or psychological abuse like intimidation. “In these cases, the partner may be controlling and isolating your child and threatening menace or harm,” says Dr. Friedman. Signs of this type of abuse may include marked changes in your child’s behavior, your child avoiding or being uncharacteristically quiet at family events or not being able to reach your child directly because their partner is screening their calls, emails and texts.

    If you’re concerned, try to talk to your child alone or have another trusted relative reach out to them. “If you’re not careful with how you approach this topic with your child, you run the risk of them feeling judged and like they can’t talk about this or anything else of a sensitive nature with you in the future,” Dr. Friedman says. “Your child may feel shame that they are in this situation so it’s important that you show them compassion, not judgement.”

    You might start by saying something like, “I’m bringing this up because I love you and I’m worried about you,” she suggests. “If your child is open to hearing specifics, frame them in the most supportive way possible. But then, be prepared to step out of way and let them make their own decisions about how to move forward. At least you’ve left the door open for future conversations and they know they are not alone.”

    If you have serious concerns about your child’s safety or their significant other, you might want to reach out to these resources:

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