Go Ahead and Meddle in Your Children's Relationships--They'll Thank You For It Later

Family Matters on 05.26.11
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Whenever I write about how I met my wife, I have to include some winky/nudgey passages like this: We met in college and for the next 9 years were good pals who didn't date and would never have considered cohabitating because that would have been wrong and immoral and her parents would have been completely justified in disowning her, which is exactly what they would have done.  That little disclaimer is in case of the very, very unlikely event that her parents would read something I published on the interwebs.

The snarky synopsis above encapsulates the official story as it appears in the annals of my wife's family history.  We met in college, and I was the friend who sometimes fixed her car.  I started a little construction business while she applied to medical school, and continued to drive nails while she worked toward her degree.  Years later, after she had graduated from medical school, I approached her parents in the usual manner--you know, came to their door with my parents and six close male friends bearing gifts including a roast pig, betel nut, wine, and fruit--and then negotiated with the family elders for permission to begin our courtship.  After permission was granted, my betrothed and I moved to California where she did her residency.  We lived in separate houses *coughcough* while I did construction work and went through adult catechism so that our eventual marriage would be recognized by the One True Church.

Of course, the extended version of the story is much more complicated.  I would love to tell it to you one day over some beers, well out of earshot of my in-laws.

My wife's family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was two years old, and her little sister was an infant.  "Immigrated" is a pretty genteel way of putting it.  They were refugees on the run from the communist government that took control of their country. 

Once they came to the States, they had four more children, and worked their fingers to the bone to provide a comfortable life for them.

My in-laws are very traditional, even by Vietnamese standards (although they have loosened up significantly in the 20 years that I've known her), and staunchly Catholic.  It was not part of the plan for their eldest daughter to marry a white, Secular Humanist carpenter.  Thus the mutual farce we enacted for the first nine years: my wife and I pretended not to be dating, and her parents pretended not to know that we were.  They were hoping that if they just ignored the situation it would go away; and my wife was afraid of the horrible conflagration that might occur if she came clean with them so allowed them to pursue this fantasy.

A lot--probably most--of my friends and family took umbrage on my behalf that I had to lay low for nine years before coming out to my future in-laws as the boyfriend of their daughter.  After all, they liked me, despite knowing about my many flaws: what could these unreasonable parents I had hardly even met have against me?

Aside from simply being irked that someone thought I wasn't good enough to marry their daughter, some of my friends found it outrageous that a family would come to the United States and not only decline to completely assimilate into American society, but demand that natural-born citizens make cultural compromises to accommodate their values. 

Whatever the source of their frustration with my future in-laws, the advice I often got from friends (especially male) was to "man up" and tell them I was marrying their daughter and that's that.  If I didn't take charge of the situation now, they exhorted, I would have to deal with meddling in-laws for the foreseeable future.  And I would have to live with the knowledge that I hadn't stood my ground or "represented" in this personal and cultural conflict.  Naturally, I too felt some of this frustration. 

But on the other hand, I was strangely empathetic to my future in-laws' prejudices against me. 

Much of my childhood was spent overseas and in international communities, and this had made me a cultural relativist.  Many of my friends growing up were raised amid customs utterly strange to me; and my family's way of life was equally puzzling to them.  Our reaction to each other's families' peculiarities was to laugh about them, shrug, and go kick the soccer ball or ride skateboards.

Also, having lived overseas, I saw why the instinct would be strong to preserve the vestiges of your home culture after having been displaced.  If I found myself living in Turkey or Taiwan right now, for instance, I wouldn't be surprised if I developed a longing to watch football and buy a handgun.

In addition to relating to my future in-laws' cultural anxiety, I took comfort in some wisdom that my father, who had studied Vietnamese language and culture, and done two tours of duty in the war, shared with me.  He told me not to worry.  Once the daughter is married to an acceptable groom, he said, the parents relinquish any claims of influence over her. 

And that's pretty much how it went down.  After ten years of marriage, my relationship with my in-laws is friendly-close, even.  They may occasionally badger my wife about stuff, but the language barrier makes me blissfully unaware.  They're proud of their daughter, delighted that I was able to build an addition on a shoestring budget that doubled the size of our house just in time for our twins' birth, and impressed that I can handle the job of taking care of their beloved granddaughters.  And they still find it charming that I can eat more egg rolls than anyone they've ever seen.

Hopefully, it will be a very long time before I have to think about whether I approve of whomever my daughters (now two) will want to date or marry.  Of course, I also thought, a lightning-fast year and a half ago, that I'd have a good long time before I needed to worry about potty training and preschools.  So I guess it's not that crazy to start thinking about it now. 

On one hand, I imagine that it's tempting to bite your tongue when your kids start dating some good-for-nothing scoundrel.  You don't want to get in the way of love, or at least you don't want to cause an irreparable rift between you and your child. 

But on the other hand, how many doomed marriages or relationships can you think of that would have benefited from a meddlesome parent (or friend) trying to talk sense into one or both of the young lovers.  Lots, right?

And it's not just the doomed marriages that can benefit from some meddling.  By the time my wife and I got married, our relationship had been through a battery of stress-tests.  Her parents' resistance, misdirected as it may have been, was another hurdle that, in clearing, made the rest of our marriage, and even child-rearing (so far) seem easy by comparison.

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