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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - February 2011

It could be you ....

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor in private practice after 20yrs with Relate, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet as we pass our half-way markers. 

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column. 



Engagement Trouble

Dear Maggi

  My son has just got engaged to his girlfriend but I hoped it wouldn’t happen. I haven’t told them of how I feel as I don’t want to put my son in a difficult position. I try to get along with the girl.

We only met her parents once before and it was an unpleasant experience for both myself and my partner. They were rude and displayed total indifference to us. I told my son how I felt – that I’d prefer not to spend any time socializing with them.

The engagement party was organised without any contact with us from her parents, invitations were only sent out a week prior to the party. I might add everyone on the girlfriend’s side received theirs in good time. As our family had distance to travel it was difficult for any other than the three of us to attend. We arrived at the party we were totally ignored for 3 hours by the hosts. We weren’t greeted on arrival nor introduced to anyone else at the party. It was held on the balcony of a pub so not as if we were lost in the crowd. My ex-husband made a speech during which he made it known he had still not met the family which jolted them into action afterwards.

The experience has made it extremely stressful for my son and he has no idea what to do. It has put us all in a difficult position, which is why I am asking your advice.

The girlfriend has told my son she does not want to get involved.


Maggi Replies

How hard it is to stand back when our adult offspring make decisions we don’t fully agree with. One of the things I’m not clear about here is the reason you object to your future daughter-in-law. That would seem to me to be the most important thing to try to sort out. Although to be able to get along with your son’s prospective parents-in-law would be a great advantage there is no reason to expect to become close friends through your children marrying. But not liking your daughter-in-law would be very difficult for her and your son in future, especially if they have children.

Might your son have told his girlfriend how you felt about her parents? If so, it isn’t so surprising that they were less than welcoming at the engagement party, as she might have told them - and also not surprising that she doesn’t want to get involved.

The sooner all this is spoken about with your son, the sooner it can be sorted out and left to fade into distant memory. Either that or sort it out by talking it over with a counsellor who can help you define your areas of doubt and clearing it for yourself. Keeping the animosity quiet and nursing your resentment at any meeting of the families – wedding, birth of a child, Christmas, school plays etc – will only deepen the awkwardness for everyone. It might lead the young couple to avoid family get-togethers and ultimately choose to exclude one set of parents. Although this won’t be anything to do with them directly, it can result in fierce disagreements involving family loyalties. How might you feel if this resulted in their relationship being put under strain?

Think carefully. Do you wish to see your son and his chosen life partner forced to hesitate every time they want to ask both sets of parents to a family celebration? What should they do, have two events each time so that neither set feel left out of things? You, your partner and your ex-husband are the more mature adults here, accept the choice your son has made and be happy that he feels he has found the woman he wants to spend the rest of this life with. He definitely did not select her on the strength of how he thought her folks might get on with his.

There are plenty of strong marriages where one or both sets of parents are not involved too much in the life of the couple, either from enmity or due to distances, but it makes for such a secure start if everyone can accept that they have different ways of doing things and are thrown together by chance – equally willing to be supportive of the couple.

Speak to your son about your feelings and acknowledge your worries about future meetings, especially the wedding. Ask his advice – he is making adult decisions and is therefore be in the best position to advise you about what he needs from you. He might have a deeper insight into why his girlfriend’s parents acted in the way they did. He might be grateful to have the opportunity to confide his own concerns in you. But what you cannot do is criticise his choice of wife. He is an adult, he loves her and wants to be with her. Ask yourself what it is about his girlfriend that you cannot warm to, perhaps it is something that you can gradually work on to change. Mothers of sons often find it hard to accept that they have now become the second most important woman in their son’s life. But you and only you will be his mum. It is a very different relationship which cannot be compared and it is one which changes when a son embarks on relationships, though it will always be there.

I know a man who fell deeply in love and everyone of his family and friends saw disaster looming. No-one said a thing because he declared he felt so happy and appeared besotted with his beautiful nemesis, she reminded him strongly of his beloved mother, but at the marriage, a grand affair, everything fell apart in a really public way. When asked afterwards if his family or friends would have changed things, had they spoken out, he replied that he would have cut them off rather than heed their warnings and end his relationship. He added that he had to make, and learn from, his own mistakes, even at the price he paid for them in the resulting deep unhappiness that took years to undo.

Groups for couples who are getting married or about to live together are an ideal beginning. I like to keep them light and full of fun, but in the discussions the participants have in small groups, in with the laughter, come some fairly fundamental issues that each couple will take away and discuss or think about individually.

Some of the trickiest areas are how to balance parental exposure –

  • who do we spend Christmas/special days with?
  • who do we holiday with?
  • who do we ask to babysit?
  • who do we ask to help with DIY/garden advice?
  • And, how would the others feel?

These questions run deep into the issues of family loyalty and can pose some real problems if not thought about early – even if no answer is clear at that point.
One couple came to me after the last session of our evening sessions together to say they had decided not to go ahead with their wedding plans as their different ways of handling money had highlighted the differences between their respective families. They wanted to stay engaged but spend more time working out how to deal with their differences. This is how I’d like to see every couple look at their plans, that is, past the wedding fuss and into the every-day life of marriage. That couple delayed for two years and did a huge amount of work on their relationship. I recommend Couple-Life groups to everyone considering committing to another person, irrespective of age and marital experience.

We cannot change our son or daughter’s mind about the person they fall in love with. We can support them in whatever situation they find themselves. We can also talk with them about our concerns - being careful to keep them non-specific. For example we can ask them if they have thought over all of the consequences and commitments of marriage. Although they might choose not to go to a group to strengthen their life together, they might think more carefully about certain issues if a parent asks them if they’ve considered how they might handle them, and how that might be different to their partner’s approach. Don’t press for an answer though. Just sow the seed. That is the good thing about parenting adults. We don’t need to be demanding, just able to raise an issue and let it remain there, unanswered. Job done!

To find pre-marriage classes in your area of the UK visit the Relate website or call your local Relate branch for information.

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.
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