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Adult children should chip in for dinner tabs

TODAY contributing psychiatrist Gail Saltz offers advice on how to delicately broach the subject of who should pay the dinner tab.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. My husband’s eldest daughter from his first marriage, age 26, is getting married this fall to a man who makes a great salary. When the four of us go to dinner, it is my husband who always pays. Her fiancé never offers to pay, not even to leave the tip. This has been going on for two years and I’m tired of it. How should we handle this?

A. This challenge is the first of many you will face as you make the transition from a parent-child relationship to an adult-adult relationship with your stepdaughter.

She is 26 and engaged, so it is reasonable to expect that she function as an independent adult — which, in this case, means that she and her future husband don’t always have the parents foot the dinner bill.

I assume, from what you write, that everyone involved can afford to pay. So this is not a case of financial hardship or tight budgets, but rather an issue of your roles with regard to one another, and of setting appropriate limits.

It seems that a precedent has been set. When these two started dating, the bank of mom and dad paid for dinner. This pattern continued — not necessarily for any particular reason — as their relationship progressed. But, clearly, you are increasingly bothered by this.

From your question, I can’t tell whether your husband agrees with you that this couple should pay for their share of dinner. Sometimes, especially after a divorce, the biological parent has lingering guilt. Your husband might be trying to compensate for his guilt by continuing to “take care of” the daughter whose mother he divorced.

It is also possible the daughter is complicit with your husband. Maybe she feels that her father, in the role of family patriarch, feels important and involved when he pays. It’s also possible she feels that, as the daughter, she is entitled to have dad pay.

And who knows what the fiancé is thinking? He might be secretly humiliated to have her folks paying for dinner. He might worry you would be insulted if he offered to pay, or that he would be perceived as coming between her and her father. He might be glad for a free meal. Or he might not be thinking about it at all. If the pattern was set from the first meal you four shared, it might not even occur to him to offer to pay.

If you want to change the situation, it is important that you and your husband be in agreement. If you are, either your husband or both of you can speak to the daughter about the fact that she is moving forward in life, and that part of being an adult means pulling your weight. In this case, that includes contributing toward meal costs.

It is important that you not express annoyance. Don’t complain or accuse, but rather emphasize the positive by noting that a capable and financially prudent couple should want to contribute toward costs. Do not spring this as a surprise when the check arrives. Do it at a time when you are NOT having dinner.

Then you can decide how to handle paying for meals — whether you will split the bill, rotate it, whatever.

This is only the beginning of the young couple’s life together and of your new roles as in-laws. You will continue to have negotiations with these two regarding their new adult status.

Many parents enjoy helping their grown-up children financially. It’s one thing if everybody is happy with the payment arrangements, but another if you are not. In your case, you should set limits sooner rather than later.

Otherwise, they might make unwarranted assumptions that will further rankle. Will they expect you to buy a house for them? Pay for their future kids to attend summer camp?

If this young couple objects to your ideas for sharing dinner costs, at least you have opened the door to further discussion and explained that you now consider yourself adults on equal footing.

I don’t suggest you retaliate by no longer going to dinner with them. These kinds of transitions in life are emotional, so pick your battles. Fight the ones that are big enough to matter and easy enough to win. Getting defensive or spiteful is likely to result in a Pyrrhic victory, where everybody loses.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: When it comes to parents and adult children, who foots the bill often stands in for bigger issues of independence and adulthood.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .