Q: My daughter is living with her boyfriend. After five years, they are not engaged to be married.
My wife and I recently had family pictures taken. We wanted a photo of us along with our daughter and son. We also wanted us along with our daughter, our son and our son’s wife.
My daughter was upset that we excluded her live-in. We tried to explain that our moral judgment and values don’t allow us to look at him as a member of the family because they are not married.
After much discussion I suggested we have a picture taken both ways, one without him and one with him. His response was: If they don’t want me in the picture, I will not be in any picture at all.
This has caused a distance gap in our relationship with our daughter. Were my wife and I right or wrong? And how do we work past this issue with our daughter?
A: Right or wrong is not the issue here. The family photo is not the issue either.
But if your aim is to have a good relationship with your daughter, your behavior over the photo was misguided.
Clearly, you do not approve of your daughter’s living situation. You are entitled to your opinion. But it sounds as though, for five years, you avoided discussing this issue with your daughter. You never explained your feelings or listened to hers.
Instead, your disapproval came out in the form of a family photo, where you decided who was or wasn’t allowed in. This was a passive-aggressive maneuver. And, not surprisingly, it antagonized your daughter and her boyfriend.
This indirect approach didn’t even bring the subject up for discussion, but turned it right into a pronouncement that you don’t approve of or accept them. You tried to win this battle, but you lost the war.
You don’t say much about your daughter or her boyfriend. Certainly, marriage is the social norm. But if you talked to her, you might understand why they are not married.
There are plenty of possibilities: Maybe she has seen so many lousy marriages that she is disillusioned. Maybe she fears becoming financially dependent on a husband. Maybe they are saving for a house first. Maybe she wants to marry but her boyfriend won’t commit, and she is already feeling frustrated and miserable by this, a feeling you have made worse.
But if your relationship with your daughter means a lot to you, you would want to understand where she is coming from. And you would also explain to her why her living-together status bothers you, rather than suddenly declaring at a photo shoot that her boyfriend is unwelcome.
It sounds as though you further dug in your heels by comparing your children — making it clear you approve of your son while you disapprove of your daughter. Including the son’s wife while excluding the daughter’s boyfriend was an extra dose of hurtfulness.
In many ways, you forced your daughter into the awful position of choosing between her boyfriend and her parents.
Frankly, would it have been so terrible to have the boyfriend in the photo? Is your moral stance so important that it is worth alienating your daughter?
Like it or not, the boyfriend is a big part of her life. You might want to reassess the rigidity with which you treat people who mean a lot to you. You can disapprove of your daughter’s living situation — and let her know that you do — while still not driving her away.
What now? I think you should apologize to your daughter for being so inflexible. Tell her you wish you had long ago discussed the issue of her living arrangements so you could come to some sort of meeting of the minds, even if it was to agree to disagree.
Remember, this is not the last family photo that will ever be taken. What would you do if your son got divorced? Have the photo lab erase his wife from the picture?
If family photos included only people who had your wholehearted approval and who never did anything that you disagreed with, the frame would be blank.
Dr, Gail’s Bottom Line: Even if you disagree, it’s always better to discuss important issues rather than to declare yourself with a passive-aggressive move.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book, "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts" (Penguin), 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, .
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2006 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.