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Our New Relationship Makes Our Parents Feel Left Out

Two's company, three's a crowd.

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A graphic of a mother sitting in between a young couple on a couch.
Kristen Williams
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I’ve been dating my boyfriend for 3½ months, and every time I see his mother, I’m not wearing pants. It’s not really every time, but it’s probably every time that she comes to his apartment, and that’s several times too many for me.

Let me give you some more context. My boyfriend, Rob, lives around the corner from his 85-year-old widowed mother, Mary. She has a key, and she lets herself in to drop off food, or cold medicine, or anything else a mother might give her unmarried, childless, youngest son. After all, he doesn’t have a woman to take care of him. And he didn’t have a girlfriend, at least not one that she knew about for a while.

The first time Mary came into the apartment, Rob and I were inflagrante, or on the verge thereof, when we heard the jingle of keys in the door. As one does, he located his pants and tried to keep her in the kitchen. I got dressed but wondered whether I should introduce myself or hide my presence. I hid, not knowing what else to do. After all, I didn’t expect to be meeting Rob’s mother for the first time when I couldn’t locate my bra. And it was then, standing naked in my boyfriend’s bedroom, looking for last night’s underwear, that I realized how much my life at middle age sometimes feels like adolescence.

When you’re a teen, you spend a lot of your time differentiating yourself from your parents, and your friends and dates become take up a lot more space in your life. Sometimes parents see these newfound relationships as a sign that their child, who has always been dependent on them for love and support, is slipping away. Similarly, when you’re middle-aged and you’ve always been single, your parents can become attached and the introduction of a new partner can change your dynamic. It can require some delicate maneuvering and some clever subterfuge to preserve your parents’ feelings.

My dad’s reaction to my relationship provides a perfect example. When I was younger, he asked me about dates and men and when I was going to settle down. At that time, my mother was newly deceased and I was in my 20s. But it’s been just the two of us for over 20 years, and he’s gotten decidedly less interested in my love life. He probably thinks I’ll never get married, and he’s comfortable being the only man in my life. He also gets a little forlorn when I’m on a date with Rob and I don’t answer my phone. My dad no longer gets unfettered access to me with my boyfriend around, and I know it’s hard to process.

Rob has similar issues with his mother. She sometimes gets mad when he’s too busy to do things for her. Even though we’re all adults, I hope she doesn’t blame me for Rob’s absence. Then I realize that she might be having the same trouble as my dad — the trouble of letting go of a grown child and changing the role they’ve long played in your life. Even though we love our parents, and we want to make life easy for them, we also want time to cultivate our relationship in a way that might’ve been easier if our parents had their own life partners.

To combat this attachment issue, Rob and I manage our parents. At first, we called them before dates so we could have uninterrupted time together. Now, we tell them when they can expect to hear from us, so it looks less like we’re ignoring them and they still get our attention. My dad lives out of town, so I drop hints that I spend nights at Rob’s house. Mary has learned that I’m a fixture in her son’s life, so she gives the intercom a warning buzz before coming upstairs.

Perhaps our parents will become more hands-off as they realize their over-the-hill kids are leaving the nest together. Maybe they’ll link up on Facebook to complain about us, old age and whether they’ll have to pay for the wedding. Most likely, however, our folks will just be happy that we’ve found good-hearted, smart people with whom to spend our time. With pants or without.