How can you develop healthy relationships with the opposite sex BEFORE you get married?
Our relationships with men in our family of origin–fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles–plays such a strong role in how strong our marriages will be later.
I had major “father issues” going into my marriage. I had been abandoned by my dad (not financially, but emotionally and physically) when I was two, and that left me feeling like no love was really secure. On the other hand, my daughters have great relationships with their dad, and it has made them much more confident in their romantic relationships, and much more likely to choose wisely. Just watching them has been very healing for me.
So here’s the question that was recently posed to me:
If I’m a single woman who wants to have a great marriage, then what should I do with my relationships with my dad and brothers NOW to make sure that I don’t mess up my marriage later?
Great question! I’m going to let the reader tell a bit of her story:
I have so many serious questions, but am frustrated time and again when all I find are solutions for married couples. It may seem silly, but the way single women relate to their father and brothers is training the dynamics of their future relationship with a husband.
How does one cultivate a healthy mindset especially when it seems the effort is mostly one sided? I understand that as a daughter I do not have the position a wife has, but I feel that since I am the main housekeeper I need to learn how to get through to my dad and brothers about things that are bothering me that are making my life very frustrating right now. Things have only gotten worse since my mother passed away from cancer this last year. She was a bit of a buffer for the rest of us and was able to talk sense to my dad. I don’t think he means to be abusive or neglecting, but many times that is what happens by default because he seems to not quite get some basic facts about keeping relationships healthy and pleasant.
An example that may help has to do with finances. He always has been a bit paranoid about letting others, including my mother, have free access to the money. After many years he finally conceded and got her a card to access the bank account, but he does not budget and always seemed to feel that he could freely spend money but my mom had to consult him before spending. It has caused many a conflict, and now with my mom gone it is making life almost impossible sometimes because if we ask for money for groceries but he doesn’t think it necessary, he will refuse. Many times I make up a shopping list, nothing extravagant, but the things we need, and he will go shopping and only come home with a few things off the list after a whole evening of shopping.
For most of this last year, he and my mom were out of the country getting medical treatment and I and my younger two siblings did all our own shopping (my dad would periodically make the money available to us). We were always able to get what we needed, we weren’t always running out of things or having to get by without. We also stayed well within the budget. It was liberating. But as soon as my dad returned we went back to square one. It’s as if we are silly children that don’t know how to shop wisely and spend money unnecessarily, when all I want is freedom to do my job of running the household. I know this situation is unique and I am working to become independent, but I don’t feel I should be responsible for using the little I earn by working for groceries for the household. I hope that I can learn to relate to men in a healthy way, and know how to wisely deal with unhealthy situations. I hope to marry someday and hope to be able to discern a healthy man to choose to marry.
This woman has a real conundrum! She’s saying: My father is not treating me like an adult and is not acting appropriately. He is requiring me to do things–like running the household–without doing his part (like providing the finances and the freedom to do so). If she doesn’t figure out how to work this out with her father, then what makes her think she’s going to be able to figure it out with a husband?
But can I suggest that perhaps she’s asking the wrong question?
Maybe the question isn’t: “How can I get a healthy relationship with my father?”, but instead, “What can I learn from my relationship with my father that will help me choose a good husband?”
Here’s what it comes down to:
One of the Hardest Lessons to Learn is that You Can’t Change Other People
She wants to act appropriately and get her father (and brothers!) to act appropriately.
But maybe she can’t.
Maybe there is absolutely nothing that she can do that will make her father treat her well and value her and her siblings. Maybe her father is an immature, selfish man.
And I think many of us waste far too much of our lives trying to get immature, selfish people to treat us well. The truth is you can’t. The only thing that you can do is to decide how you will react to these people and how you will accept being treated.
That’s why I write so much about healthy boundaries–deciding what should be in your control and what is not in your control, and not allowing other people to step on things that you should control. So in this case, for instance, she could say to her father, “I will cook and grocery shop for the family, but only if you allocate me some money that we both agree on, and give it to me on a regular basis so that I won’t have to fight for it.” And then, if he doesn’t give her the money, she can decide that she is no longer going to be responsible for feeding the family.
She can also take it one step further, as it says in Matthew 18. When someone is doing something wrong, you talk to them about it. If they refuse to change, you then bring one or two other people into the situation and ask them for help mediating it. She could bring some trusted family friends in and ask them to listen to the issues between her and her father and to help find an equitable solution.
However, there’s a big problem with this scenario. Her father still may not listen. And then she has a bigger conundrum, because it sounds, from her letter, that she is an adult, but she has siblings who are not yet adults, and she is at home trying to take the place of her mom.
That is a very loving and kind thing to do. But ultimately, it is not her responsibility. And if her father is making it impossible for her to do this job in a healthy way, she may have to say no.
One of the Hardest Things to Do Is to “Abandon” Someone You Love–even if it’s necessary
Saying no likely feels impossible, because it may mean abandoning your siblings. I have people in my extended family who have been scared to move away because they have been the buffer between a parent and a much younger sibling. If they move, what will happen to that younger sibling who relies on them?
That’s a horrible, horrible position to be in. But here’s something I’ve learned, from trying to “mother” some children who actually aren’t my children: You can put in a ton of work and do everything right, but ultimately you can’t replace a parent who is not doing the job of a parent. Those heart wounds will still be there, even if you act perfectly. You can make their life better, but you cannot heal all the wounds. And so you have to give yourself permission to not be the mom.
The Biggest Lesson to Learn is That You Cannot Be Responsible for Things Not in Your Control
So how does this woman prepare to have good relationships with a future husband if she has such a bad relationship with her father–and can’t negotiate a better one?
She may have to learn to say, “I can’t change this situation, and this situation isn’t my responsibility. I am hurting myself by trying to make it better, and I am disrupting the law of sowing and reaping by preventing my father from reaping what he sows, and so I will step back and live the life that God has called me to live, rather than trying to make up for my father who is not living the life he was called to live.”
Phew. That’s a mouthful.
But what about her siblings!?!?
She can stay in contact with them. She can tell them they are always welcome to come over and live at her apartment or visit her (and if they are under her roof, she could probably do much more to show her brothers how to treat her appropriately). She can mentor them and be a shoulder to cry on. She can repeat that they are loved and they are valuable. She can teach them how to talk with their father, and she can help them acquire life skills so that they can move out as soon as possible.
But she can’t be their parent.
I have older members of my extended family whose mother died when there were younger siblings still at home. Their father was not capable of looking after those younger siblings. And as these older siblings grew up and got married, some of the younger siblings spent some time living with that sibling or this sibling, and all did quite well in the long term. But that’s how it had to be–they could help the younger siblings under their own roof, but they couldn’t put their life on hold and help their siblings under their father’s roof because the dynamics were so bad.
So if I were talking to this young woman, here’s what I would say:
Move out of the house. Get an apartment of your own. Make a life for yourself. Bring a younger sibling or two along to help pay the rent if they are able to work as well. But you cannot fix your family of origin. You cannot make up for your father’s bad choices. And you can’t replace your mom, and God doesn’t want you to. Treat yourself with dignity. Realize that loving and honouring your father doesn’t mean that you serve him blindly or you allow him to treat you badly. And if you learn those lessons, then it will feel right when you meet a man who respects you, who honours your boundaries, and who wants to have a partnership.
Your father has given you a gift, just like my father gave me a gift. You will learn what you DON’T want. And that is an important thing to learn, too.
Now let’s talk in the comments: Have any of you ever been in this position where you feel responsible for younger siblings? Or where your father treats you inappropriately? What did you do? I think a lot of people are hurting pretty badly in exactly these situations, and they’d likely appreciate hearing some stories and some encouragement!