Learning to Leave and Cleave While Honoring My Parents

I never really thought about my relationship with my parents. It’s one of those things where you assume it’s just the way it’s supposed to be, and it’s the same for everyone else. I never thought there were any flaws in it because I never knew any different. Things were fine, since I never had any major disagreements with my parents, or I’d just not tell them things I knew they’d be upset about. During the first year of our marriage, however, it became apparent to me that my old way of interacting with my parents was no longer going to work.

My parents like to give us a lot of advice/reminders with very good intentions. However, on the occasion that we disagree, they become controlling and upset if we don’t take their advice. In the past, I would give in easily because it didn’t seem worth the trouble to argue with them. Now that I’m married, I have to take Tiffany into account and more importantly, learn to make our own decisions.

One of the things we’ve had a lot of disagreements about is how we spend our money. My parents are extremely frugal, and they never spend money on things they don’t need. This became a problem when we would have different ideas about what is necessary and what is not. Whenever we spent money on something they didn’t think was necessary, they would become upset because they thought it was wasteful, and then even more upset when we disagreed with them.

I think some of this has to do with Chinese culture and how I was raised. Chinese culture places a lot of emphasis on honoring and obeying your parents. The idea is that your parents raised you, so when you grow up, you owe them. Parents should always come first, in Asian cultures. When you get married, it’s seen as a simple extension from the family of origin, rather than a breaking off to become a new family.

Also, having a very strong-willed and bossy older sister prevented me from learning how to stand up for myself. I was forced to learn how to put others’ needs before mine. I listened to my parents and did what I was told because I understood that they cared about me, but also because I grew to fear negative reactions. I am very grateful for my parents, but I believe it developed a dynamic between us that needed some adjustment once I got married.

It has been a hard lesson for me to stay calm and not feel like I’m responsible for their anger. It was ingrained in me that I was not allowed to make my parents upset, no matter what the reason was. I would feel this terrible sense of guilt when they were upset that we disagreed on certain matters, even though it is perfectly reasonable to have different opinions. Over time, I’ve learned to simply give them space if they are emotional, and let them know we will be ready to talk once they’re calm.

I’ve also learned that I have to be firm and to stand up for our decisions. It has taken a lot of work for us to get that point across to my parents, and they’ve also had to do some adjusting on their part. They’ve slowly learned to respect our decisions (or at least tolerate them), and that we are not “disrespecting” them just because we don’t do things the way they want.

Some important truths I have learned through these experiences:

What honoring my parents does not mean:

  • Burial of my own thoughts, feelings, and desires in favor of theirs,
  • Tolerating disrespectful speech of me or my wife when they’re angry,
  • Blind obedience.

What honoring my parents does mean:

  • Allowing them the space and freedom to express their opinions, while making it clear that while I will consider their advice, it does not mean I must follow it.
  • Making every attempt to restore the relationship after conflicts.
  • Reassuring them that disagreement does not mean I don’t love or respect them.

Ultimately, it is up to Tiffany and I to decide what’s best for our marriage and family because we are the ones that have to live with the consequences. Marriage is a tricky balance of leaving our families of origin to establish our own new family, while maintaining healthy relationships with those families of origin. Setting healthy boundaries with my parents has been extremely challenging, and has forced me to completely uproot my habitual ways of relating to them. There were many times when I didn’t know if our relationship would survive, but contrary to what I feared, our relationship is now much stronger and healthier than before. More importantly, these experiences have also strengthened my marriage, as Tiffany and I learned to support each other and discover what it means to be on a team together.