Loyalty Anxiety

What happens to love for my parents when I fall in love?

In an only child family, the child experiences undivided love. Having no other children, parental love is undivided, entirely devoted to the single child, who is usually totally devoted in return.

Because of this exclusive love, the attachment between parents and child becomes very secure, and a strong sense of loyalty, an allegiance to each other’s well being typically develops. On both sides of the relationship each wants to do right by the other and treats the welfare of each other as a high priority.

When the only child leaves home in his or her early twenties and starts to become independent, the sense of loyalty to parents is often increased by obligation expressed in a variety of ways. 

  • “I owe my parents a lot for all they have done for me.” 
  • “I need to remain an active part of their lives after I leave because I’ve always been the center of their world.” 
  • “I should be there for them if they need me.” 
  • “I want to let my parents know how much they matter to me.” 
  • “My parents always put me first in their concerns, and that’s how I want to treat them.”

At best, assuming the trials of adolescence have done their relationship no lasting harm, the relationship between parents and their adult only child is a reward they all enjoy: “We love being together and are dearest friends.”

What happens to this relationship, however, when the adult only child becomes involved in a serious romantic relationship? Then that undivided love can feel like it must divided. The only child’s loyalty to parents can become conflicted. For the first time, the child’s love becomes significantly attached to someone outside the family.

The challenge for the adult only child is how to separate love for his/her parents from love for a romantic partner without feeling that he/she is betraying, damaging, or lessening love for parents. This is when separation anxiety based on loyalty can arise for the only child. The question may be, “How can I love someone else and not have my parents feel that I love them any less?”

At this juncture parents can be very helpful or harmful, depending on how they choose to respond. They can be harmful if they act as if: 

  • They feel demoted in importance at becoming a secondary concern for their child. 
  • They feel rejected in favor of someone else who now receives the love that once was theirs. 
  • They feel abandoned and have much less contact with their child. 
  • They feel jealous of a rival that has stolen their place in the child’s affections.

Acting on any of these feelings usually results in expressions of disapproval, criticism, or opposition that only cause the adult only child to feel anxiety and guilt, torn between two loyalties that feel irreconcilable. 

  • “Why am I made to feel I have to choose between love for my parents and love for my intended?” 
  • “Must I divorce my parents to marry the person I love?” 
  • “It’s not the person I’m in love with who my parents don’t like; it’s my being in love with anyone at all.” 
  • “No one I marry will ever be good enough for my parents because they don’t want to share me with anyone else.”

Helping With Reconciliation

Parents can be helpful and assist in the reconciliation process that is troubling their child. They can do this by offering some simple explanations. 

  • “Loving someone else doesn’t decrease your love for us. It only increases the love you have to give.” 
  • “Parental love and partner love do not compete because they are different kinds of love. The first is based on family affiliation and the second is a chosen romantic commitment.”
  • “Time with your loved one doesn’t take your love away from us because we always hold you in our hearts whether we are together or apart. We know that you do the same with us.” 
  • “Putting your romance or marriage first doesn’t mean that you love us less. It means you must honor and invest in this new relationship if you want it to develop.” 
  • “Seeing you love someone else is not a source of loss for us but a joy to see you happy in a love of your own.”

When Loyalty Is Contested: Conflicts of Sharing

When an only child gets married, a second level of loyalty conflicts can ensue: conflicts of sharing. As families become extended through marriage, commitments become more complex because the only child must now juggle membership in three families rather than one. There is the child’s original family, the family begun with the partner, and the partner’s family.

Needs of all three families now vie for the only child’s attention, creating separate loyalties that can feel conflicting and confusing. When parents insist that loyalty to them must come first (“Of course, we expect you both to celebrate the entire holiday with us.”), the only child cannot help but feel torn apart. “What about family time with my partner?” “What about family time with my inlaws?” “How can I have separate times with my spouse and my spouse’s family and not feel guilty for not being with my parents?”

The answer is that parents have to share their married only child with the two other families, so that separation and conflicted loyalties do not become a course of anxiety and guilt.

To help free their only child from this separation anxiety, parents can give their blessing to membership in the separate families that have been created. 

  • “We are happy that you now have more family in your life than before.” 
  • “Just as we welcome your partner into our family with love, we want you to enjoy being welcomed into your partner’s family with love.” 
  • “Because you have three families to interact with now, we expect that you will want to take more time separate from ours to build and enjoy the other two.”