Dear Dr. Wes and Julia: My boyfriend of almost six months is coming to visit. I'm now a college student and in the past have had boyfriends sleep on the couch when they came to visit. I was wondering at what age it is appropriate to sleep in the same bed together? I was also going to talk to my father about this, and am wondering how I should approach the question? Thank you for your help!
Dr. Wes: A family's communication, cohesion and empathy are more especially tested between the years of 18 and 22, while teens are transitioning to adulthood and their parents are learning to accept that transition. Your letter illustrates a classic struggle between young adult autonomy and what I would term "decorum" - showing a sense of what is socially acceptable in the family home.
For young people, I suggest talking about this BEFORE you arrive. Nothing is more awkward than showing up with your partner, carrying both sets of bags up to your room and then mentioning casually over Thanksgiving dinner that you'll be in a state of "cohabitation" during the next few days. Instead, get both parents on the phone, or submit your e-mail to them with your request. Be sure to give them a dignified way out by saying that you will understand if they don't agree to this and still want to bring your guy home. And if they say "no," I suggest you to deal with it. Even if this isn't Mr. Right, you will at some point be bringing home the guy you want to spend your life with. Don't mess up the road ahead by demanding something now that your parents aren't comfortable granting. Trust me, it's just not that important. You have hours, days and weeks to cohabitate at college. You don't need to force your parents into a state of profound freaking out over this issue.
The other tip I would offer is to reserve this request for someone you are serious about. Nothing is going to upset your folks and make them lose respect for you faster than bringing home a different guy every holiday and asking to sleep with him. Modern parents can handle sexuality better than earlier generations, but expecting them to welcome Tom, Rick and Barry into your bedroom over the course of freshman year is, frankly, a little icky.
In considering this request, I advise parents to take into account several factors before offering a non-negotiable refusal. The longer, healthier and more serious the relationship, and the more mature your child, the more lenient I would be. I would also consider the presence of younger children in the home. Whatever precedent you set had better be clear, especially with teens and pre-teens watching. If you grant this request, sit down with the 10-and-up crowd and explain that once a person is a young adult they are welcome to bring home people they are actively dating and who are respectful of them, and to have them stay in their room. If you refuse, then explain that co-sleeping is a choice people can make when they are out on their own, but it violates the decorum of the family. Nobody is more interesting to teens than a newly minted young adult, and they will hang on every moment that presents itself. So use those moments as teaching opportunities.
Julia: You receive major kudos for even being willing to broach this topic with your father. One constant battle between parent and child is the desire for kids to try new things - be it through honest or sneaky means - and adults maintaining a responsible, though not overbearing, involvement in their child's life. Talking about this with a parent shows that you are considering both yourself and your father in your eventual decision. Still, there is a big likelihood that your father will say no right off the bat or regret saying yes afterward. I'd advise considering every possible aspect of the situation so that you come to your father prepared. The first thing to consider is sex - the blaring stop sign that keeps your dad from thinking about the situation any further. Decide whether having your boyfriend sleep with you for one night is worth your dad lying awake petrified, and any boundaries you might have wanted respected, now null and void. When answering questions, don't just think about your father, think about yourself. What are your boundaries as far as having sex goes? Are you and your boyfriend clear with what goes on from the time you go to sleep to the time you wake up? Is sharing a bed with your boyfriend more convenient than actually thought out? Be willing to answer anything that pops into your mind as well as your father's.
In being straightforward and well-prepared, you and your dad will reach a conclusion that will at least give you both a better understanding of each other's point of view and hopefully make both of you more comfortable. In the end you might find that it is easier to keep your boyfriend on the couch. Or, you and your boyfriend may decide that you are ready to sleep together. Don't make it a matter of you win, dad loses or vice versa. Try and find a decision that does not sacrifice your trustworthiness or you father's relationship with you. Intimacy is a key to healthy relationships, but intimacy is called that for a reason - it's private.
As a last piece of advice, remember that dads are very protective - especially of their daughters, who will always be their baby girls. So if he says no, just know that you have years ahead of you to experience many opportunities to explore. Don't take the chance of pressing the issue if it isn't worth the consequences.
Next week: A young mom attending KU responds to our column on early pregnancy and reminds readers that difficult problems can be overcome.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.