Q: I love my boyfriend very much and have been with him for over three years. He’s always used pretty much every swear word in the book which doesn’t bother me when we’re at home, and at first he used to refrain from cursing in front of my parents (I don’t think I’ve ever heard either of them swear), but nowadays he doesn’t hold back and the air is often blue with his language and/or hand gestures when he’s watching something he doesn’t like on TV. He’s really wonderful otherwise — romantic, caring, helps in the house and with the shopping… But the tension is really affecting me — so much that I don’t want him to visit them or for them to visit me when he’s at home. He says they should accept him for who he is. They say he should respect them and not swear in front of them. What do I do?

A:  Well, you could always tie him up and gag him! (Hmm… perhaps not at your parents’ house. Might be something you want to do in private?!)

Seriously though — I’m not one to sit on the fence normally, but they could both be right.

Acceptance and respect are both powerful concepts and not always easy to navigate.

There is something in what he says about accepting him for the person he is — after all, it seems that you accept him and his language in situations other than with your parents. Or do you really and truly? Would you be happy if he swore in front of a young child? Come to think of it, would he be happy to? (Something you in particular may need to think about especially if you harbour any hopes of having a family with him in the future.) Or would he swear in a job interview? If he made an effort at first, and makes an effort now not to swear in front of youngsters or to adapt his behaviour in certain circumstances, then it already shows that he can moderate the habit and understands the reasons why he might need to do so — and with a bit of work on it together maybe it could change. They say it takes about 3 months to embed a new habit, and if this is a discussion you could usefully have then you need to start now in identifying trigger points and maybe a swear box strategy.

But if he truly has no intention of changing then does it show bad control, a bad attitude, laziness, or as your parents think, disrespect for some people? Or is it that he did not have the same example set to him? Maybe his own parents swore in front of him? There’s a survey here in the UK which says that the average child hears their mother or father utter six expletives a week with up to 86 per cent saying they felt their parents’ swearing as well as the language of TV celebrities such as Gordon Ramsay and Jonathan Ross set a bad example. Maybe he has difficulty in adjusting to the fact that your parents have different standards from those of his own parents?

However we all have to adapt at some points in our lives. Whether that be due to age, different experience, environment, or, as your parents point out, out of respect. For example I would not serve pork to Jewish or Muslim friends out of respect for them. Nor would they stop me from eating it. So I guess this argument could apply to both your parents’ perspective and your boyfriend’s viewpoint.

Supposing he is willing to have a go at changing — how about sitting down together and finding new ways to describe things? Or even have fun and create your own neologisms. All new words are created by someone some time!

Talking of which, fashions and levels of acceptance — such as in respect of language — do change over the years. I would never have used certain words in front of my own mother. Yet my daughter uses the same words in front of me. Do I like it? No, not one bit. But I accept that she’s in a different generation and probably exposed to a great deal more as the “norm” in her sphere of experience than I was.

In fact, when writing my recent Wild and Wanton novel, (an adapted version of Lorna Doone), I researched the language used in the seventeenth century to describe sex acts and body parts. And guess what? I was shocked (just a little!) to discover that words that might be regarded as profanity nowadays (only in some circles!) were pretty commonplace then — so in they went! But once again, there is an element of choice involved — if people aren’t comfortable they don’t need to read. If they accept that certain words and phrases and descriptions are commonplace now and indeed were many years ago, then they can choose to read on.

But I guess your parents don’t have the choice about listening if your boyfriend continues to swear in front of them, other than to opt out of seeing him. And maybe you. Can you live with that? Maybe you can. Many people keep various aspects of their lives separate for a plethora of reasons. Ideal? No. Practical and pragmatic? Probably yes.

Just a thought — could it be a compliment to your parents that he feels comfortable enough to be himself in front of them…? Is this something you could explore with your parents? I still remember when I was a teenager and hearing a nursing sister I respected telling me about her son-in-law who passed wind in front of her. I was appalled despite being a nurse and fully aware of bodily functions! But as she said: “It’s a sign that he feels totally at home with us. And that’s how it should be.”

I guess there is no correct answer to your dilemma, but I suspect that the real answer may eventually lie within you and not the other parties. What do YOU want? What can YOU live with? If your boyfriend is great in every other way then is this good enough for you? After all, no-one is perfect – not your parents, your boyfriend, you, nor even the hero or heroine in a book…though all somewhere along the line (even in fiction!) have to adapt their behaviour or compromise on expectations.

I believe you are fortunate to have loving parents and a loving boyfriend. Let’s hope you can all find a mid-line and maybe I have raised some points you have not yet considered. Good luck!

M.J. Porteus, author of Lorna Doone: The Wild and Wanton Edition

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