Dear Captain Awkward:
My 27 year old son has been in a relationship with his girlfriend for about 18 months. He was living with a friend until a couple months ago, when he and his girlfriend moved to an apartment. Before the move, his friend came to see my husband and I to talk about the situation. He said that the girlfriend is a total loser and the two of them fight constantly. He said many of their friends can’t stand her, and that the two of them drink and smoke weed, i.e. enable each other’s recreational drug use. They are both broke most of the time, although they work full time at low level jobs. My son was barely able to cover living expenses before, and asked us for financial help from time to time. When we heard about his plans to move in with her, we were not happy but came to grips with the situation, accepting the fact he is an adult and has to make his own decisions. Since then, we have stopped all flow of cash to him, hoping the living situation and the relationship will eventually fall apart and he will start over.
We do not want the girlfriend attending all our family gatherings. It’s too stressful for me to converse with her because I feel she is a terrible influence on him. The problem is, she’s manipulative and puts on a very phony act around us. I see right through her, as my son can also be that way. I can see how they feed off each other and it drives me crazy. She seems to rule his life and is very self centered. I’ve wondered if there is some sex addiction going on, because for the life of me I can’t understand his attraction to her otherwise. I just see a toxic relationship, like his friend told us.
I am struggling with how to handle a family gathering at Christmas. She was with us at Thanksgiving and that was too much for me. Should we tell him it’s family only, or should I just decline to attend????
Your letter hit me in a very personal place, so I’m going to tell you some true stories from inside a family where a) an adult child was struggling to find himself in his 20s and b) took up with a partner who was, on her best day, grating as hell.
The parents in this case made financial support conditional (If you move in with her, we are cutting you off financially) and designated certain events “Family Only” (family = lawfully wedded spouses) so they would not have to deal with this person. Who, like your sons’s girlfriend, was not violent or larcenous, just seemed like a bad fit for my brother with an extra helping of Just Not Our Kind, Dear – “loud,” “uneducated,” “Will she want to bring her kid?” (She’d been a teen mom, which in my family was pretty much the Worst Thing You Could Be).
One possible risk they ran with their Family Only stance is that my brother would call their bluff and marry her. The other thing they risked is what happened: My brother did not come to family events for something like five years. Even after that relationship ended, he felt unwelcome in a place that his choice of partner had not been welcome. I’m not sure things have ever fully healed there or if he has forgiven them.
My boyfriend and my parents get on, fortunately, though I know they would be happier if both of us had higher-paying jobs (Dude, us too!) and had undergone a ceremony before combining households. But if I got ONE WHIFF of “He is not welcome” from them, it is not him I would be cutting ties with.
If you make it clear that she is not welcome, you are telling him he is not welcome. And while there is no obligation to support an adult child financially, if you make your support conditional on his romantic choices, you are telling him “There are conditions to my love and support.” I know, I know, you are hoping to send a “strong” message so that he will realize she is awful and break up with her. But are you okay with him breaking up with you?
Real Talk: Your son is hardly the only young person struggling financially in this economy or recreationally using alcohol and pot at the end of the day of “low level” jobs. He was struggling financially before he met this lady; she didn’t cause that. And he was almost certainly experimenting with substances before he met her. I feel a lot of general disapproval radiating from you about your son’s lifestyle, so I want you to ask yourself: Am I scapegoating this lady for my disappointment in my son and how his life is going?
You don’t have to answer, but sit with that question for a while.
I believe you that she is a chore to be around, I really do. I believe you when you say the dynamic between them is toxic and they don’t bring out good things in each other. I have so much sympathy for your difficulty in watching your son choose someone who maybe doesn’t treat him very well. You definitely do not have to like her, approve of her, or want her in your son’s life.
This old post about the Darth Vader partner might be helpful, or at least help you know that others can commiserate. Short version: Your son is getting something out of this relationship that you can’t see, and yeah, possibly a sex thing as you identified. Fun to think about, I’m sure! If she is emotionally abusive/manipulative, she will expertly use your criticisms of her to drive a wedge between you and your son. It’s totally crappy and feels like a can’t-win situation, but what happens between them is 100% out of your control.
I do not think disinviting her from holiday/family events is the answer. It will drive your son away when, if this is really a bad situation, he needs you most.
If you really can’t face spending Christmas with her? Call in sick to Christmas. Don’t make a big show of not going because she will be there, just, on the day, give yourself a break from dealing with her and don’t be there. I value honesty, but the socially convenient lie has its place in no-win situations like this. Treat not going as self-care (vs. making a huge point about your disapproval of your son’s girlfriend).
Thereafter, try to schedule time with them in small doses. If you usually invite them over, maybe try inviting them out somewhere to dinner or the movies, which has a sort of set beginning & end time. During those small doses times, summon every shred of good manners you have and treat her with basic courtesy. Try to imagine she is some random coworker you just met and are not sure you click with, but you have to get through this work lunch and keep good relations somehow. When she says something really awkward, try telling yourself this: “She probably feels just as uncomfortable as I do and is trying way too hard as a result.” Because yeah, she knows you don’t like her. You don’t want to be the Mother-In-Law in this letter. Girlfriend’s either invited (and treated like a guest) or not invited, she’s not invited-but-shunned to her face.
What I suggest for everyone who has a difficult person they must routinely deal with: Find 2-3 safe topics of conversation, like, a TV show or sport you both watch. Conversation gets uncomfortable? “How ’bout them (Sports Team)?” “Are you caught up on Scandal?” “What is your favorite Olympic sport?” both provides a safe change of subject AND gives you something to maybe have positive interactions about.
Also, schedule time with just your son, and when you see him, resist the urge to tell him all of your worries. Resist the urge to give advice. Instead, ask questions. And ask real questions, not Judgy Parent Interrogation Questions. You have your son’s former roommate’s perspective on what’s going on, but do even you know your son’s point of view? Maybe your worries have also crossed his mind.
- How are you?
- How is the new place?
- How is your job?
- It sounds like you are enjoying ______! What do you like most about it?
- How did you get interested in _______?
- You and (girlfriend) seem pretty serious. What’s your favorite thing about her?
- Is living together what you thought it would be like? I know when your dad and I moved in together, we had x hilarious problem going on.
- When are you going to get a “real” job?
- How long exactly do you plan to do x (drink, smoke pot, live with this harpy)?
- Do you think that’s really a long-term plan?
- Your friend told us x, y, and z about you. Is that true?
- Have you tried ___? Have you tried _____? Well, if you want my advice, you’ll ______.
Ask questions and really, really listen to the answers. I’m sure you love your son, but he needs to know that you like him. If your son feels like you are genuinely interested and caring about who he is now (imperfect girlfriend, “low level” job, and all) vs. who you think he should be or hope he will be, he will feel safe to come to you when he needs help with the truly hard stuff. If he opens up to you about troubles in the relationship or asks whether you like her, be honest, but keep the conversation focused on his agency. “She is not who I would have chosen for you, because I’ve seen times when she is not very nice to you. But what you think is the most important thing. Is there something about how you work together I’m not seeing? If bad things stay bad, what do you think you’ll do?”
At a certain point, parental disapproval and disappointment just plain stop working as a motivational tool for adult children. Well, they are motivating….in motivating your kids to avoid & dread your company. Or to create a selective portrait of their lives for you that shows only their successes, because they don’t feel safe around you when they struggle. The parent’s fallacy is “If I don’t show my disapproval of x thing, they will think it’s okay and keep doing it.” The thing is, your kids already have a good idea of what you will and won’t approve of, and they do think about it and care about it. But questions like “Who do I love?” and “Where do I live?” and “What work will I do?” are fundamentally and primally not your decision to make. If you decide that you’ll weigh in on such topics only when asked, I think you greatly increase the likelihood that you’ll be asked.
I sometimes struggle with how much to write about my family stuff in public places, because I know my parents love me and we have come a long way from where we once were. It’s a fragile peace, and I don’t want to destroy it by dwelling too much on the past. But in my 20s, I struggled mightily to find my way. I chose the wrong career after college, and was successful but miserable in it. I had a mental illness that manifested in my late teens but didn’t get diagnosed or treated until I was 27. I dated some sketchy dudes and made some questionable decisions. I can understand why my parents saw me during those years and struggled to reconcile that person with the straight A student who had left home for expensive prestigious college, because what was happening did not have the sweet, sweet smell of success.
During that whole time, my relationship with my parents completely fractured. From their perspective, I was being deliberately irresponsible. From my perspective, it was because all of our interactions were about comparing Current Me to Past, Successful Me or Presumed Future Me, Who Will Surely Be More Successful Than This, Right? They were all about advising and fixing and motivating and shaping. They were all about “but you had so much potential!” and “Is THAT what you’re wearing?“
During that time, I don’t feel like they ever asked me a single question that didn’t have a “Let’s fix you!” agenda behind it. And I don’t feel like they liked me, or saw me, or knew what was actually important to me, or that I could be honest with them about any of that stuff. When I met with some truly scary situations, they were not who I called, because the message I’d gotten was “We don’t like you when you fail or struggle.” And I feel like my brother’s experience was much the same; “These people love me, but they are only interested in fixing me, not knowing me.“
As a side note on “low level” jobs: My parents too expressed scorn at the series of temp jobs I had when I first moved to Chicago. They were beneath me, in their opinion. The economy was in recession then, not as bad as it is now, but the job market was rough and I had moved to a new city for an opportunity that fell through on arrival. To them, it looked like I was choosing “low level” jobs over some theoretical awesome high-paid career that my fancy education entitled me to. For me, those jobs were putting food on my table and I literally could not afford to be ashamed of them. They meant: food, shelter, independence, dignity, survival. A starting point in a new place. Your son is working, in a time when many people who want to be working are not. He is trying his best to live independently. I would resist strongly attaching any moral value to the “level” of such work. Sarah Kendzior is one of the best writers about the job market for young people right now, and I can’t recommend her work enough. And this Dear Sugar piece is also near and dear to me:
“You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.
But that’s all.”
You may hate your son’s girlfriend, and you may hate many of his choices, and he may frankly be hard to like right now. And for so long your job was to help him, to advise him, to guide him and protect him. I’m not a parent, but I can see how hard it must be to let that instinct go, especially when you smell trouble. It is not wrong for you to want to prevent your son from making a terrible mistake, or protect him from an unkind and manipulative person. But this is my Christmas plea to you:
This Christmas, let go of the idea that you can change anything about your son’s situation, and just try to like him. Listen to him. Hug him. Let you know how special he is to you. Find something to praise about him. Let him know you’re glad to see him. Ask him questions and listen to the answers without commenting on them or offering advice. If he is in fact with a toxic partner who doesn’t respect him, this is the very best antidote you can supply.