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.
179 thoughts on “#533: Can I bar my son’s unlikeable girlfriend from family events?”
I love The Captain’s advice, as always. I have two very young daughters, and I already worry about How I Will Handle It when they inevitable choose to date someone I really, really wish would just go away. I know it’s going to happen because I did it myself. Man, when I think of some of the guys I dated! And I knew my mom didn’t like them. BUT – she never tried to keep me from seeing them. She was polite to them when they were around. And because she didn’t draw a line in the sand that I felt I had to rebel against, I came to see that these people were not the best matches for me. Will that happen in this case? Only time will tell. But CA is right – you run the risk of losing your son as well, and that would be awful. Good luck to you, LW. I think you can make this work.
Same here with my mother – there were several guys my parents openly said they didn’t like and would rather I didn’t hang around with (by plaintively crying “but what about X, he was such a nice guy”), when I wasn’t actually interested in that guy! But they also NEVER asked me to stop seeing any of them.
And that was wonderful. I hope to be the same (or better) for my son.
That’s such a good strategy. One of my good friends got into a super-intense relationship with a much older guy when she was 14. When her parents (fairly devoted Catholics) found out, I am sure they were utterly horrified (for good reason). But rather than doing what must have been their instinct, and forbidding her ever to see him or leave the house again, they gritted their teeth and smiled and invited him round for Sunday dinner. The relationship lasted about two weeks after that – for whatever reason, it seemed much less appealing to him to date this young girl when that involved contact with her parents. So, she felt like they had her back, and that also turned out to be a much quicker route to the desired outcome.
Oh, well done! I shall have to remember that tactic should I need it in the next 5-10 years.
Bravo, Captain. You’ve just described my life with my father, whom I now detest. LW, listen to the captain. I wish my father had liked me.
Feeling liked by our parents is just so so so important – particularly when the relationship is going through a tricky time. I have always known that my parents loved me, but there was definitely a period of years in my twenties when “love” felt like “they would come to my bedside if I was very ill/in a serious accident” but “talking for 20 minutes without crying” was an impossibility. It created a situation where I only felt capable of talking to my mom about my “brokenness”. It was (apparently) all she was interested in and left me with a feeling that unless we spoke about my failings or problems we had nothing to talk about. At the time we were working in the same very large organization and for about 6 months were having hour lunches with each other where I was openly crying in the work cafeteria and returning to work a mess. The process for me to fix this dynamic (with lots of therapy) contributed to me moving overseas for five years and limiting my conversations with my parents to once a week.
We have since come to a much better place, but it meant having to establish very heavy boundaries and literally thousands of miles of distance. Once I told my parents all of the different emotional issues I would no longer talk about there were these moments where we had absolutely nothing to talk about. And it just felt like it emphasized how little they liked me. My parents and my brother will always be chummier – but I just can not emphasize the importance of an adult child feeling liked by their parents. Especially when everything isn’t in the best place.
None of this means that there weren’t periods of time in my 20s when I wasn’t broken and didn’t need help. But I really needed to believe that my parents liked me then. And I really didn’t feel like they did.
I can relate to a lot of this, and just moved back to Europe myself. It’s sad that literally thousands of miles is needed to establish firm boundaries, lessen my mother’s control, help me recuperate, and give our relationship a chance (that was definitely not the only reason I moved back, but yeah).
What jumps out at me here is, is LW’s son’s friend a reliable reporter? I suspect he might be jealous that the girlfriend is changing their social circle, or unhappy because Son moving in with GF means that the friend will now need to find a new roommate and/or have trouble paying his own rent.
It sounds like LW already didn’t like the girlfriend, which means she would be inclined to accept things like “nobody likes her” and “they encourage each other to drink and smoke weed.” Even if they do, there’s an unstated–and not necessarily valid–implication that the friend who is reporting this didn’t also encourage her son to drink and/or smoke weed.
LW, you don’t have to like your son’s GF and, as the Captain says, you can skip Christmas this year if that would be easier for you. But try looking at this from a different angle: discard whatever ex-roommate said as unreliable hearsay. Try to look at GF in a favorable light, as someone who is being polite and friendly to you. Looking only at what she’s doing, not at what one possibly-jealous person said about her, how is she treating your son?
This jumped out at me, too. I would be a little skeptical. I’m about the LW’s son’s age, and I can’t imagine going to a friend’s parents for something like this, not even if I was generally fairly close to them. I mean, what, are they in high school again? It doesn’t sound like the LW’s son is being abused or in some sort of danger – he’s just not necessarily making the best choices in the world and dating somebody he might regret dating later on. Pretty much all of us have been there.
I’m also going to add some perspective, as someone who hasn’t always been liked by her s.o.’s friends.
My college boyfriend and I dated for about two and a half years. Overall, it was a good relationship. We broke up before senior year, but after a few months of distance, we became friends again and have been friends since. He’s not one of my closest friends, but we try to find time to chat on the phone for a bit every three or four weeks. Like I said – overall, a good thing, but we ultimately weren’t right for each other.
Here’s the thing: a lot of his friends really, really didn’t like me. I was getting in the way of their buddy going out to parties every weekend, because now he wanted to hang out with his girlfriend instead and was over the drink-til-you-black-out thing. Because of me, their friend wasn’t always around when they wanted to go get food or play video games or whatever, and they were used to him being around all the time.
And for awhile, there was definitely some push-pull stuff going on. They put pressure on him (one of their favorites was calling him “whipped”), were unfailingly polite but not at all inclusive to me, and there are a couple of them that I can definitely see pulling something like going to his parents out of “concern” if that had been a possibility. They eventually got over it, but it was definitely tense for awhile.
You seem to be taking his friend’s word as infallible, but I’m not sure you should be. Even if he’s not intentionally misleading you, there’s no reason to think that his perception is correct or that this woman doesn’t make your son happy, and it’s entirely possible that he’s exaggerating. You say that she seems phony – I’m assuming that means that she’s trying to smile and be polite and all of that. Maybe it doesn’t come naturally to her and she feels uncomfortable.
She might be a terrible person, but LW, I second the suggestion that you put what your son’s friend said out of your head.
+1 – friends can do weird stuff when one of their friends forms a new relationship, and going to your friends parents about them definitely qualifies as weird stuff to me.
The roommate coming to visit the parents jumped out at me as being super-weird. Had he tried to talk to the son DIRECTLY? Because bypassing the son to talk to the parents = WEIRD, AWKWARD AND UNPRODUCTIVE. I side-eye.
Also: the “phony” thing. Is the girlfriend acting “phony” because the LW gets the sense that the girlfriend doesn’t like her but is just putting on a polite front? Because that’s not being phony, that’s just good manners. And if the LW is doing acting the same around the girlfriend, isn’t she being just as “phony”? – I feel like right now the girlfriend can’t win with the LW at all. If she’s short / terse / bare-minimum-polite, the LW would lambaste her for being so! unacceptably rude!. If she’s polite / interested / smiley, she’s “phony”.
Captain, you handled this letter with far more nuance and grace than I could ever have been capable of.
Also – I found the “sex addiction” comment COMPLETELY over the top. Maybe your son sees things in her that you don’t! Maybe she makes him laugh! Maybe she’s kind to and supportive of him on a day-to-day basis and doesn’t give him shit about his “low level” job and doesn’t criticise him for his coping mechanisms. Who knows! It’s the son’s business, not the LW’s.
Yeahhh, that weirded me out, too. People can like people for reasons you don’t understand without it being a sex addiction. Just, what?
This also stuck out to me as, frankly, skeevy. If you are wondering if your son has a sex addiction because he is dating someone you don’t like, I have to wonder if your son has NEVER done anything you didn’t like before. It reminds me of when I cut my mother off for being an emotionally abusive and generally horrible person and she blamed it on the fact that I play MMOs.
Re: MMOs Apart from the, you know, entire situation, this is hilarious.
@Marvel – Are … are you my brother?
Preach it! Also, I feel that a lot of this stuff might pertain to those “low-level jobs” LW mentioned Son and Son’s Girlfriend having. Working thankless jobs for very low pay– not always enough to keep the lights on– for and with people who are frequently rude or dismissive of you is not good for anyone’s mental health. As someone who has been there (Ha, “has been-” I still am!) while being in a relationship with someone who has been there, I ache to think of what Son and Girlfriend might be facing. I understand how tired, and scared, and hopeless, and depressed this makes you feel. Menial work and constant economic fear are not good for mental health, and if you have any illnesses or issues beforehand? They crank up to eleven, or beyond. My boyfriend and I have both absolutely been short with or outright rude to each other when we have run out of food and money. We don’t want to be, we feel terrible about it, and we are always trying to be more aware of when we are starting to go down that road, but it happens. So, yeah, we have been less than pleasant with each other, but that’s not the norm, nor is it representative of anything other than the fact that no one can be shiny when they are constantly terrified. I mean, yeah, can people in these situations be objectively mean or wrong for each other? Sure. But being young and poor doesn’t exactly help, and maybe the benefit of the doubt would be appropriate here.
Maybe! You never know.
I totally understand the wariness towards the “friend as reporter” – but as a friend of people who’ve gone through various issues, there have been times where I debated talking to a friends parents because I was truly coming from a concerned place.
I feel that typically the whole “I’m gonna talk to my adult friend’s parents” is a sign of “I feel very out of my depth and want to put this on someone else’s plate so I’m no longer primarily responsible”. At one point during college, I had a friend in the US writing me email after email about her suicidal thoughts when I was overseas. I eventually told her that if she didn’t seek out help on her own, that I’d inform her university (her parents were very anti-mental health services) because I felt increasingly uncomfortable by serving as her suicide email hotline. It scared me and I needed out of that position.
I’m sure there are many other possibilities of the the friend’s motivation – but it was a story that I could relate to in regards to expressing genuine concern. For all we know, the friend was sugar coating what is actually a much larger problem. The friend/former roommate used to share joint bill responsibilities – maybe the financial problems aren’t just related to the nature of his salary but a serious dependency problem making paying bills on time unreliable? Maybe the son was eating the roommate’s food because he never had the money to buy his own? Maybe he was living in such a dirty way that it was attracting insects/rodents/mold?
Who knows – either way, I think that we can look at this friend in a lot of ways. One being a guy who doesn’t like the girlfriend or being pushed out of the friend’s life. Another way being a guy who’s actually minimizing how bad things have gotten, but wants someone else to deal with what he sees as a growing and scary problem.
There’s a difference between “Your son drinks/smokes weed too much, and I think it’s bad for him” or “he hasn’t even showered in four days, and I’m worried that he’s spending all his money on booze and weed, and isn’t eating” and “you can tell his girlfriend is a horrible person because none of us like her,” though. Maybe the son’s friend was just trying to back it up as “it’s not just me being jealous,” but it seems like a bad sign for LW to take that complaint as important enough to have included it in her letter. It’s not something like “she insists on coming with him to everything, I can’t talk to him alone anymore,” which would be a bad sign, it’s “she must be a bad person because we all agree that we don’t like her.”
This really jumped out to me, as well.
I know, for example, me and the mister moved in together earlier than we’d have liked, and before we could afford it, specifically to get out of a shared living situation where it was clear my other half wasn’t welcome.
I’m wondering whether the talk with son’s friend happened before or after LW met the GF for the first time. And I’m also seeing a lot of eating-crackers stuff going on here. When the GF is doing presumably nice, polite-to-in-laws things and it’s being interpreted as “an act” that the LW can “see right through”, which is making me wonder how many concretely bad things LW has actually, personally, witnessed from GF? I mean besides “has a low-paying job”, which is pretty much normal for people in their mid-twenties in the current economy.
Because when you’re throwing up “sex addiction” as a means to justify your son’s relationship with someone you don’t like, it kind of seems like you’ve gone beyond not liking them to actively loathing them. And that’s a hard emotional state to see clearly in.
Well Bunny said almost everything I was going to say, darn you smart commenters!
That sex addiction comment really just raised so many red flags for me. Not only does it sound like LW is actively looking for ways to hate her son’s girlfriend, but it also sounds like she’s looking to blame her son’s “failings” on someone other than him (and by extension, her). I was in that place, I was that girlfriend, and it is really not ok. And your son STILL won’t choose you over her. And my partner’s mom died very young, and they had to have some really painful, awkward, awful conversations while she was on her deathbed because she drove him away by blaming me for what she saw as his flaws. LW, is that how you want to spend the last weeks you have with your family? Because I’m pretty sure my partner and his mom wish things had happened differently.
I was also the person whose parents hated her boyfriend for a long time, because they held some really shitty ideas about college education, worth, and jobs (what IS it with parents and jobs?!) that made them unable to see my partner for the amazing, loving, supportive, hardworking, intelligent dude he is. I also did not choose my parents over him. We are married now, and have been in a relationship constantly for 17 years. My relationship with my parents has remained somewhat distant and superficial over those 17 years because of this, although it doesn’t sound like it got as bad as some other posters here have had it. Nevertheless, I will never be “close” to my mom, because I can never trust her fully. So again, LW, is that how you want the rest of your life to be?
“What is it with parents and jobs?”
They grew up in a radically different economy than us and can’t see past that.
One of the biggest “jobs” parents have while their kids are still kids is supporting the kids’ education and trying to optimise the kids’ future career opportunities. I think in some ways the 20s are a really tough phase for parents, as they have to give up being the leading-parent and to some extent being the guiding-parent but are still turned to for support.
After 21 years of “guess what I did at school today!” And “mom, my honework’s hard” and “I don’t know which major to pick”, suddenly it’s none of their business.
It’s right, it’s proper, it’s the circle of life… but I can see it being hard.
Which doesn’t make it any less frustrating being on the receiving end, of course. My mother felt like *she* was a failure because of *our* educational and work statuses. She’d invested so much of her self-image in our potential… ugh. Pain all round.
Aye. I feel so lucky with my family. They are still very much focused on mine and the other half having jobs, but not so much on the expectations of specific career paths. They have hopes and dreams for us to have success and a decent income, but I was brought up to never be, in my mum’s words, “too proud to scrub toilets”, so to them the fact that we have any jobs at all is something good, especially with how hard it is to get work right now. Jobs-concernifying conversations are mostly about suggesting ways we could get extra income, concern that we aren’t enjoying or aren’t feeling secure about work, and acknowledgements that it’s rather shockingly harder for us than it was for them.
It’s meant I’ve felt able to be honest with them about the situation, that I’ve never felt ashamed of talking about my work or unemployment with them, and that I’ve felt like, if the worst happened and we had no home due to unemployment, they would be there for us.
There are Ways, and then there are Ways to show concern and support re: your kids and their career success.
I really enjoy reading anecdotes like this. It’s refreshing to see someone who is “doing it right.”
As I mentioned below, my life is full of such dysfunction, drama, chaos, trauma, etc — especially regarding my relationship with my mother — that I generally have no idea what a healthy parent-child relationship even looks like. With an upbringing such as mine, it’s not as simple as merely doing the opposite of how I’ve been treated, since that would also lead to its own set of problems. Sometimes I wonder if people from good families know how blessed they truly are.
I think that Cantor’s Theorem nailed what a lot of us struggle with. Sure there’s all the stuff about wanting their kids to succeed and having trouble letting us fail but there also seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding about today’s economy, how we hold jobs in general, and what aaa “career” looks like today. Plus people in my parents’ generation seem to view college in this weird way where it is a marker of “good and decent person,” which……not so much.
I thought the same thing. If the GF is nervous (for example) and doing her best to plaster on a polite smile, that might read as “put[ting] on a very phony act” to LW, who already has a bad impression of her courtesy of a third party.
I know abusive, horrible people aren’t always abusive and horrible in front of witnesses, and who knows, maybe the friend is 100% right about the GF. But there’s “being on notice” and “reading into things”, and it seems like the LW might be doing the latter.
This letter definitely raises some alarms for me.
– LW seems to be basing her opinion of girlfriend mostly on the friend’s information (it’s already weird enough that a fully grown man went dobbing to his friend’s parents, I would be taking anything this friend said with a huge grain of salt but LW seems to have accepted it without question)
– LW makes vague comments like girlfriend being “stressful” and “being a bad influence” without noting one specific negative or inappropriate thing the girlfriend has actually said or done, aside from 1) being “phony” – or possibly just trying to be nice – and 2) having a low-level job and engaging in drug use, both of which her son does too and presumably did before girlfriend came along, which makes me think girlfriend is taking the heat for some of son’s ‘unlikeable’ behaviours
– over the top “sex addiction” comment
Who knows, the girlfriend may be a complete biatch, but the above things suggest to me that LW is probably in a very emotional and not altogether clear thinking place at the moment. I would suggest lots of counselling before anything goes any further.
Nthing the possibility that the friend is not entirely reliable. Hearsay is a terrible way to inform decisions.
This has so much good advice for my mother. Were it not for the fact that such criticism/advice does not stick whatsoever, I’d contemplate sharing it with her.
But yeah LW, it’s important to like your children. Deep down, I know my mother loves me — in that incredibly dysfunctional cycle of familial abuse kind of way — but it’s taken her a long time to even start to like me and not just make me feel like she tolerates my existence.
Great advice, as always, Captain. I hope the LW takes it to heart.
When I was in a deep depression and the ONLY thing that made me want to keep going was my dog, my mom told me I could not bring my dog when I came home to visit (she doesn’t like animals in the house). This was a huge blow. Yes, I also would have rather brought home a husband and our baby, but the only living creature I had to love was my dog. It was like my mom was adding insult to injury, rubbing in the fact that no one else loved me. Even if this is not the perfect girlfriend, you don’t know what he feels are his other options. You don’t know what she means to him.
I am so sorry that happened to you. I can’t imagine how that would feel, because I can clearly imagine the place you were with your dog. I’m glad you two had each other.
I apologize if this is rambling, or too heavily laden with my own reactions to a situation that reminds me strongly of the one I was in, from a different angle, but this really, really hit a nerve.
I just gotta say, my mother strongly disapproved of the guy I married, and never let me hear the end of that. The end result was that I stopped going to see her because that was Shit I Did Not Need. I get that she didn’t like him, hated him, even. It was the part where she went out of the way to voice her disapproval. Not air her genuine concerns in a healthy let’s-communicate way, not sit down and actually talk about her issues with him and LISTEN, just . . . dump all this gross shit in my lap about what a loser/slacker/useless idiot he was EVERY. FRIGGING. TIME. I. SAW. HER.
So I stopped seeing her as much. And I won’t go into it in detail, but there was permanent damage done to the relationship that kept me from trusting her when Shit Got REAL later on. And when I DID eventually have marriage problems, the fucking hell I would ever talk to HER about them, because I didn’t feel like I could trust her to give honest, compassionate advice. So I suffered through a LOT of shit I might not have had to if she had acted like the sort of person I could trust, instead of the sort of person who loves you but doesn’t respect you and will only treat you well when you are doing exactly what she wants.
She died young, and we weren’t friends at the end, in part because of this one fucking thing that she could not let go of. The relationship between me and her was pretty awful when I lived at home, but once I moved out, I feel like we could have sort of started over, like I did with my dad, who is a great friend now, but she shit all over that possibility by being utterly HORRIBLE about the guy I was with.
Now, my husband was a genuinely great and loving guy with some serious flaws but mostly, at the core of him, a person who loved me and wanted to care for me. I will go ahead and believe you when you say that this person is BAD for your son, even though some of the language in your letter trips my “wrongly and/or overly judgmental” alarms . . . I totally cop to the fact that because of how I grew up and my experiences with my mom, I am quite possibly reading that in when it isn’t there. So, yeah, let’s assume she really is an awful person. And you’re scared for him, I GET that, I totally understand that.
But, see, airing concerns is one thing. Being really critical in the name of sending A Strong Message will make people less likely to come to you whether you are wrong, or whether you are RIGHT. Making your support dependent on certain pretty unreasonable behaviors (not seeing That Girl, find A Better Job in a job climate where people are LUCKY to have a full-time job from him) and treating him like a child who doesn’t know anything is a good way to make him feel like he and you are hopelessly at odds, and he might as well invest that energy elsewhere. And HE WILL.
It sounds like he might be going through a crap time of his own. How much about that do you KNOW? Do you know what’s going on with him? How does he feel about how you feel, really? When was the last time you talked — not with an agenda, not the baited kind of talk with “HERE IS WHAT YOU ARE DOING WRONG, WHAT DO YOU PLAN ON DOING ABOUT THAT, HMMMM?” hanging in a giant VERY VISIBLE thought balloon over your head. When was the last time you made an effort to connect to find out if he’s really okay? Because when my mom did this shit to me, we were in a BAD place, husband and I, and I needed support more than ever. But that was when she pulled financial support and tried to use that as a lever to make him get a better job (recession in a poor part of the country with few jobs, he couldn’t) or make me get a job (I AM FRIGGING DISABLED with severe mental illness and could not find steady work that was something I could do.) and . . . LW, I never forgave her for that. It hurt me deeply. She wasn’t there when I needed her. Again.
I’m not saying you have to keep giving him money, just . . . think really carefully about how you express your disapproval, and think very carefully about whether you are more likely to be motivating him to improve, or to be resentful and avoidant and to never talk to you about things. Because taking away support — especially in a brutal financial climate like this one — is nothing short of punishment. And people who are being punished for things they don’t perceive as being wrong tend to run like fucking hell from the person trying to punish them.
Maybe she’s a bad person. But your son isn’t. Don’t treat him badly in an effort to drive her off, because *it won’t work.*
I can’t tell you what to do about Christmas. I get not having the reserves of cope to deal with someone awful. So I’m sorry not to have an answer, there.
I just think . . . maybe I am projecting here . . . your son might be having a much rougher time than he’s letting on. LW, he NEEDS YOU. You can’t shame him out of a relationship. Don’t try. Please. There are so many other ways to help him. And the best one is to just be someone he feels like he COULD come to for help. I couldn’t go to my mother, even if things went wrong, because the gloating and the horrible “I told you so” . . . it was too much. I couldn’t trust her to be kind anymore.
Be kind. I beg you, be kind. Your son might go on to have plenty of other partners, all of them lovely. You will only ever have ONE son. That he loves you and trusts you and trusts you to be kind and fair is more important than being right and withholding your approval until he agrees with you, isn’t it?
It’s a nice feature, but I don’t value “right” in my parental figures or my friends that much. I never did. I valued “loving.” I valued “safe.” I valued “stable.” I valued “kind.” I valued “respectful.”
A+ to everything. Being right is not always important. In fact, sometimes when you’re right, the most important thing is to NOT try to hammer it in. Because: what if it turns out that you are right, and Partner is awful, and Son comes around to your way of thinking. What are the odds that he will come to you and say, “You were totally right and this person was terrible for me”? The odds go way down if you’ve been wearing your disapproval on your sleeve by, for instance, disinviting Partner to all family gatherings.
We all want to make good decisions. We all want to believe that we are intelligent people who are smart enough and wise enough to never make a terrible one. So when we do make terrible decisions, it’s hard to admit that, it’s like admitting that we aren’t as smart and wise as we wanted to be. “Hard” becomes “nearly impossible” when we have to admit to our bad decisions to a person who is (or is perceived to be) really likely to jump all over that admission with an I Told You So.
My parents are I Told You So people, and we get along okay but we basically never talk about anything important. They are super-judgmental, and I don’t like the feeling of being judged. I’d honestly rather make bad decisions and learn from them in my own way than risk a big judgey talk from them about how I did something stupid and they didn’t approve. So I don’t consult them, before or after, ever.
Also note: my parents NEVER NEVER EVER compliment me when I make good decisions. They will definitely tell me when I’m wrong, but never give me props for being right. I am right and I make good decisions almost 100% of the time and only make poor decisions every now and then, but guess which ones always come up whenever we try to talk?
We all want to make good decisions. We all want to believe that we are intelligent people who are smart enough and wise enough to never make a terrible one. So when we do make terrible decisions, it’s hard to admit that, it’s like admitting that we aren’t as smart and wise as we wanted to be. “Hard” becomes “nearly impossible” when we have to admit to our bad decisions to a person who is (or is perceived to be) really likely to jump all over that admission with an I Told You So.
♥ to this comment.
And, LW, just in case I maybe came across as otherwise, I’m actually on your side here in terms of you and me both wanting the best for your kid — albeit in an abstracted way, since I don’t know anyone involved. But on principle.
I don’t have children, so I can only imagine how harrowing it must be to watch your kid do things that strike you as hopelessly unwise and detrimental to their well-being. And I know how scary it is from actual experience to have someone close to you who is in a relationship with a really awful person and you wish . . . you wish they would just pull their head out, you know?
But I still feel that the important thing is your relationship with your son, and that has to take precedence over your antipathy toward this other person who may not even be in his life forever.
We don’t love and trust our parents because they yell at us not to run so fast or we might fall. We love them because when we do fall, they are there to love us.
My mom didn’t do that. Don’t make that mistake with your boy.
I have been thinking all day about what to do about just not wanting to deal with her this holiday season. It’s been so hard for so many of us this year, hasn’t it? It’s just been the pits. And everyone’s patience seems like it’s at a low ebb. So I wish I could come up with something. I can’t, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with solutions to my OWN shit, but I want to wish you a better holiday season than you are afraid you will have, and I hope you have some lovely moments of peace and joy in the midwinter dark.
If you need to, for your own sanity, avoid this woman to the greatest extent possible, GOOD LORD I GET THAT. Just . . . try to find a way to do that without making your boy feel like he’s being punished or criticized or ganged up on.
I wish you luck. And patience. ❤
A thousand times, this.
I have greatly disappointed my mother.
I have not fulfilled my potential.
I married the wrong person.
I have the wrong job.
My mother talks about those things to me because they are all she knows.
She doesn’t know all the reasons I love the life I have, because she has taught me hide the things I value from her criticism.
I made some choices I wish with all my heart I could change, but after 20 years on my own, I have a good life that I am holding onto by the skin of my teeth.
The reason that it’s worth getting up every day and fighting for, is beyond her comprehension. She doesn’t value the things that are important to me, so the life I love is worthless to her.
I won’t be with her this Christmas. Neither will her grandchildren. I am not making them be polite while being hit with ‘funny’ barbs they are too young to fully understand, but make them uncomfortable.
It’s not helpful, it’s not love, it’s cruel and hateful.
“She doesn’t know all the reasons I love the life I have, because she has taught me hide the things I value from her criticism.”
Wow, spot-on description of this dynamic, which I (unfortunately) also have with my mother.
I have that dynamic with my dad. I told my mom not to tell him I was in school again because I hide most of my life from him, good and bad.
Oh My God This. Not with my Mom, thank God, but with my sister and Dad and stepmonster and others, for many many years.
I do not mention in front of certain of my family members any thing which could possibly be a) blamed on me b) used to demonstrate that I am still hopeless c) elicit advice which I will then have to spend time evading d) used as yet more evidence that I’m whiny and attention-hungry and lazy. Like, oh, my chronic pain and fatigue. My visits to some family are limited to the length of time I can pretend to be healthy. Oh, or e) be regarded as evidence of my terrible priorities and inability to realise that I’m only succeeding at trivial useless things.
And in conclusion? “I love you ANYWAY” is not very much like “I love you.”
I agree, it’s about offering an option where he’s listened to and respected even when you don’t agree. A safe place to rest. People who like now-him as opposed to the Child of Happy Days.
LW, I’d like to offer my own mother’s advice. She herself nearly cut her own parents off, and we live in a family rife with addiction:
He’s going to do what he’s going to do. You get no choice about what he does or where he lives or who he loves. You have no choice about the substances he consumed or the hobbies he pursues. You’ve lost that. You can’t control it anymore.
You only get one choice here. That choice is: whether you want him to live the life he’s got now with you loving him and being close to him, or whether you’d rather that he did it without you. Because overwhelmingly, if you ask another adult to choose between you and a person they’re currently in love with, you will lose. Unfair? Maybe. But it’s true. Even if you raised and loved him his entire life, right now, you will lose.
Sometimes you really do need to cut people–even children–out of her life, because you can’t take it anymore. Because the toll is too great on you. When an aunt of mine realized that no matter how much she loved her daughter, she couldn’t deal with her daughter bringing friends into their house to do drugs together or stealing valuable items for drug money, yes, she cut her daughter off and none of us could blame her. But we all had to accept as well that it just meant that her daughter would go do drugs somewhere else.
I’m also adding one of my own observations, from working as a therapist. And that is, I find that parents radically underestimate their child’s ability to believe that their parents think they’re worthless and unlovable. “Oh, of course she knows we love her, how could she not?” (Complicated explanation: when children are little, they have to choose between explaining bad things happening as either “the world is an awful scary place” or “I am bad and it is my fault.” Believing they are bad and wrong makes the world safe.)
So often parents say “I love you” and it comes across to children as senseless mouth-noise, like when people say “How are you?” without expecting the answer. I hear so many people say, “My parents say they love me, but I really know…” or “They love me, but I don’t deserve it.”
Happy is the person who has never doubted in their own worthiness for their parents’ love.
So, LW, if you think that “of course” your son will be able to remember that you love him despite your criticisms, maybe remember the odds that he won’t. Even if you make decisions he won’t like, please remember to let your love for him be something you demonstrate, instead of something you just assume you can mention and trust he believes in.
Even with us rare ones who don’t doubt our worth, you still have to show it, or at least I’m pretty sure that’s universal rather than just me. The only difference is that if you don’t, the story goes ‘the world is an awful scary place and my parents are just as bad as the rest of it’ rather than ‘I am unworthy and my parents can see that just as much as everybody else can’.
(You are right about the happiness, though, more or less. The upside to taking the ‘world is awful and scary’ approach to things is that the world is big, and 95% of it being horrible still leaves plenty of good bits to be found and cherished, even when they aren’t the bits we’d most like to have be good ones. You only get one of yourself; I don’t know how people manage when they can’t see the good stuff there.)
I wish I could “Like” this a million times over. YES.
After a huge changing-the-status-quo argument with my mom last year, she asked, “You don’t think I love you?” I had never said that, but I guess I essentially implied it. I’m still trying to figure out what “love” means to me, all sorts of love. I think it shouldn’t hurt more often than not. That I should want to associate with you even if we weren’t blood relatives, or were something else not “tying” me to you. That I shouldn’t dread interacting with you. That I’m happily, willingly in a relationship of any sort with you. That you merely give me more joy than grief.
It took until earlier this year — I’m 28 — when I realized how warped my thoughts of “love” are, mostly due to such dysfunction in my family. I realized that I viewed “unconditional love” as tolerance, since, “Of course your family loves you even though they treat you like dirt, because they’re faaaaaamily so they have to.” I wouldn’t treat someone I respected the way my mother treats/treated my father and me (my sister is the golden child). You should never just say, “Of course my family knows I love them.” You should be able to point to specific behaviors and actions that clearly show love, and not just, “We share some DNA, so love is implied.” Or, “I’ve bought them [blank].” Or, “I raised them for 18 years.”
“I raised them for 18 years” makes me so angry. You can totally raise people to be broken and scared. The sentence merely means they survived until now, survival doesn’t equal being loved.
Ow ow ow ow ow.
Your upbringing should not be a thing you are glad you survived, you know?
Exactly. A reply to a statement of mine from an Awkwardeer months ago said:
“Oh my favorite (sarcasm) is the line about “your parents raised you for 18 years/wiped your butt when you were an infant/etc., so you oooooooowe them.” As if CARING FOR A HELPLESS CHILD is anything other than the bare minimum (pretty much literally) of human decency, or any kind of reciprocal agreement thing.”
I mean, when you really think about it, bringing a child into the world and not intentionally letting it die is indeed the bare minimum a parent needs to do.
Speaking as a parent, I can definitely say that I didn’t sign on for the raising and butt-wiping to earn their gratitude. I did it because I wanted to have children and they bring great joy to my life.
Of course, there are lots of ways in which I do go above and beyond for them, and some gratitude for those when they get older and look back would be nice. But expecting it just for stuff as basic and integral to the parental role as keeping their bums clean when they were too young to do it for themselves strikes me as a bit excessive.
My mother would always say, “I gave you life.” Like it was something to forever hold over my head when she wants something from me. She’s also the kind of person who will *offer* to do something for me — so mind you, I didn’t ask — and then act as if I’m forever indebted to her. Sadly, were it not for some revelations over the past couple years, I’d have no clue just how f’d up her behavior was. I always knew it wasn’t ideal, but this is all I knew. I have no happy control, dysfunction/trauma/chaos/frustration is my normal, regarding many aspects of life.
I also wonder if she is just that oblivious in her interactions with me. During two separate huge arguments over the past year, to redeem herself she said, “Remember when X happened when you were in 4th grade, and you were crying and we prayed for you?”
And second, that’s essentially saying, “Remember that ONE time I comforted you almost 20 years ago? The fact that this happens so rarely that it’s still a clear memory almost 2 decades later? Really, you don’t remember?”
A thousand times this. Also, it’s not enough to say “I love you”; you have to ACT like you love your children. “I love you” means nothing when interacting with you makes them miserable.
As someone who got very mixed messages from my parent growing up, THIS.
You have to act like you love them=/= them not being miserable about interactions with you, unfortunately. There are lots of times when you can act out of love and the result is the other person is not real happy about it. “I love you so much, but I am not going to [co-sign something dangerous/ tell you something you want to be okay that isn’t okay is okay/ refrain from holding you accountable for the shitty stuff you have done]” isn’t always popular, you know?
But acting with love that is founded in respect for that other person and their agency. Yes. Acting with love that is acknowledging that feelings and needs are real, even if you can’t meet those needs. Yes, that. Love that establishes and enforces boundaries that are good for you yourself, yes, that also.
Demonstrating love doesn’t mean a guarantee you will always leave each other’s company not miserable. It means you know even if you don’t feel good about an interaction, the other person is hoping you will be able to make the best decisions for yourself and that it will all work out okay, even if they can’t see how.
I guess the point of all that is, maybe LW’s son does have substance abuse issues, and maybe they can’t really see their way to enabling that. Or they can’t bald-face lie and say they love a girlfriend that rings all the alarm bells they’ve got. That’s fine. But you can communicate those concerns in more and less productive ways. Making a deal out of so and so not being welcome at a holiday party (last place you can address addiction or abuse, if that is what it is)= less productive.
All the Captain’s advice here is a way of setting up the relationship so this parent can say “I love you” and have the context support those words, even if the son ends up disappointed and maybe even miserable that his parents don’t just totally love his girlfriend. I mean, hearing “I wouldn’t choose them for you, but I trust you to do what is right for yourself” isn’t exactly happy news, you know? But it’s still loving.
YES. This. My parents are great people, wonderful parents in general, and yet I never realized they actually love me unconditionally until I went through some extremely bad shit in my life and they stepped up (and are still stepping up) to help me out. I never thought I could count on them, even though I can, because of exactly that childhood dynamic you’re talking about.
‘He’s going to do what he’s going to do.’
This, exactly. I also want to point out that he’s going to do those things regardless of his girlfriend’s presence. She is not responsible for his choices. If he’s doing drugs, it’s a choice that he’s making, not something forced upon him by some malicious villain out to ruin his life.
You can’t make her a scapegoat for your feelings about his choices. Not only is it very unfair to her, but it also negates his own adulthood. As the Captain points out, treating him as a child and wielding disapproval as a weapon won’t work like it did when he was in grade school. By acknowledging his choices are his own, you’ll be forced to treat him as an adult…which means you’ll have to acknowledge that those choices are none of your business.
I don’t mean that perhaps the way it sounds. Obviously you can have an opinion on his choices. You can worry and fret and think dark thoughts about his girlfriend. But you can’t take his choices away, and any attempt to try will just cause a rift you may come to regret.
To this day, my mother can’t resist telling me to wear a coat if it’s cold out. I’m in my mid-30s. It’s small and petty, but every time she yells “get a coat on!’, my reaction is not to wear a coat, EVEN IF I’M COLD AND INTENDED TO WEAR ONE ANYWAY. No adult likes being treated like a child, and the first reaction is almost always to push back and reclaim the independence the parent is trying to deny. That first reaction is going to be magnified a thousand times when it comes to a choice of partnership. In the end, you don’t NEED to understand what he sees in her…you don’t get a veto vote, and the sooner you see that, the happier all three of you will be.
If he’s doing drugs, it’s a choice that he’s making, not something forced upon him by some malicious villain out to ruin his life.
Unfortunately, the cultural narrative around drugs in the US often leads to the belief that a malicious villain must be responsible for a good person’s drug use. Even though it doesn’t work like that MOST of the time.
And come to think of it, on re-read of the original letter, I am guessing that the drug use is much more the issue here than the girlfriend herself, but the girlfriend makes a convenient scapegoat for the drug use. Especially the bit about the girlfriend and her son being “manipulative” and “phony” – this sounds like LW’s talking about stereotypical drug addicts without actually using the word addict because maybe it’s too big and scary or maybe LW thought it wouldn’t be taken seriously because it’s “just” alcohol and pot. (Especially because when LW does use the word addict, it’s “sex addiction” which sort of puts more of the blame on the girlfriend?)
LW, if your son is struggling financially and has a low-level and perhaps not particularly enjoyable job, perhaps a job that is socially stigmatized as below expectations based on his background, that’s powerful reinforcement of the idea that he’s a “loser” and unfortunately there’s a lot of crap that still says “you’re a loser” rather than “hey man, the job market is shit right now, good for you for sticking it out with a job you don’t like and paying most of your bills most of the time”. And what does a male twentysomething “loser” do in this culture, if you believe movies and books? He drinks and smokes pot. And hopefully finds a girl to do those things with him, or who at least doesn’t object to his doing them. (I was engaged to a guy like this once; it blew up because I started objecting to his being stoned constantly and doing crap like leaving illegal drugs IN MY CAR without my even knowing they were there.)
The girlfriend is not the problem. The girlfriend is a symptom of the problem, at best. I’d guess one of two things is at work here: either this is not the life HE ordered, and he’s using such escapist means as he has, or this is not the life YOU ordered for him, even though he’s actually pretty content. Either way, at this point, he has the life he has and the girlfriend he has, whatever your feelings about that may be. And, having seen this scenario before among a lot of my friends…he may or may not have an actual problem with the stuff. I had a lot of stoner friends in college, who remained stoners after college. We’re mostly in our mid-late 30s now and just about everyone quit smoking pot or only does so on a very rare special occasion, and the heavy drinking of our younger days is also a thing of the past. The “quit” point tended to happen alongside getting a good professional job and/or having kids and/or becoming homeowners. In some ways it’s like the Rat Park study in action – instead of wrecking themselves and hitting bottom, people stopped spending time drunk and stoned when their lives got BETTER in some major way.
Now, this does NOT NOT NOT mean you have to “enable” drug use, especially heavy drug use. You don’t have to give him money. You don’t have to allow him or his girlfriend in your home if they are drunk/stoned/both, and you DEFINITELY don’t have to allow them to bring drugs on your property. You don’t have to condone impaired driving. You don’t have to listen to endless stories about how funny the world is while they’re high or lectures on the awesomeness of stoner culture. Etc.
But if you’re going with the “they are phony and manipulative because JUNKIES OMG!” thing – maybe reconsider that a little bit? I know it’s a thing that happens, but it’s not always what’s going on.
I’m getting a lot of frustration and worry and anger and upset out of this letter. It’s hard to watch someone you love struggle. But I get the impression that perhaps you’ve entered Bitch Eating Crackers mode in the extreme here.
The first thing you mention is being given a lot of second-hand information about this GF from your son’s friend. I wonder… had you met her before then? Or was the first impression you had of her – before you even met her – of a pot-smoking, alcoholic layabout in a dead-end job? Because the next thing you mention is how her behaviour around you is “all an act you can see through” and I’m wondering… is it an act? Why do you think she would act nice around you? What motivation do you think she has for trying to come across as likeable to you? Could it just be a case of a young woman who wants her BF’s family to like her trying to work past the hatred she knows you feel for her?
Of course, she may well genuinely be an unlike-able, irresponsible person. But when you start talking about sex addiction as a means to justify how and why your son is with her, I think you’ve been in bitch-eating-crackers mode so long that it’d be extremely hard for you to see straight when it comes to her.
Some things to consider. Chances are even if your son and his GF had never met, he’d still be working low-paying jobs that left him needing to come to you for money, because pretty much everyone in their 20s is in the same boat. Since it’s unlikely he started smoking and drinking only because of her, he’d probably still be doing it without her. He’s an adult and is capable of making his own choices. It might help to try and avoid turning the GF into a scapegoat on which to lay blame for all the things that make you worry about your son.
You are under no obligation to like this person. But it might be worth trying to at least make peace with the fact for better or worse, she is who your son is currently choosing to be with. If you can at least nix the personal comments and criticisms of her when in his presence, you’ll stand a much better chance of maintaining a decent relationship with him.
I think you’re right. I am totally in Bitch Eating Crackers mode with my brother in law.
But that is MY problem. Ultimately, what I want is for my sister to be happy. And she is. So my problem is mine, and I have to manage it myself.
Man, I totally thought ‘Bitch Be Eatin’ Crackers’ as I read, and am glad I stopped to read comments before Replying.
My parents destroyed their family–they are completely estranged from my sister and her kids and have only a tenuous superficial relationship with me–because they took being “right” about the life choices my sister was making during her divorce to abusive levels. Don’t make that mistake.
I do think a lot of the advice here is solid for the long-term health of you and your son’s relationship. However, I also want to make clear that the advice you’ve been given is *really, really hard stuff to do.* It might be the right stuff and supporting your son and making sure he knows he’s liked even when he’s making questionable choices is Good Parenting, but I do think it can be really difficult and that you need support in this too. (But not from your son!) And I don’t think self-care is a zero-sum game between “don’t invite girlfriend” and “call in sick to Christmas.”
-I think letting your partner, if you have one, or other good adult friends know what you’re struggling with and see how they can support you through this. Maybe you’ll go to Christmas and put on Genuine Polite Face, but then meet up with someone unconnected to the situation later to vent over some wine.
-Maybe even let another relative know who will be at Christmas…BUT I’d be careful with this one… careful that the relative I picked was compassionate and not a gossip and that the tone was “Hey, I really want to support Son, but I’m having trouble getting along with Girlfriend. I want to be polite to her at events, but also take care of myself. Could you help me keep busy with things that are not watching them make googly-eyes at each other and hold me accountable if you see me giving her the stink-eye?
-I don’t know how big your Christmas event is, but my family is large. Accordingly, it’s pretty easy for me to avoid Aunt I Hate and Super Racist Grandfather. It’s not the silent treatment, and I don’t ice them out or encourage others to. I just… don’t go out of my way to engage.I greet them politely, smile if they say anything (non-racist/not-homophobic) to me and make small talk they initiate, but mostly just conveniently avoid by being other places. I sit at the other table or at the far end of the table away from them. I manage to be one of the last to in when we move to do presents, so I can chose to sit across the room from them. If I do get looped into a conversation, I might urgently have to check on the stove or hear a baby crying after a couple of minutes. (I have even managed to successfully do this by Skype since I’ve been an expat.) I corner the relatives I do like who were near those two throughout the evening during dessert so I still get to chat with my uncle and cousins. Etc. It’s hard to strike the balance of “actively avoiding you while pretending not to actively avoid you” but it is possible. If the family/event is smaller, though, this may not be an option.
-Christmas is usually at my mom’s house, so it’s noticed but not too weird if I disappear to the back of the house to read for 10 minutes or something if I get overwhelmed by their nastiness. If it’s not at my mom’s house, I might pop outside for a few minutes to “get some fresh air” or “watch the snow.” Then I just take a breather and refocus.
-Another option is to only plan to be there a limited amount of time. So… make an appearance, chat with the people you like, put on your Sincere Polite Face for the ones you don’t, eat some Christmas pudding, and then get the hell out of dodge. It’s okay to only Christmas for an hour or two if that’s all the Christmas you can handle. Then treat yourself to a bubblebath or a nice glass of wine or whatever self-care-y makes you feel relaxed.
-One final thing that helps me is just acknowledging that parts of it are going to suck. Aunt I Hate is probably going to try to touch me. Racist Grandfather is going to be real racist. Martyred Grandma is going to talk about all the things we’ve ever done wrong ever. I DON’T HAVE TO LIKE THIS. I DON’T HAVE TO PRETEND TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT IT. I can be polite but firm in the moment (“Whoa, I don’t think that’s true (that all people X do horrible thing Y.” + Drop it and eat pie) and know it’s doing to make me feel a bit crappy as the price of admission for hanging out with my awesome siblings, cousins, and nieces/nephews.
tl;dr: I think it’s possible to be polite to Girlfriend for the sake of your son while still valuing your needs and self-care (and without just skipping Christmas–although that’s an okay option too!) You don’t want to be the Silent Treatment of Doom MIL, but you don’t want to be the one that politely tolerates things that drive you crazy for years without ever processing them (away from your son) or taking care of yourself, until one day you EXPLODE WITH ALL THE RAGE.
I just want to say how awesome and helpful this comment is. Thank you.
This is good advice. And although we can’t know from this brief letter, just how awful (or not) the girlfriend is, this kind of advice isn’t reliant on her being a good or bad person. I understand the motivation behind wanting to withdraw support in order to push along the demise of the relationship, but that’s not going to have the effect you want.
Think about how people typically feel after a difficult breakup: hurt, lost, sad, probably feeling a bit stupid and quite possibly in a real hole financially. When things break down, you feel like an idiot, and the last person you want to deal with is the person who’s been telling you you’re an idiot for the duration of the relationship. You go to the person who will be there without judgement and give you a shoulder to cry on. If that person doesn’t exist, it’s even harder to end a relationship that isn’t working. If the only person who even comes close to this description is your partner, it can feel impossible. This is true however good or bad the relationship is, and really awful abusive partners know it, which is why they set out to keep their partners away from friends and family. If this woman is the absolute worst and your son needs to escape, the best thing you can do is make it clear that you will help and support his choices and not be judgemental – it may give him the courage to end the relationship. If this woman is not actually so bad but you’ve just got off to a rough start, being supportive and non-judgemental gives you the chance to heal things and develop a better relationship. It works either way.
I have been binge-reading since I discovered your blog a few days ago (and I love it all and plan to share certain entries with my patients who could benefit, thank you Captain!), but this post struck a nerve with me too.
In college, I moved off campus to get away from roommates who were bullying me to the point that I was considering suicide (though I never told her it was that bad; also, I am great now). My parents promised that they would give me a monthly stipend to supplement my financial aid, with the only condition that I had to maintain good grades (which I think was a reasonable condition). However, after a disagreement over politics (they are Fox News Republicans and I’m… not), my mother threatened to take away this stipend. I informed her in no uncertain terms that if she did that, I would cut off contact with her permanently. This threat stopped her in her tracks, and later my father said he would never allow her to do so but she threatened it a second time over a similarly stupid argument and later kicked me out of the house one Christmas because she got into a fight with my sister (I still don’t know why I was the one kicked out, but whatever).
However, ever since the first time she threatened to cut me off financially because she did not approve of my worldview, I have never trusted her or my father fully again. She made it clear, like CA said, that her love for me was conditional. As a result, she has been more-or-less removed from my real life – she only gets to see a carefully crafted positive projection. What few negatives I do tell her about are fully dealt with then minimized before being shared. We have almost nothing to talk about because she turns everything into an argument or a judgmental rant, so I have limited her to one phone call or visit a week at most, although my ideal would be once a month. If I need help, the only people I will ask are my boyfriend or my sister; they also have replaced my parents as my emergency contacts.
My mother started testing boundaries again lately and has sent me two nasty e-mails followed by half-assed apologies, so I decided to set some healthy boundaries (thank you to my life coach!) basically saying that this behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated any longer. When my father and I spoke about it, I told him explicitly that if she pulls one more stunt, she will be cut off permanently because this has been going on for over TEN YEARS (his excuses are always, “well, she’s having a tough time right now…” or “she’s scared so she’s lashing out…”). And I will cut her off too. I have been in therapy to deal with my issues concerning her for the past 7 years, and I know that I will be fine without her and that I do not deserve to be treated this way. (I also had a recent break-through realizing just how horribly dysfunctional my family is.)
So to the LW: I implore you, please do not be like my mother. She has single-handedly destroyed almost all of the important relationships in her life and has done irreparable damage to her relationships with me and with my sister (just like her mother did before her, and she swore she would never be like her). She is missing out on my life because even though she loves me, she has made it clear that the love is conditional and that she doesn’t really like me. We live a half hour apart right now and I do my best to avoid seeing her. She doesn’t even know me anymore and I don’t know if she even realizes that. I do not want you to end up with a similar relationship with your son, even though I know you are in a difficult position. Please listen to the Captain’s advice, even though it will be hard. Good luck to you!
This sounds a LOT like my father. Judgemental and snappy. every since his divorce from my mother he has been slowly ruining our relationships with him by involving me and my little sister in the dirty laundry of all the family business related to the divorce and then guilt tripping us over the fact we just don’t want to spend time or talk with him.
Now, more than 10 years after the divorce, I occasionally get a call from him (I think he is feeling guilty about the past but he would never admit that!) – usually he’s quite drunk – asking about the weather (I live in a different country now) or other superficial things. It makes me sad, really, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with him anymore.
LW your comment about sex addiction is really bugging me. For starters, sex addiction is a contentious diagnosis that’s still under debate, but in as much as it’s a problem that exists, it’s about a pattern of excessive sexual behaviour that is causing the sufferer distress and interfering with their ability to function day to day. Moving in with a woman your parents don’t like isn’t one of the signs.
Sometimes deciding someone must have a mental illness when there really is no evidence of such is a form of concern trolling. It’s a way of turning anger, disappointment and disapproval of someone’s actions into concern for their well being, and at the same time it’s a way of making them not responsible for doing the bad thing you don’t like. In a way, you’re saying your son might not be mentally competent to choose his girlfriends because you don’t happen to like his current choice.
People who make choices you wouldn’t make are not by default mentally ill.
I get that you don’t like this woman, and maybe she really is terrible. People sometimes do enable each other with bad behaviours. But your son is an adult who’s chosen to drink and smoke dope – he’s not doing it because she used some kind of magic girlfriend ray to force him to her every whim. Being polite and friendly to your boyfriend’s family doesn’t on it’s own constitute manipulation. I’m also kind of disturbed that you say you can see through her act because your son is the same way… You think your son is a manipulative phony?
Maybe the main reason your son is with his girlfriend is that they have great sex. That’s possible. But it’s also probable that there’s a lot more to their relationship than that, and reducing her sole value to sex object and his entire relationship choice metric to good-in-bed is pretty insulting to both of them. I’ve been in the situation where a couple people didn’t like my then boyfriend, and one of the really aggravating things they used to say was “he must have a huge dick”. To my face. Behind my back. You know what – I did find him sexy (obviously), but I also found him intelligent, widely read, fun to be around. He was not the right guy for me – on hindsight I wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole. But reducing my partner choice to wanting a big dick was monumentally insulting to me as well as him. I’m no longer friends with any of those people either.
“Sometimes deciding someone must have a mental illness when there really is no evidence of such is a form of concern trolling. It’s a way of turning anger, disappointment and disapproval of someone’s actions into concern for their well being, and at the same time it’s a way of making them not responsible for doing the bad thing you don’t like. In a way, you’re saying your son might not be mentally competent to choose his girlfriends because you don’t happen to like his current choice.
People who make choices you wouldn’t make are not by default mentally ill.”
YES YES YES
This is such a perfect articulation of the thing that bugged me about this letter, thank you for putting it so succinctly.
Also? People who ARE mentally ill, diagnosed and on meds and everything, who make choices you wouldn’t make aren’t doing it because Their Illness Made Them, necessarily, either.
Mentally ill =/= across-the-board incompetent to manage one’s life.
Thank you!! I have mental issues, and sometimes I’m incompentent, but the two don’t usually cause each other. I’m incompetent because I’m human, and I make mistakes. And I live a VERY different lifestyle than my family, that doesn’t mean my mental illness causes it. It means I think differently than them. “Well, we know it’s because you are sick…” “No, it’s because I think your lifestyle is wrong and I want nothing to do with it, thanks. Bipolar doesn’t make me hate your poltics. Although it might make it hard sometimes to not scream at you about them.”
The bit about being motivated “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” REALLY hit home for me. I have an overall positive relationship with my parents now, but I struggle with letting them know anything negative about my life, because my first attempts at that, when I was young and severely depressed (without knowing that my feelings had a name), went SO poorly and seemed to just make them angry with me.
The lesson I learned was “if you tell people who care about you that you’re upset or feeling like you want to die, they will be mad at you, so keep it to yourself.”
I did eventually have a brief conversation with them when I finally got a mental health diagnosis as an adult, but even now I don’t quite feel safe or comfortable talking about big struggles or problems in my life with my parents in much detail. We rarely have unpleasant conversations now but I can remember very clearly the times I’ve felt that sharing the messier details of my life and mental health has just resulted in me feeling hurt or talked down to.
I’m pretty sure that if I was asked to uninvite my partner from family events, or of my parents outright rejected them, that I’d wind up estranged from my parents. I’m already semi-estranged from my grandmother for comments she’s made about my life (often in the disguise of “jokes” that were just her being mean & trying to get away with it), so I don’t really have a problem doing this, as painful as it would be.
A lot of other commenters have given a lot of other ideas. There are three points in the LW’s letter that made me wonder, as well, if there isn’t a disconnect between the LW’s expectations due to upbringing, and those of her son.
LW, you mentioned that “they fight a lot”, that they drink and use drugs, and that there might be “a sex addiction”. My mother was raised to *never* fight or have arguments (so instead of saying something directly like “wash the dishes” she’ll mutter passive-aggressively “Why do *I* always have to…?”); she and my father never drink for religious reasons; and they have had separate rooms for decades now.
So I wondered, were those “fights” destructive and negative, leaving simmering resentments, or were they quick storms that blew over? How much drinking would you consider a problem? (I still worry that my husband’s can of beer with dinner isn’t *too much* because I don’t have a baseline) And how much sex would be considered a problem? (considering an 18 month relationship is still the honeymoon phase.)
LW, I’m not saying this to make you feel old fashioned or wrong. But if possible, maybe you could ask your son about his lifestyle as if you’re an anthropologist and he’s a foreign culture. What’s his relationship philosophy? How does he show his GF he loves her? Does he apologize after an argument? Does he raise his voice? How do they share the household chores? What does he find hard to adjust to? What’s his idea of a really special date with her? What’s a good night at home for him? What’s he good at cooking? (And if you’ve never shared much of your own thoughts and perspectives, this would be a great time to open up to him. Tell him the advice you got when you married, and what was accurate and what was wrong. Tell him about your first job, or a job you got fired from, or about how many times you had to take the driver’s test before you passed. Tell him if you’re worried about retirement or your sister’s health.) Best wishes to all of you!
This is a great point. I grew up in an arguing house hold, where there is lot of yelling, but also lots of overt displays of affection. I have tons of childhood memories of my parents bickering, and they still fight almost constantly.
My relationship is much more even keel, we don’t really touch each other in front of other people and we only argue about very important things. My mom was concerned for a while that we weren’t happy together because our relationship looks nothing like hers.
But I look at hers and wonder how she could possibly be happy.
Every couple’s relationship looks different and unless you are part of it, can you really judge? Outside of abusive warning signs and your son expressing overt unhappiness you can’t really know what he wants his relationship to look like.
My mother was never allowed to fight with her siblings. As a result, she’s never been friendly with her older sister. All the stuff that was fight-worthy in their childhood just got bottled up and never resolved.
My mother, being a wise woman, decided that she would not inflict this on her children. She allowed me and my siblings the space to fight, only intervening if someone was actually hurt. She’d comfort and offer advice and so on, but she wouldn’t insist that we stop fighting – she might require us to shut up while at table or when there were guests, but that was about it.
I love both my siblings dearly. There are no festering ill-feelings left over; all those things got resolved when we were young.
I’ve been in relationships with both men and women where we never argued. None of those has lasted – because it wasn’t that we were adult enough to talk about our differences without fighting, it was that one or both of us wasn’t able to handle conflict and took some other way out.
With my current husband, we rarely argue anymore, but in the first couple of years we did have some fights. It doesn’t happen now partly because we’re in a stable life situation, partly because we recognize when we need space or are having some issue that makes us irritable. And that’s nice and all, but we probably wouldn’t have gotten there without the earlier years.
Fights aren’t necessarily bad, is what I’m trying to say. It’s more a question of what you’re learning from them, how you process them afterwards, *how* you fight, that’s important to look at.
In a fight for affection between parents who are constantly disappointed in you, and someone who makes you feel happy in the pants area, the parents are going to lose every time.
Remember that. It is true. You are not going to win. If you push on your son, he’s going to chose the woman who makes him feel good on a day to day basis, not judgmental parents. There is no contest, you will NEVER WIN.
I know this is super hard to hear, and it doesn’t mean your son doesn’t love you. It means he is an adult, who gets to make his own decisions, and by that logic, his own mistakes. And the hardest part about loving someone is watching them make their own mistakes.
Another way to think about this problem is to think about the psychology of it. Even when people are wrong about things they are reluctant to see that. And this is especially true in relationships. It’s hard enough to convince people that global warming is real, when they don’t believe it is. And that has real scientific proof. In order for people to believe that proof they have to let go of their existing beliefs about how smart the people who told them it was imaginary are, and more importantly how smart they themselves are. So they aren’t going to do it. They are going to cling to that idea that they are smart and you are a dumb liberal trying to make them feel bad.
“I just don’t like her” is hardly as compelling as charts and graphs. And you have to subvert someone’s judgement, as well as their very real love for that other person. It is likely to only cause them to rationalize and defend their partner, and become even more committed to them.
Stay out of it, let him see what you see on his own. And try to give her a chance.
I was thinking something similar to your first point. Namely, that parent disapproval usually doesn’t have a huge impact on a grown child’s decisions if the grown child doesn’t have a close relationship with the parents. If there isn’t a solid relationship “platform” on which to express such an opinion on such a big decision, then it will likely drive a wedge between parent and child.
And to further both of your points, oftentimes the adult child has not told the parents all of the details of their situation (I can personally attest to that, and most of the commentors are similarly screening their interactions with their parents). So when the parents disapprove of a decision, at best their input is irrelevant because they do not have a full picture, and at worst, it comes off like they think the child is an incompetent decision-maker because they do not see how much thought has been put into the process.
This is why I have started leaving my parents out of my process of starting my own practice. At first, I tried to keep them involved so we would have something to talk about, but all they did was second-guess every decision I made, which made me start questioning whether or not I could really open my own practice all by myself. I ended up having to cut them out of it, so I only tell them about things AFTER they are done when nothing can be done about it.
This kind of behavior demonstrates that the parents do not trust their adult child to take care of themselves/make “good” decisions/etc. That can often then be extrapolated out to “I will never be good enough” thinking, which is obviously not good.
This hits so close to home for me. When I was growing up, my parents decided to adopt. When it was time for adoptive sibling to come home, 12 year old me was in trouble for lying? — something like that — and if I hadn’t appropriately repented, I would be sent to stay with other family so that I didn’t “ruin” the homecoming. Years later, I was uninvited home for holidays so that I wouldn’t ruin those, either..
LW, I received the message loud and clear – I was utterly disposable if I didn’t toe the family line, whatever it may be. And therefore I present edited versions of my life, don’t share big problems, don’t disagree, and don’t come home to visit much. You are telling him that controlling him is more important than loving him, and believe me, that message can’t be unsent.
Anonforthis, I am SO sorry that happened to you. It happened to me once — my parents asked me not to come home for Thanksgiving last year because it was “a bad time” for my sister. She turns every situation into a chaotic stress-fest, being around her is like stepping into a tornado, but my presence in the house for three days would “be too stressful” for her so I was uninvited from the holidays. (I hadn’t seen them in almost a year.) It hurt like hell, and I can’t imagine how it would feel for it to happen repeatedly. I hope that you have other people in your life who accept you and are there for you without strings attached.
If you decide to follow the Captain’s advice (which I highly recommend), don’t expect your son to be an open book the first time you ask a question.
When my parents slowly started to change ther treatment of me from Please Justify Every Decision You Make, But We Will Only Approve If It Is Exactly What We Would Do to But how are you doing? I didn’t feel like sharing my life with them. I felt like they were doing a trick to get me to give them information they could abuse in later conversations in the former category. It took some time for me to trust them a bit again. Your son knows you don’t like his girlfriend, so he will probably be a bit suspicious if you start asking real question. He might need some time to build trust in you again.
Totally agreed, excellent point. Might not hurt the LW to start the first conversation with her son with a huge apology for her previous behavior and a heartfelt explanation that she would like things to be better between them and that she will make every effort to that end.
THIS. This a million times over. My mom is absolutely in that category, she does that thing that the Captain calls “optimizing” where she constantly wants to make sure you’re doing the best thing. And it really makes me unwilling to answer even the most basic questions. Earlier tonight she asked me about my typical workday dinner routine and I completely avoided the question because I was afraid she would want to know “Why x and not y and have you tried z?” and because that afternoon she had tried to concern troll me about my eating habits even though she knew nothing about them.
I totally relate. My father does the exact same thing except that he openly criticizes life choices and asks inappropriate questions. If I tell him I’m going to buy such and such, he’ll say “Can you afford that?” Uh, Ok first of all none of your business whether I can afford something or not and secondly, asking that implies that it’s possible I can’t and therefore may do something stupid like buy something I can’t afford.
If I tell him how much I paid for something and he thinks it’s too much I will hear about it for months. MONTHS!! Did I mention I’m nearly 40 years old so this whole treating me like a stupid, inexperienced child thing has grown as old as I am? Yeah. So anyway, my MO now is to give no details. None. Just easier that way.
My mother’s viewpoint on life is essentially, “There are two ways to approach any situation — my way and the wrong way.” Plus she’s usually incapable of empathy to a fault and very judgmental (the latter is largely due to her Christian Fundamentalist beliefs, but it extends to her general personality as well). I don’t willingly share any information with her about my life. I honestly can’t recall ever feeling better after talking to her, in part because I’m generally on edge around her for one reason or another..
I hadn’t given it a lot of conscious thought before, but reading your comment I’m realizing that this is one of the reasons I am often hesitant to give a lot of details about some aspects of my life to my dad. He’s definitely an Optimizer, and loves to give “helpful” advice that I think is coming from a good place but just stresses me out a lot.
Yeah, same with my mum. And I haven’t the least doubt that she loves me, to lay-down-her-life extent – but she just has SUCH a history of acting this way over my life choices, and the message it gives is “I do not have confidence in you to make good choices for yourself.”
The sad thing is, the years of me fighting back against this have actually worked, in the sense that she has recognised that this is a legitimate problem of mine and has really tried hard to work on it… but we just have so much history that I can’t get back to a place of feeling comfortable in confiding in her, because keeping my life to myself has become such an ingrained habit. So, basically, we have a pretty superficial relationship. If she actually had had someone to say all this to her when I was in my twenties and had acted on it then… well, maybe things could have been different.
… Oh My God. *blinding light* is there, like, an Archive of stuff about Optimising?
Both my family and my husband’s do this: I refer to it is Working The Problem.
And, of course, in Particularly Tricky News, my family both Optimises and Thinks I Am Dumb As A Stump, so when he or his family does it … yeah we’re working on it.
I think the “Chaos Muppet” question and comments probably has some good info for you. I’m posting from my phone or I’d hunt up the link 🙂
Here you go: https://captainawkward.com/2013/06/07/485-settling-the-chaos-muppet-within/
We did indeed have some great discussions in that thread, I came to some realizations myself after making some comments 🙂
My in-laws are big-time optimizers (although that’s not a dysfunctional family – they’re lovely people) and it always makes me feel like they think I’m Dumb As A Stump, even though I’m pretty sure that’s not actually what they think. But man, needing to justify all your choices all the time is the absolute PITS, and really stressful, especially if you are less than 100% certain of those choices.
Orphen, did your parents do this of their own accord or was it prompted by you? If you had a hand in it, I’d love to know what you did. (PS great advice – definitely takes time to early that kind of trust).
This resonates with me like you wouldn’t believe: “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.”
YES!! That is exactly how I feel with one of my parents (parents are divorced, mom is awesome at listening/not offering advice. Dad is…not. At all.). You put into words exactly how I feel with my father. Thank you, I needed to hear that!
I second all the Cap’s advice. Nothing drives a child away from their parents and into the arms of someone else faster than that parent’s overt disapproval.
Invite the girlfriend to all family gatherings. She’s clearly special to him. If it helps you be gracious, realize that seeing her be a bad fit in your family even though you are all being gracious might make him realize that she’s not a keeper. My sister was dating one of the dumbest men I’d ever met, and it was watching him at family gatherings where he’d check out of the conversation and wander over to the windows and hum Disney tunes to himself when he stopped understanding what people were talking about that made her decide to break up with him. (And lest the Awkwardeers think we were leaving him out of the conversation, we were actually discussing stuff that he studied as his college major in an effort to be inclusive. My favorite quote from him was, as we discussed how they feed the birds at Raptor Rehab–“You mean there are REAL dinosaurs?!?!?”)
This is good advice, but it might backfire! In my case my partner doesn’t fit in that well with my family, but I would still pick him over my dysfunctional family any time.
My brother was once engaged to a woman that no one in my family liked. She wasn’t a terrible person, but she was terrible for HIM–and he was for her, too. They brought out the worst in each other in so many ways, and being around them was always stressful (or at the very least, never fun. They were so wrapped up in their own drama and it was tedious even when it wasn’t outright toxic). The thought of her officially joining our family made us all sigh wearily.
But we sucked it up, because she was his choice. Honestly, we were pretty damn thrilled when they finally called it off, but if they hadn’t, we would have made the best of it. Even if this woman is bad for your son, you can’t force him to see her through your eyes. The more you try to shut her out, the more he’s going to shut YOU out. I completely understand how much it sucks to have to spend holidays and other occasions with someone who sets your teeth on edge, but surely having a relationship with your son is worth it.
As far as concrete advice goes, the Captain definitely nailed it, but: you say she’s phony. Well, okay, I’ll take your word for it–and I’d suggest treating her “phoniness” like it’s sincere and responding in kind. If she compliments you, for example, thank her, even if you suspect the compliment wasn’t genuine. If she boasts about something you think she’s embellishing, just go with it, listen, and ask questions. Sure, it’s all fake, but at least it’s pleasant, and maybe you’ll eventually become more comfortable with each other and come to know her better.
LW, a lot of people are telling you that if you force the issue, your son will likely choose the girlfriend over you. And it’s probably true! I just wanted to say, not to react badly to the way this sounds–I know that the impulse, on hearing some girl your son has only known for a year or so has somehow “won out” over you, may be to hate and resent her even more–“how could this girl convince my son that he loves her more than me without it being some kind of manipulation”. But that’s not what we’re saying. When he chooses his girlfriend, it’s not about who he loves more: you or her. (we don’t know who he may love more if anyone, its nobody’s business but his, and really, is it a competition? they’re different kinds of love). I mean, love is part of it. But the other big part of it is AGENCY. He is having adult relationships. The agency to be in those relationships, to succeed or to fail at them, is a part of his life that is entirely his own, and that is a line that MUST be defended. It’s the right to control his own life. If you threaten the right to control his own life, you WILL lose, every time. The right to choose his own partners is a big part of that. Trying to sway his decision through parental disapproval will be seen as a form of control, and will be reacted against.
Yes! This is a very good point. If it were the romantic partner threatening to separate their partner from partner’s family, you could see the same thing. It’s not “Girlfriend >> Parent” it’s “Non-controlling >> Controlling”
Exactly! I’d also like to add that if a parent draws a line in the sand between kid+SO and the rest of the family, they are also providing kid+SO with an external source of drama to struggle against TOGETHER. When you do that, you are making them feel like a stronger team to each other and distracting them from the actual problems they have in their relationship.
Yep. One of my friends dated the Worst Boy all through high school because her parents pulled this schtick. She couldn’t give him up without giving in to them.
It also works in reverse! I was once in a serious relationship with someone my entire family loathed like poison. Apparently my mother sat everyone down and told them that they were going to be PERFECTLY CIVIL AND POLITE AT ALL TIMES, because if they were not, I was going to kick over the traces and run off and marry him. (I would have, it’s true.)
No one said a word against him. Everyone acted as though he was just perfect and included him in everything. This was probably the only time in recorded history that my family ever managed to do anything without anyone breaking and Doing The Thing, which is probably a testament to how wrong that guy was for me, and how scared they were that I’d run off with him.
But there wasn’t anything for me to struggle against, and no face I felt I had to save, so when I figured out it was wrong for me, I could end it without having to do something like — tell my family “you were right”, or be embarrassed, or whatever.
In short, treating your adult son like a young child will never turn out well.
To give another perspective from the adult child’s side:
My mother could have written almost this letter (with the genders reversed) roughly ten years ago. She did not, not, NOT like my then-fiance, whom she insisted on referring to as “Cheshire’s boyfriend”. Not one little bit. When she was in our city on business, she took me out drinking to tell me all the reasons that she did not like him. I handled it less-than-well, really.
In retrospect, I would say she actually had a valid point and was telling me things I didn’t want to hear (but needed to realize) for perhaps slightly more than half of what she had to say. The other half was pure, unadulterated, contempt for someone she felt was “beneath” me – younger, less educated, working a low-level job – mixed in with a heaping fail-scoop of “if YOU lost weight, you could do better than HIM!”
We got married anyway. She asked people in my wedding party (including my ex-girlfriend-turned-BFF, who was another relationship partner she Strongly Disapproved Of) if they really, REALLY, thought I was making an OK decision. BFF was not the fondest of Spouse at the time, either, but had decided “he makes Cheshire happy, I’m going to suck it up and be civil and at least TRY to find things to like about him” and pointed out the “he makes Cheshire happy” part of that to my mother.
A few months after we got married, my birth control failed and FirstKid was on her way. Suddenly, because “being a good father” was a huge motivator for him, Spouse found his motivation to actually Deal With the 50% of actual valid complaints contained in my mother’s tirade the night we went out for drinks. The process of Dealing With mental health issues, realizing that your “strict and conservative” adoptive parents were actually abusive as all fuck and someone damn well should have let child welfare know what was going on, that the reason you were adopted in the first place is that your severely disabled twin sister was probably a shaken baby, and then discovering that there were physical health issues contributing to the mental health issues is a long and bumpy road. He’s still on it, as I am with my own mental and physical health struggles.
We keep each other on it. I often say that Spouse and I keep each other patched together so that at least one of us can pose as “Responsible Adult” at any given time. It’s not easy (she writes, as she recovers from another go-around with a skin infection and Spouse fights off bronchitis plus an allergic reaction to an antibiotic). But I have to say that I’m doing better with Spouse than I would be without him – that is virtually a certainty.
And my mother is still disappointed in both of us, though she’s warmed up to Spouse considerably because my kick-ass 97-year-old grandmother ADORES him, and he in turn chose her name to be the middle name of SecondKid. We haven’t done well enough in our careers/education, we aren’t fiscally responsible enough, we aren’t clean enough. Oh, and I’m fat fat fatty fatastrophe, which is obvious visible proof of how irresponsible I am *sigh*, which is probably made worse by Spouse because he cooks amazing delicious food. Then again, she’s disappointed in most of the world, these days, and how irresponsible and lazy everyone supposedly is now, and I think she’s mostly disappointed that I don’t agree with her disappointment and point to systemic problems. (I’m a social worker, what do you want?)
I guess what I’m trying to say, LW, is that you probably HAVE valid points about your son’s girlfriend (though less so if it’s all secondhand info from your son’s old roommate), and I don’t want to discount that. But just because you’re right about some of it doesn’t mean that she is and will remain a “terrible influence”. Also, EVERYTHING the Captain said about “low-level” jobs. The job market is still terrible, and even though I moved to my current location for a job offer that was as much as my spouse and I made combined in our previous location, Spouse still couldn’t find a job that paid well enough to justify daycare, so he combined a slow slog through college (and now grad school) with being the primary parent. The handful of jobs he’s held have been short-term “low level” or self-employment gigs. It’s rough out there in job-search land.
My story is the other side of the coin:
I got married when I was 24, and it was a mistake. Neither of us was ready, and we were an exceedingly bad match. We divorced after 2 years.
My mother didn’t think my ex was a bad person, but she knew in her bones that the marriage wouldn’t last. She actually referred to him as my “first husband” to her friends while the wedding planning was going on.
I had absolutely no clue about her disapproval, and that made ALL of the difference in our relationship.
She helped me plan my wedding, including making some of the “required” gee gaws by hand. She helped pay for the wedding too. She was warm and gracious to him when we visited–there was never, ever a whiff of disapproval or “X isn’t welcome.” There were a couple of times when we got in a financial bind where she helped out. I got the occasional, “Are you happy?” question, but she never once implied that she didn’t trust my judgement.
When I reached a point where I could admit that 1) the marriage was a mistake and that 2) I was more unhappy with the idea of staying than I was with the idea of being divorced at 26, she was the first person I turned to.
When I decided I was done, I showed up unannounced at her house and stayed the whole weekend. She let me spill my guts and just listened. She asked what I needed help with. At the end of the weekend, she finally admitted her misgivings about the relationship, and I was stunned. I asked her why she didn’t say anything before I married him. She arched an eyebrow at me and asked, “Would you have listened?” I admitted that I probably would not have listened. I spent the drive back to my town wondering just how much it cost my mom emotionally to stand by and watch me make such a big mistake, and feeling really, really lucky that she loved and trusted me that much.
We had a fractious relationship when I was in high school and my first two years of college, but her action in this matter showed me that she really meant it when she said she just wanted me to be happy and that I could trust her when Shit Got Real. We ended up becoming close friends, and she was my first-choice confidant from then until the day she died.
This is beautiful. Your mom sounds like she was an amazing person – thanks for sharing this bit of her with us.
That was lovely. I have such a broken relationship with my mother that I don’t even know what a healthy mother-daughter relationship would even look like.
I literally don’t have any concept of what that might be like. No frame of reference. It’s like a number so big I can’t hold it in my head. I loved her. I love her still, even though she is dead, but . . . it was so goddamned broken.
I’m sorry you know the feeling, person I have never met. I hope you have lovely people in your life to be there for you now.
I admittedly don’t, in part because I recently relocated overseas, but also because I just…don’t Plenty of people like me, but I’m not particularly close to anyone, not anymore.
On Facebook, a friend of mine recently posted:
“Sometimes it’s much easier to know for sure when you’re on your own, so you can adjust your mental and emotional reserve accordingly from the start.”
And I replied:
“Honestly, that’s something I told myself when I first moved here. I have no friends in this city and my relationship with my family is iffy at best. I do know people here now though, but definitely no one I’d feel comfortable asking for legitimate help.”.
But maybe someday. It’s not over til it’s over 🙂
How interesting you’re friend’s comment! I have just been thinking that is one of the reasons I go into hermit mode from time to time. There are a lot of parallels between your family of origin and mine, and I find myself working through some of the same things.
Because I absolutely could not rely on my family for healthy help, I tended to be someone who tried to deal with everything on my own. Now, I do have a couple of friends that I feel like I could ask for legitimate help, and the last time stuff really got bad, I did take a risk of letting in friends with whom I felt safe (while also cutting out the people I was afraid would only offer me a lot of pot and booze plus do the snarky enabling things like my family’s signature behaviors).
Sometimes we take the emotional risks and find out that they’re not up to our trust, but sometimes they are. I do know when you take the time to adjust you mental and emotional reserve, you can actually find that you have a reserve that allows you to be more safely vulnerable, so I have no doubt you will have that someday.
This is a l’il bit (a lot) of a topic jack. But. My family is a military family and we grew up moving a lot. And then we’ve all kept on moving a lot through adulthood. My Mater’s observation to you about the place you are in is:
1) It takes till Christmas. Which is to say, the military moves you in summer, and it takes 6 months to get your feet under you and adjust to the new place you are living and the people you are living with.
2) It takes till the next Christmas to start to see that sort of “who can you count on for ….” network establish itself. Being independent and self-sufficient is great! And necessary! But over time you will pick up that other kind of support. It just takes a lot of time to make a family network where there isn’t family, you know?
3) She asked my Pater to request a second tour of duty overseas rather than be returned to the US in order to avoid her own mother. My grandma did her best to be loving, but she was kind of a wreck at it, especially when her daughters made the kinds of supposedly terrible choices my mom made. (Grandma didn’t like my dad, to start with.) So she knows from realizing there are limits to what a parent can offer you and how far you can trust them.
ANYWAY. Point is, I hear you about the “networks of support, how do they work” issue. I hope things follow the Takes Till Christmas pattern for you, too.
Astral: I’ve had a rough couple of years, in part because of certain relationships and the way they panned out, so I definitely need to find that balance of “allowing myself to be vulnerable” while “protecting myself from the wrong people.”
#1, I’ve heard about — and have also experienced — this “6 month rule” to which you’re referring. I live in Madrid, I have been here about 3 months and have had a *rough* start. I’m currently in Spain more-or-less indefinitely. 2 years ago I lived in Seville, I was there almost 7 months (and I’m currently there now, for Christmas vacation!). Around the 6-month mark was when Seville **really** started to feel like home, even though certain things regarding my finances and documentation fell apart soon after. But yeah, even though I’ve had a pretty rough time thus far, and I honestly don’t think I will like Madrid as much as Seville (Honestly, no one I know who has lived in Madrid and at least one other Spanish city prefers Madrid. NO ONE.) I think it’s just a matter of time until things pull together a bit better.
#2: I hope so. I think my main issue is being more comfortable with the fact that most (if not all) relationships have a shelf life, to a degree. I’ve never really had a particularly long-lasting close relationship as an adult. To an extent, I figure that’s just part of growing up: friends grow apart if they don’t leave your life entirely, and since I don’t have a particularly good relationship with my family, I’ve never really had that sense of love, stability, security, and acceptance that usually comes with having a decent familial unit.
#3: Sadly, being thousands of miles away is indeed needed to give myself some breathing room and to try to set some firm boundaries.
Thank you all for your input 🙂
Christ, I wish my mother had been half the woman your mother was. I wouldn’t have been so lost or so hurt, maybe. Maybe I would have had the courage to do the things I should have done much sooner.
I am so grateful you had that. So grateful. It is genuinely wonderful to know that it is possible for relationships like that to exist.
She sounds like a hell of a woman. The very best.
She really was a hell of a woman, but she was by no means perfect.
We had some rough times when I was growing up–she was an alcoholic who quit drinking when I was 17. There was some bad emotional shit that I went through while she was drinking, basically me spending several years raising myself (neglect, not abuse). We spent my senior year in high school seriously butting heads because she suddenly wanted to be in charge of my life again and I WAS NOT HAVING IT.
Once we got some distance when I went to college, we were able to patch things up really well. It went a LONG way that she never tried to gloss over the realities of what life was like when she was drinking, and (after my senior year of high school) she never tried to arbitrarily declare that everything was suddenly OK (i.e. “Things are all better now, why do you keep bringing that up?”). It also went a LONG way that she always had my back.
“I asked her why she didn’t say anything before I married him. She arched an eyebrow at me and asked, “Would you have listened?””
This is what my BFF said to me when I decided to divorce my first husband. “I wanted to warn you but I knew you wouldn’t listen.” She stood up as my MOH anyway. She’s always right, darn her.
I experienced something a little like that. After a bad relationship where some of my friends said “Are you sure you want this?” and I said “Yeah it’s worth it” and then realised it wasn’t, now I try to check in with my friends. They didn’t push the issue when I said it was worth it, and they were there to support me when I changed my mind, so I know I can talk to them about these things in the future without being judged.
My BFF has made some not great boyfriend choices. After an especially bad breakup, I started responding to “what do you think of thus and such person?” with “it is not relevant what I think. I am playing on your team, and I want you to be happy. If he makes you happy, whether I like him or not doesn’t figure.” I won’t tell her if I like the guy as much as I won’t say if I don’t like him. I can’t validate the relationship into a good one if it isn’t, or vice versa.
And I am relentlessly cheerful and polite to her dude-friends whether I like them or not because dude, who cares if I enjoy his company? It’s not like I have to live with him.
I just figured… she does what she is going to do. And rather than say “I like/don’t like him” I say “how do you feel about the fact that he…” Or “that thing he did for you seemed really thoughtful.” Or “if… happens then what will you do/say about…”
I guess I focus on specific behaviors rather than character assessments? And make it a lot of observational statements followed by “what does this mean for you?” questions.
As a result I think I hear a lot of things, which is fine. It means a lot to me that she doesn’t ask for me to provide something I can’t, and that she is okay with me basically just saying “well what do you think? How do you feel?”
I figure bad boyfriends come and go, and it is not worth my being right about them to her face, at the cost of our friendship.
I think you’ve really reached an important conclusion when you say you focus on behaviours rather than character. I know arguable one consists of the other, but it’s a totally different way of looking at a situation and so much more productive. Thanks so much for putting it this way.
If it’s conditional to love a comment that uses the expression ‘gee gaws’, the conditions have bet met. 😉
My story is a different aspect of the same thing…
My mom didn’t say anything against my ex and was pleasant to him, and when it was over she listened to me, and said similarly, “would you have listened”/”I didn’t want to drive you away”.
But, that’s the only thing (that I can remember) where she didn’t tell me I was over-reacting.
So, even though she handled that one “right”, she absolutely does not get to be my confidante, even in the one situation she seems to think it’s ok to get upset about (namely, being dumped), because I can’t trust her to not pick and choose what I’m allowed to be upset about or by how much or for how long. Or to tell other family members, but that’s a different issue.
LW, I sympathize. I really do. My BFF is dating someone who is probably not a good fit for her. Our entire friend group gives him the big ol’ side eye. He is manipulative, and not very warm, and generally someone we would very much rather that she not date.
She loves him a lot. (We don’t understand why.) They’re probably going to get married, if he ever gets around to proposing. We have all determined that we will say nothing.
Because here’s the thing that I have learned: you can say, “Don’t date that person! They are not right for you! They are a terrible human being!” And you might be right. It’s entirely possible that your son’s girlfriend is not good for him, and it would be better if he had never met her. But he’s with her right now. He might be with her for a long time. And you will have to make a decision about how important it is for you to a) spend time with your son, even if he insists on bringing GF with him for every visit, and b) how important it is to be able to be there for your son if/when things go terribly wrong.
The thing I have learned is that people generally do not take their problems to people who will say “I told you so,” at the first sign of trouble. There are things I didn’t tell my parents because of this reason. And I want to be the person that my BFF calls up and says, “Dude, shit just got real and I don’t even know what I’m doing.” I want to be that person today. I want to be that person ten years from now if they’re married and have kids.
Right now, you see your son making a terrible decision, and you want to protect him as much as possible, and that makes you a good mom. My mom would go to war for me, and I absolutely love her for it. But your son is also an adult, and you cannot protect him from his own heart, and right now, his heart is with his GF. The best thing you can do is to try and make room in your heart for her. He sees something in her that you don’t. I would echo the Captain’s advice: ask him what he sees. What drew him to her? Ask honestly, because you want to know the answer. Try to see her through his eyes. If she is really a terrible human being, trust that you raised him right, and that he will eventually see that for himself. And if you can’t do that, ensure that he trusts your love, so he can fall back on his parents if things go south.
I agree you can’t ever say “don’t date that person!”, but I did find a way of sort of raising misgivings with one of my best friends. I never really got the point of her boyfriend, and she was also kind of stuck in a pattern where she was more comfortable moaning about him than saying positive stuff about him. Not major issues, but things like, “not that he’d ever do the cooking!” or “oh, I’d like to, but he’d never want to spend that much money, so…” Stuff that could be red flags, or could just be the small stuff that that individual person is happy to compromise on because the big stuff works. So when she got engaged to him we went out for a drink and I said, “You know, I don’t feel like I know enough about M! You tend to complain about him and I don’t know him that well, so come one! Tell me what’s lovely about him!” And she lit up and went, “awwwww, he’s LOVELY!” and enthused about him for the next five minutes, She listed all these things that totally wouldn’t have been significant in my list of What I Want In A Partner, but which were obviously really important to her. It was a lovely conversation, and made me feel much happier for her.
Awwww… I love this!
Yes! This is brilliant! Friends can definitely raise concerns/doubts about significant others, you just have to be kind in how you go about it. Parents can too, but they have to be extra careful, because the power dynamic involved complicates things.
Conversely, my college roommate was actually the one who made the comment that caused me to end things with my emotionally abisive boyfriend. I was crying over some fight, and probably moaning about him to her, and she had been very quiet and good to listen, which was the norm for her, and then she simply asked, “Are you guys ever happy with each other?” She almost immediately tried to soften the blow with some placations like, “I mean, you’ve just been fighting a lot. And you’ve been crying some lately.” But it was the question, coupled with the fact that she had never said a word against him up to that moment, that stopped me dead in my tracks. Because the answer was a pretty emphatic no. It was simple, but I had been so busy, incidentally, fighting with my mother over him and justifying him to her, that I had forgotten to take stock of my own feelings on the matter. I ended things the next day, but I waited a few days to tell my mother because hearing the relief in her voice over something that had made me so sad sounded like the worst thing ever.
“Are you ever happy with each other” is a good line. She raised the question, but you owned the answer. Much better than “You’re never happy with each other and therefore should break up.”
Exactly. I had been fighting against people who had been telling me that for months – my mother specifically, whose main issue with him was that she had busted us spending the night together, never mind that he’d manipulated me into every single sexual encounter we’d had – and never once had anyone asked a non-rhetorical question of me or bothered to hear my experience in the relationship prior to giving their opinion. I had spent seven months on the defensive at that point, and hearing someone who hadn’t yet voiced her opinion (and how she’d avoided it up to that point, I have no idea, because we were fighting constantly, and he made me miserable) ask me to explain something so fundamental to a relationship (happy/unhappy) was like having cold water thrown on me in my sleep. It wasn’t pleasant, but I sure was awake.
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.
LW, I very much hope you are reading — there’s a ton of good advice here already, but I wanted to highlight the above sentence because it was such an eye-opener to me. You could have written, “we have stopped all flow of cash to him, because we don’t want to enable a relationship we fear is dysfunctional,” or “we have stopped all flow of cash to him, hoping he will be motivated to become more financially independent.” But you didn’t write either of those things. What you did write, and I don’t know if you even realize it, amounts to this: that you hope your actions will lead your son to fail at something (his living situation and relationship).
Please think about that, for starters. (And about the ramifications of intentionally using money or the lack thereof to manipulate another person — as opposed to using money to help said person, or the lack thereof to motivate them to stand on their own two feet.)
Wow. Re-reading this sentence makes me utter a dozen of very very unkind words: To be as blunt as possible – this is very serious abuse.
It’s not the act in itself but the sick motivation behind it. LW, you are knowingly making your son suffer to get the outcome you desire.
Get help. Now.
(@CA: could we get a trigger warning for emotional abuse on this post? Thanks!)
Yes yes yes. Motivation can change everything. A close friend of mine has wonderful supportive parents who cut her off financially when she moved in with her boyfriend. She was fine with it because the reason was “if you’re mature enough to live with your partner you’re mature enough to pay your own bills.” The action is the same, the motivation is very very different.
I wonder if you’ve thought about why you want to sabotage his relationship and living situation? What if you took him at his word, and assumed that he gets something wonderful and meaningful from his relationship, even if you can’t see what that might be. Something about her makes him happy. Something about them, together, makes him smile. Why would you try to destroy that?
This this this.
My parents stopped paying for me when I was a senior in college, probably at least in part because I was living with my then-boyfriend (now husband). It was a mutual decision, and we were both cool with it. I don’t think it’s abusive to decide that you don’t want send cash to your adult child–whether because you’re afraid he’s going to spend it on drugs, or because you think he’s becoming an irresponsible mooch, or because you don’t have very much to spare, or whatever.
But when your explicitly stated motivation is to break up his relationship…that’s really fucked up. It’s fucked up because it’s controlling, and it’s fucked up because it only actually works if he needs the help in the first place.
Ah, yes, it’s always so nice when parents hold money over their kids’ heads in order to manipulate them into “starting over”; read: “doing what they want.”
And by nice I mean, you know, emotionally abusive.
I’m sorry, but I really cannot say anything constructive about this letter. There are too many red flags and too many places that hit home for why I don’t talk to my parents anymore. LW, please stop everything you are currently doing regarding your son and take the advice you’ve been given here. Your son isn’t the one who needs to change. You are.
This hit close to home for me also…but for different reasons. So I’m hoping someone or even the Captain can lend a few words.
Me and my sister were very close even when growing up, despite a big age gap. She lives overseas and brought home her fiancé this one time. He made a shitty first impression, but that I can deal with. No, after they went back, he texted me with love confessions. I rebuffed him immediately and told my mother. Both of us no longer want to see him again ever, and mum set the condition that if she comes back home with him she’s not going to go out if her way to accommodate sister’s fiancé. Since then we’ve lost a lot of contact with my sister. Can’t reach her online or on the phone and greeting cards don’t get acknowledged.
I hate her fiancé about as much as I can hate someone, but…they’re still a couple and obviously he makes her happy somehow, and she deserves to be happy as much as I deserve my peace of mind. My mom already considers her “lost”, which upsets her greatly, but I don’t know if I should also start to resign myself to the fact that I may not have a sister any more.
TL;DR – how does a sister of someone like the LW’s kid cope in situations like this?
Anon4Reasons, is your sister being isolated from other people? Is she still in contact with any of her pre-fiance friends? Are they in contact with her?
Did you tell your sister about her fiance’s text to you? If not, you should. If she doesn’t believe you and shuts you out, that’s a bad sign. (Did you save the text?) Please don’t keep secrets for assholes.
You say that you’ve lost contact, but I can’t tell if your sister has rebuffed you or if she doesn’t even know that you’re calling and sending cards. If your sister has a workplace, have you tried to contact her there?
Thneed, I have to check about the first paragraph…and the workplace number. But yes, she knows, and when I showed her the messages the last time I saw her, she believed me – I kept that old phone with the messages on them specifically for that purpose.
Ew creepy. This guy sounds nasty. Unfortunately I think the Captain’s advice still holds, in this post and the Darth Vader boyfriend stuff. You can’t make your sister ditch Darth and the more you try the more she’ll shut you out.
You can definitely set boundaries with how he behaves to you, and if you don’t feel safe around him that definitely includes him not being in your house. But other than that it’s up to your sister.
If she’s deliberately said “don’t talk to me” or something like it then you just need to step back and hope she comes around. If this guy is such a creep hopefully she realises and leaves him. But if you’re just getting nothing at all it might be worth checking that she’s still in touch with other people, just to make sure she’s OK and hasn’t genuinely disappeared. My guess is that she’s refusing contact deliberately but I suppose you never know and living overseas with a creeper boyfriend is a pretty vulnerable situation.
Also, when you do reach out what is the tone of the letters and messages? Is it full of judgement and anger and recrimination or is it just “we want to hear from you – how are you going?” Because an escalating series of angry letters isn’t going to get her to reach out. If you guys have been sending those maybe leave it for a few months and then reach out again with an entirely different (friendly and not mentioning Darth) tone.
Wow, that got a lot of flack. Dear LW, sorry to say I am in most points with CW but I can imagine how you feel. It’s a pain to have someone at supposedly happy family gatherings that you don’t like and who ruins the whole event for you. But think about your son. When that’s a big gathering, likely there are people there whom he doesn’t like. There’s always the one oddball uncle or the cousin who threw lego at him when he was a kid and hasn’t improved his manners since. But he copes. He always coped. He went with you to the gatherings as a child, and he went as an adult, and you never even questioned if he liked it or not. Well, maybe he even did.
He’s a grown man. You’ve done everything right to get him there. He grew up to have a job, he’s attractive and socially competent enough to get a partner who loves him, What better could you wish for? That he still bases his decisions on consultations with you? For as long as you live? That’s not what you raised him to, did you?
As for the financial support: Again, he’s an adult with a job. It’s ok to cut support *because he is a grown man and has a job*. Don’t make it conditional. Either support him or don’t. If you think he’s spending the money on drugs, you may feel better with not supporting him. I’m sure he’ll manage. And it may be a good thing that he has to. It makes you grow up pretty fast.
I hope you find a way to accept your son’s gf for as long as it lasts because right now he loves her and you love him. Try to tell yourself if he’s happy so are you. If she’s really that bad, he’ll get rid of her sooner or later. Don’t hold your breath, though 🙂
I’ve only gotten through about half the comments, but this strikes some personal chords for me, so I wanted to share.
LW, first I want to offer some sympathy or empathy or whatever it is — because I know how frightening and overwhelming it is to watch someone you love start committing their life to someone that you’re not sure about or have enormous negative feelings about. Like: this person I love (my brother, my best friend — I’m not a parent) is fucking AWESOME and I love them so much and I want only the absolute best for them, and I’m frightened that they’re picking someone who doesn’t really match what they want or who won’t treat them well because they don’t think they deserve better. My best friend started her first-ever Serious Business relationship last year, and I have to fight the urge to call the dude and scream at him when he does something that hurts her feelings — because HOW DARE HE not know that this person I love is the MOST FUCKING IMPORTANT PERSON EVER? HOW DARE HE not be dancing with gratefulness that this person I love ALLOWED HIM INTO HER LIFE?
I think that we feel extra angry, sometimes, when we see our beloveds enter into bad or less-than-perfect relationships, because this new person’s lack of tenderness and care is like a huge insult to OUR love. “I would stay awake until two AM on the night before a presentation so that I could talk this person through a rough spot, and you can’t be bothered to return her call? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?” I can only imagine that as a parent it would be worse, because you literally poured years of your life into making sure the person they’re trampling all over would be a happy, productive, good person.
But that being said.
You know what kids learn from judgmental parenting? In my experience, they learn exactly one thing:
“If I fuck up, I will no longer be loved or worth loving.”
My parents took a “strong stand” about premarital sex, dating too early, and any number of other things they don’t approve of. The end result was not that I ended up in a healthy relationship with a dude with a great job and stellar good looks. The end result was that I was so afraid of making a mistake that I have never dated anyone ever. The end result is that I couldn’t afford to take risks that might make me happy, because I knew if I screwed up I wouldn’t be supported. The end result is that I don’t talk to them except in the most general of terms when I’m having a hard time, because I heard and internalized how nasty they were about other family members or friends who trusted the wrong people or made the wrong choices.
The end result is also that I live 4000+ miles away from my parents, even though we have a pretty decent and loving relationship. It’s very lonely and often scary but that’s about how much distance I feel I need to be safe from judgment for taking risks — sometimes stupid ones.
The truth is that I actually have a really good relationship with my parents, but even given that having a cloud of judgment floating around in the background does real harm. Even if your kid never makes obviously “poor” choices, feeling like they are being judged all the time does so much damage.
This really hits close to home for me.
Assuming LW is correct about everything, or at least on the right track, she is essentially in the same position my parents were in a few years ago. I was dating someone who was awful for me, treated me like shit, encouraged all of my worst habits, influenced me to make decisions about my future that benefited the relationship and not my own well-being, and to top it all off this was at a time when I really couldn’t afford to be doing that. My education and finances are still feeling the effects.
And honestly? My parents had seen it all coming. They were totally right about this asshole, and they and my friends tried for years to tell me he wasn’t worth it. But I didn’t want to hear it, so… I didn’t listen.
And to be perfectly frank, LW, your son probably doesn’t want to hear it either. Moreover, chances are he already knows everything you have to say on some level, and has thought about it far more than you might think. If the girlfriend really isn’t that bad, then the concerned friends and family will come off as micromanaging dicks, and if she is that bad, then you’ll come off that way anyhow because that relationship won’t end until someone in it makes the decision.
And it can be tough, I know. When I was being abused, one of my friends started a diary to get out all her feelings about it (on a Word document that stayed on her password-protected computer), and several of them ranted about my Darth while I wasn’t there. It helped them deal with it while being respectful of my feelings. My parents were a lot more obvious about their disapproval, so I avoided the topic around them.
Because the thing that really helped the most was that these people liked me even if I made bad decisions or dated someone they didn’t care for. I could hang around them and not feel incredibly awkward or unacceptable. I later gained that trust with my parents, too, but it was pretty damaged from a few years when all they would talk about with me was my grades (and how I Should Be Doing Better).
And that’s really what helped me get out of the bad relationship in the end: there were people around me who loved me, liked me and accepted me, and they showed me what that looked like.
LW, if you think your son is being treated badly, the best thing to do is treat him really, really well. It’ll be harder for Potential Darth to drive a wedge between you, it’ll make your son feel safe coming to you when he WANTS job/relationship/life advice, and if everything turns out to be fine, it’ll let him know that you’re always on his side and your relationship will be that much stronger.
LW, you’ve gotten a lot of replies from people whose parents were wrong about their partners. Parents who objected to partners who were fundamentally good, caring, and loving, even if they had flaws. I want to share with you the perspective of someone whose parents were right.
I had a boyfriend in college who my parents hated on first sight. They were outright rude to him when we visited them, said nasty hateful things about him to me, enlisted my sisters in calling and emailing me imploring me to break up with him, threatened to stop helping with college tuition, the works. And here’s the thing, it didn’t just make me feel like they hated my then-bf, it made me feel like they didn’t like, respect, or value me. There were other life choices I made then that my parents objected to (I didn’t choose the major they wanted me to choose, I was making Bs and Cs instead of As, I changed my religion which really pissed them off) and the overall effect of all their judgmentalness was that I distanced myself from them emotionally.
And here’s the thing, they were right about the boyfriend, kind of — their objections were that he was in the wrong major and wouldn’t make a lot of money after graduation and that his hobbies were weird. Both those things turned out to be true, but a) that didn’t and doesn’t matter to me and b) that was so very much NOT the reason he was a really bad decision. He isolated me from my friends, deliberately sabatoged my academic performance, and raped me. It was horrible and took me the better part of a year to get out. I stayed with him longer than I wanted to because he was supporting me financially. By withdrawing financial help my parents actually made the abusive shitty rapey relationship last longer because I was still dependent, just on shitty rapist ex-bf instead of on them. And because they had already proven that they cared more about my having the picture perfect life they imagined for me than about my actual wellbeing, I couldn’t trust them to not react in ways that would only hurt me more if I told them about what was going down with ex-bf.
And twelve years later, I still don’t trust my parents. First because their objections to my ex-bf were “He has the wrong major” and “He won’t make lots of money” instead of “He treats you badly and we are worried about you and want you to be safe and happy.” And second because instead of asking me what I saw in ex-bf and compassionately sharing their concerns, they just humiliated both him and me.
I am so sorry that happened to you. Jedi hugs if you want them. 😦
wow this entire thread has made me think so much…thank you all… I am the mother of an 18 year old daughter, she is loved and she knows deep into the marrow of her bones that she is loved. But I realise from a lot of the posts here that I am doing some stuff wrong. She is an adult and it is time for me to stop trying to manage and direct some of her choices, I try not to do it much, as I know that to do so is disempowering, but it is still too much…for example
I struggle with my weight and she is a little overweight too, but I don’t need to question what she eats, she knows how to eat and cook healthfully, I realise from reading this thread that to question her in these ways, implies that ‘Momma knows best’..and I don’t. It is her life and she is wise, wonderful and amazing and in addition to knowing that she is loved, she needs to know-more- she needs to know(repeatedly) that I trust her.
LW maybe that is one of the key points in all of the messages you have gotten here. Let your son know that you trust him…even if you disapprove, trusting him means that you believe that you brought him up in the best way possible. I guess the difficulty is that you don’t appear to trust him, because to you it looks like he is screwing up..but maybe his life is exactly as he wants it…maybe it will be a different life tomorrow,
but in the meantime if you want to stay in it, you need to be who he needs you to be, rather than trying to make him be the person that you feel he should be.
Good on you for taking this advice to heart. And please please please, from a fat daughter whose normal-to-skinny weight parents only gave up ragging on her about her weight very recently, don’t rag on your child about her weight. Trust that she can make healthy eating and exercise decisions. Because stuff like that is REAL painful.
The stupid thing is M Dubz, I know that pain!…because my own mom still ‘gently’ hints to me about my own weight. I guess I rationalised it in my own head because I never ragged my daughter about being overweight, but instead I criticised her food choices..because didn’t want my daughter heading down my path, but reading this board, I have realised that no matter how gentle or subtle I am, the subtext is still the same…’i don’t trust you to make wise choices for yourself’ and the reality is that I do, I do trust my daughter because she rocks…
I realise that it is a negative habit that is a hangover from when she was much smaller, where i had to manage what she ate…she is old enough now to be wise for herself.
I know what you mean.
I have a grown child and three who are considerably younger. I don’t comment much here, but I read a lot and get those *ding* moments frequently: I have done this badly, I am doing okay here, the way I handled this difficult thing was great, but I definitely need to stop doing that other thing immediately. It helps so much. My relationship with my eldest has long been fraught but we’re doing better lately and some of the reason for that improvement has to do with the growth in me which has occurred form reading here. I’ll never be a perfect mom, but damn, I can always, always strive to do better.
So thanks, Captain and the Awkwardeers.
I know what you mean about learning from this blog. I have definitely changed my own behaviour and ways of interacting because of it.
Anyway…when you question what your daughter eats, you’re calling her fat. It’s not only about her having the ability to make decisions about her own weight and food choices, it’s that every time you say that you’re implicitly saying “you are overweight and should be dieting”.
It’s something my mother still does to me at the age of 36, and for the longest time it shredded my self esteem. It’s been very difficult to step away from a fat shaming attitude and learn to love my body and do fun things with it (by fun I don’t just mean sexy times, also sports and outdoor activities and dancing at parties and such).
yes, you are completely right, it is the the implict message that I hadn’t realised that I was giving…and you are right, it does shred the self-esteem, I am 46 and my mother at 83, still is completely focused on my weight…
isn’t it funny how we can be so blind to what we do, and yet see so clearly what others do to us. Which is why I love this blog so much, I can recognise the things that I am doing OK on, but also see clearly the things that I have been blind to.
Society is weirdly focused on fat too, particularly for women, so it’s not a surprise so many people internalise that.
I have a few behaviours myself that I used to have in relationships that I look back on and cringe. I wish I’d started reading something like this as a teenager. This blog, and some wider reading (usually recommended here) has made me a much better person, even aside from giving me tools to deal with other people’s weirdness.
“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.”
THIS THIS THIS! I am the child in this situation. My partner and I are getting married. I am fed up with hearing from my mother that we will end up getting divorced, that I am making the wrong decision, that he’s lazy and will make my life harder. It’s put me in the situation that although I want to have a warm relationship with my parents, it is reduced to the bear minimum. I don’t feel I can cut them out of my life because I don’t want to hurt them, but I struggle so much with this disapproval and constant criticism.
It also adds stress to my relationship with my partner – when I am genuinely having a tough time in the relationship my mum’s attitude makes the whole thing harder to take. I don’t want the relationship to end because of my mother’s actions; that’s just not fair on my partner. But whenever I actually have a problem with my partner which is related to my mother’s criticisms I get really anxious. Is it her nagging which is making me feel this way? Is it genuine? Is the relationship doomed? What happens if I end the relationship? – how is my mum going to treat me?
I can see that my mum, and the LW, are in a difficult position. They feel they have very good reasons for not approving of their child’s choice of partner and they feel a need to express this to their children for their children’s benefit. But there is a good chance you are just pushing your child away, putting them in a position where they, on some level, have to choose between parents and partners.
(Apologies, I haven’t read the other comments so sorry if I’m repeating things – I just had to get this off my chest).
But whenever I actually have a problem with my partner which is related to my mother’s criticisms I get really anxious. Is it her nagging which is making me feel this way? Is it genuine? Is the relationship doomed? What happens if I end the relationship? – how is my mum going to treat me?
OMG ALL OF THE THIS.
Ten years ago, I was very much where you are.
And as it turned out, my mother was right, and Spouse does have mental health problems. Problems that were worsened because he was taught that “mental illness” is really demonic possession. And this worsened further because he had lied to me (and by extension, to my mother) about some aspects of his background – to conceal a past psychiatric hospitalization that was the true reason he left the military, because those were the Worst Thing In The World.
My mother realized that he was lying, but not why. This was…not a thing I wanted to hear. I finally came upon indisputable evidence he was lying, and he told me the truth.
My reaction? “FOR FUCK’S SAKE, WHY DID YOU NOT JUST TELL ME THAT! IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL!”
…yeah, I could have handled that one better, too. I was a lot less aware of my own privilege at the time, to have been raised by middle-class parents and NOT in an abusive cult. It didn’t make the lie okay, exactly, but it made it understandable and forgivable, and we got through it.
I very much want the relationship to stand or fall on its own merits, not from the outside pressure of my mum trying to control my decisions.
Of course my mum isn’t entirely wrong. There is truth in much of what she says, but there is a bigger picture and some of that is that I am not the person she wants me to be, and hence what I want from a partner is different to what she wants for me. And there is also the fact that it is just not her place to push me into making certain decisions. The thing is I really think she doesn’t realise that’s what she’s doing. I think she thinks she is genuinely trying to help and doing the right thing by being polite to my partner’s face even if she regularly tells me I shouldn’t marry him.
On the other hand if I talk to one of my friends about the flaws which my mum keeps talking about, instead we talk about compromise and communication in the relationship, not just jumping ship. We know that ending the relationship is a potential option, but that there is much which is good in it and it is worth working at problems.
But my mum isn’t interested in that, partly because I think she has a messed up attitude to communication (the first conversation where she said that we’d end up divorced also included her saying that communication doesn’t matter!).
My brother was in a relationship like the one you described for a few years – enabling each other’s excessive pot and alcohol use, lots of drama, tons of fighting, and, yes, the crazy-good make-up sex was a huge attraction in the relationship. (Love talking to drunk siblings…sigh.) His girlfriend was nice, but drama-filled and unable to exist on an even keel. She also had a mental illness she knew about but didn’t, for whatever reasons, to self-care for.
And my whole family watched and there was nothing we could do about it. My brother just had to get the drama and the bad relationship and the bad lifestyle out of his system. He just had to go through it and learn for himself what everyone else could see. Nothing anybody said or did was going to change that.
So we didn’t say or do much about the relationship; we just remained his family and supported him when they broke up and fought and got back together and fought, and when they finally ended things for good we were there for him. (And now he’s got an amazing girlfriend who brings out a much better side of him and he’s getting his life in order and is in a much better place.)
I think the thing is, some people just have to learn things the hard way and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can be supportive while they’re learning it and give them someone to lean on, or you can drive them away with words and actions, but either way, they’re not going to figure it out on their timeline, not yours.
This letter and the response/comments have convinced me to give my brother’s unlikeable girlfriend another chance. My parents don’t like her either and my brother has chosen to spend his Christmas break from school with her family instead, which makes me sad. Our family has the kind of dynamic where, at 25, the fact that I have dyed my hair (a completely “normal” color, not that it should matter) is heinous, the fact that I am dating a person is disapproved of (mom doesn’t want me to get married! Don’t really know why!), and my volunteering at an animal shelter is a bad idea (what if I come home [to my home, where I live by myself and pay all the bills] with -gasp- an ANIMAL?!?!?! The horror.) Anyway, I mean, no wonder bro doesn’t want to come home. I’ll try harder not to push him away even more
jedi hugs to you for this..
argleblargle that sounds challenging. Much love and support for your totally rational life choices!
This really touched a nerve for me. My mom and I have never had this specific fight, but I did spend most of my childhood thinking that my mom was less interested in who I was and what I needed than whether I followed the rules and did what she thought I should be doing. And so, as the Captain says, I started presenting her with a very carefully selected version of who I was. So far as she knew, I followed all the rules, came home on time, and got straight As. But when she wasn’t around, I was building a whole different life for myself.
And that’s while I still lived at home. Once I left home, it just got easier. And those habits, once started, are incredibly hard to break. She was never the first person I went to with problems – or even with successes. If I did try to talk to her about a problem, she would just try to “fix” it – not by listening and asking what, if anything, she could do to help me, but by butting in and telling me what I should do. Or sometimes just offering spontaneous, unnecessary advice on matters I’m fully capable of handling myself.
In my later 20s, we started to get away from this, and made some fragile bridges between us so that we could have a real adult relationship. But it was still difficult; she just couldn’t resist the urge to try to order my life on occasion. And now that we’re facing some pretty big issues with our family life in general and our relationship in particular, those bonds have broken down. Because we still weren’t at a place where my first instinct wasn’t to pull back and shut her out of my life again. I’m going through some medical issues right now, and honestly it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to talk to her about them if she hadn’t happened to call me while I was on my way to a doctor’s appointment.
I want to emphasize that my mom is a good person and, for the most part, a good mom. I had a good childhood. We get along reasonably well, but in a totally surface manner. We have a relationship that’s based on a very specific version of who I am, and I’ve never felt that she knows or understands the real me. And so our relationship is not a central one in my life.
LW, I second everyone who has said here that the best thing you can do is be available to your son. Be the person he thinks of when he needs help. Resist the urge to “fix” his life, and give him the space to ask you for help. Listen to him, and try to know the person he is – try to know him as an adult, not just as your son. I know that’s hard. But if you don’t at least try, you run the risk of pushing him farther and farther away.
This one hit me a little personally because, for a while, I’ve been the equivalent of the son in this letter. I could see my mother writing this.
LW, I’m not your son. But I know that if I could have higher paid jobs, I would. I would, personally, not like to spend a lot of my time outside of work drinking and being continually stressed/upset/crying about bills, and having to occasionally consider asking my parents for help. But that’s what things are like, and that’s what things are like for a lot of my friends/peers, because I’m a 20something in 2013. And it’s embarrassing, and I feel like it’s destroyed my relationship with my mom. I can’t even imagine if she didn’t accept my partner, during this phase of my life — that’s a whole new level of stress.
Please, just for Christmas, give him a hug, and maybe try to get to know your son his girlfriend as adults that are guests at your holiday event. I don’t know them. She might actually be awful, sure. But if they’re continuing to go to family events, they want to see you, and they want to make an effort to get to know you.
“But if they’re continuing to go to family events, they want to see you, and they want to make an effort to get to know you.”
That is such a good point, especially since many of us don’t want to go entirely, and won’t/didn’t.
You can, totally, tell your son that his girlfriend is not welcome at family events. You can tell him that it’s a toxic relationship, and that she’s no good for him.
My mom did. She has told me, very clearly, and in as many words, that she never wants to see my boyfriend again, and if that means she never sees me again, she’s okay with that. As a direct result, she sees very little of me.
If you publicly exile his girlfriend from family events, you will poison your relationship with your son. His GF may, in fact, be the Platonic Horrible Partner. As other Awkwardeers have pointed out, choosing this course of action will pit the two of them against you, and make it much harder for your son to come to you if the relationship does come apart in a painful way.
You *can* do this thing. You shouldn’t.
“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. … 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.”
Oh. THAT’S what’s been going on with me and my parents. Or a large chunk of it, anyway. Thank you, Captain — you’ve just given me much clearer words for it.
LW — I think any advice I might give you has been given far more eloquently by the Captain and commenters already, but please LISTEN TO THEM. And to your son.
Fourteen years ago, I was that girlfriend.
Then I was diagnosed with a condition that causes chronic pain, and started treating it.
Then I got a little more distance from my frequently incredibly toxic family, and stopped being terrified and defensive around my BF’s family, because I realised that they weren’t actually going to drop all of the masks and let their true evil shine through, because they actually were who they seemed to be.
Then we realised my boyfriend was gravely ill and needed a kidney removed, and when he no longer had a constant low-level systemic infection and I stopped being in constant heinous pain while trying to nurse someone – who I had been going to break up with except he landed in ICU first – waiting for surgery and surviving on opiates it turned out we liked each other and we started working on our damage.
Then the four of us ended up building a shed together and it was fun.
Then … Well, then a lot of stuff. So now I’m not that girlfriend anymore, I’m the daughter-in-law, and my marriage is ridiculously happy and I love my mother in law deeply and it is, I am assured, reciprocated. And we have a small fund of ‘the first three years were the worst’ stories that we tell. In tandem. You should see our performance, with interpretive dance, of That Fight We Had When We Were Moving And My InLaws Came Down To Help.
This may not happen for you, but you know what? It may. It really actually might.
But I can honestly say that as long as you’re radiating dislike at her, even er best impulses are going to go nowhere good. And you’ll be unhappy. And so will your son, and so will she.
Don’t deal with her when you really can’t. Don’t tolerate her abusing your boundaries or acting badly towards you. But – find something to like about her. Just one thing.
And when you do see her, maybe set yourself a challenge: how many positive interactions can you manage to have? I’m not saying leave yourself wide open, but try to make pleasant moments happen, even very tiny ones. Because if you can build a fund, however small, of pleasant associations with her, you will actually like one another better.
Her pleasantness towards you may manipulation. But it may also be that she really really loves your son and she’s busting a gut to try to convince you – and maybe herself – that she can manage to be good enough to deserve to have him and be accepted by his family.
And your son’s ex-roomate may be a deeply honest person with nothing but truth in his mouth. I don’t know him. But your son’s new relationship busted up his friend’s living situation. Is it possible that he might be a little bit biased?
Good luck, no matter which way it goes.
My parents HATED my ex husband (but not for the reasons he became an ex). My dad wasn’t pleased when we got married, but he kept his mouth shut because he wanted me to be happy. My mum, on the other hand, made it VERY clear what she thought. He wasn’t “intelligent enough” for me (had no university degree), he had “different values” (was working class) etc etc. So I fought my corner and it made me all the more determined to prove that we were right together. It also made me adamant that I would NEVER let on that anything was even the slightest bit wrong, because she wouldn’t hesitate in saying “I told you so”.
They were right to hate him, but for all the wrong reasons. Turns out, he’s an alcoholic. He spent all of his money on drink, didn’t pay bills, stole from me. He cheated on me and used MY money to buy things for other women. He gaslighted me to the extent that I genuinely thought I was losing my mind when I was pregnant. But I’d built my fortress around the relationship and there was nobody inside that wall but him and me. It took me ages to get out and face “I told you so”, far longer than it should’ve done. I am still damaged.
LW, I would’ve given anything to have been able to phone my parents that New Year’s Eve when I was 7 months pregnant, my husband was passed out and the evidence of his screwing around popped up on his phone. I’ve never felt so alone and desperate. There is the risk that, if you push your son away now, he won’t feel he can come to you when he needs to. Please don’t risk that.
I’m sorry you got into that shitty situation. It’s unfair that you had to deal with “I told you so” on top of really difficult discoveries.
One last thing.
I feel like I am skirting the ‘no internet diagnosis’ rule here, and it is a very smart and sound rule which I have no desire to break, so I intend to be very very careful.
In many families, there is somebody whose job it is to be “the problem.” It’s nothing anyone does consciously. It starts out, usually, at a time when somebody really IS going through a tough time and that tough time is making life harder for the people around them, and it just … sticks.
In my family, I am The Problem. I was appointed to this position, as nearly as I can tell, when I was about five.
They Just Worry About Me. They Gove Me Advice. They Want To Make Sure I’ve Thought About What I’m Doing. They Think I Might Be Overlooking Some Important Points. They Would Just Feel Better If I Let Them Help. They Only Want Me To Be Happy. They Want Me To Know They Will Always Love Me No Matter What and I Will Always Have A Place To Go If I Need It.
Or, to put it another way, they cannot STAND for me to be competent, contented, and coping, because then what becomes of THEIR chosen roles? How will they know they’re all right if I’m not all wrong?
Based entirely on what you say in this letter, LW, it might be time to sit down and have a really big think about whether you have given your son the job of being The Problem, and are in the process of appointing his GF to the position of Problem-In-Law. Because he has a job. And a place to live. And a girlfriend. And you appear to be trying to work out how to save him from her by encoraging his life to fall apart so that you can go back to saving him from himself
And that’s really really not good. For you, him, her, or anyone, or the relationships between you all.
ALL THE THIS. Such an excellent comment, thanks for writing it.
Oh god. Those phrases are so familiar.
Sounds like the writer is bloating her sons girlfriend. Her son has all the same bad traits but she’s obviously the evil girlfriend
Anyway. A committed couple is a package deal. If those two are serious and ever get married then they should and will choose eachother over their parents. You disinvited one them you disinvited both
SO. MUCH. THIS.!!!
LW, my mother did this to me. Almost word for word, right down to the “sex addiction” comment. My mother and I no longer have anything you could call a relationship (for this among many other reasons). Don’t be my mother.
I dated a series of men with problems (men you could call “losers”) in my twenties. Why would I – an intelligent woman who’d gone to a good school and was on track to be successful – date these men? Largely because my whole life I’d been simultaneously told that a) having friends and a boyfriend/husband are the most important determinants of your self-worth, and b) you’re a horrible and ugly person who will never have friends or a boyfriend/husband. Naturally, I spent my twenties latching on to the first person who showed interest in me. (Moral of this part of the story: think long and hard about why your son might have chosen this woman.)
My first serious boyfriend I wised up and left before she met him. My second serious boyfriend she met, immediately disliked, banned from the house, pressured me to leave him, and ran and told all the extended family and everyone else who would listen how horrible he was and how horrible I was for being with him. My third serious boyfriend managed to charm her at first, but then when we started having problems I confided in her. Again, she ran and told everyone who would listen about the things I’d confided to her in private, and pressured me to leave him, complete with side helpings of “what’s wrong with you for staying?” and “you’re making us look bad.” The “sex addiction” bit came in here, too (thanks, Dr. Phil!). I was now effectively isolated from both my immediate and extended family. Which meant when things really got bad (he was emotionally and physically abusive) I had no family to turn to, and I was also determined to prove her wrong. And, again, determined no one would ever love me again if I left, because I was still convinced I was horrible and ugly. Because of this, I stayed (years) longer in an abusive relationship than I otherwise would have, and had no family support in my recovery from that relationship.
There’s more, but you get the idea. I am now at a point where I tell my mother very, very little about my life, and absolutely nothing that’s negative or that she could spin to sound negative when she runs to the extended family with it. Basically, we talk about our pets. She claims to not know why I’m so distant now, and tells people that I’m just oversensitive. Shrug. She has repeatedly shown herself to be untrustworthy, unhelpful, and unreliable, and after years of trying I have officially given up on ever having anything approaching a relationship with her. Please, don’t be her.
Speaking from the perspective of somebody who despises her Brother in law (now soon to be ex BiL) – yeah, you gotta just suck it up. It is helpful to compartmentalize. I put all of BiL’s past bad behavior into a box that I don’t look at or think about while I am interacting with him. I react to each visit based soley on that visit alone. So, if I am having a good conversation, I smile and focus on the conversation. If he is being rude to me, I leave the converstion, or I simply turn my back on him and talk with somebody else.
With some luck, one day your son may see this girl for the problem she is. If you get him in the habit of defending her and their relationship, that will significantly delay that day.
I think you need to comlpetely seperate money from this relationship. In your shoes, I would also not want to help with $ because I don’t want my hard-earned money going to someone I dislike. Also, he smokes pot and then comes to you for cash to pay his bills? That would really make me mad. Perhaps you can taper off from giving cash to giving grocery store gift cards, if you don’t want to go “cold turkey”.
I do think part of adulthood is realizing that your parents don’t have to cut you as much slack as they did when you were a teeen. and that includes inviting a person into their home who treats them rudely, even if that person is your dearly beloved.
I read through the comments (and what an excellent holiday gift to get, thank you all), and so I want to add my own few words since I can’t quite find someone else asking this question.
… I apologize if this comes across as crass, but, LW, erh, are you actually hinting that your son’s girlfriend has Magic Lady Bits, whoose 18 month stranglehold over him you are trying to break by ceasing all financial aid, in an effort to make him fail at his current living situation, life and activties so he will be forced to reboot everything and start it over proper?
I understand that watching people you love make bad decicisons is possibly one of the most painful, hardest and teethgrindingly atrocious things in the world. Feeling helpless about the actions of others, and perhap worse, feeling helpless when previously you had tremendous power to help (as all parents have, for some 18 years) is very, very hard.
And you are never obliged to give aid nor do you, as such, owe anyone your financial ressources!
But, and this may be a significant but, there is a clear difference between being unwilling to see your time, energy and finances being wasted by people you don’t feel fond of and manipulating the emotional, material and financial state of people in your life to make them do the things you desire.
I would recommend that you consider whether you are trying to help your son escape a bad relationship where he is unhappy or if you are attempting to coerce him into doing things you find more proper and fitting for him by a progressive increase in controlling behaviour, micro aggressions and manevourvering.
I’ve been on the recieving end of both, and it becomes easy to tell which is which after a while. One is an affirmation of love, the other makes the recipient want to scream at you for meddling.
Not wanting to spend time with your son’s girlfriend because you find her phony and draining is perfectly fine. Saying it to your son in a roundabout way, by stating that you don’t feel particularly social this XX holiday is great. Do that if you feel you should, Lw!
… But, again, that is far, far removed from attempting to steer your son out of a relationship where you are actively considering if the only reason he is in it is because his current partner satisfies some addiction of his.
Perhaps the best choice in this situation is to accept that your son will see the people he chooses to see, and that you can do exactly the same, without other steps
Dear LW —
I am 40. I talk to my mother in only the most polite terms. She knows nothing about my real life, my thoughts, my emotions. I clench my teeth through every phone call, holiday, and visit. I examine every conversation, gift, and voice mail for subtext, which makes for some deeply stilted conversation. I literally won’t answer the phone if I see it’s her and I’m alone in the house. She gets very little time with my daughter, her only granddaughter.
This is all because, for many years, whenever we interacted, my mother felt the need to tell me when I was doing something wrong (where wrong = “differently than she would/wanted”). She made efforts to control my actions and life decisions. After years of this, I realized I had three choices: 1. I could do what she wanted and make myself miserable. 2. I could do what I wanted and she could make me miserable every time we interacted. or 3. I could limit my misery by limiting my interactions with her.
So now I have adopted strategy 3. I’m much much happier. She is not.
Wow, this response really nailed it for me. LW, I too have extreme difficulties in liking, trusting, and frankly even respecting my father because he pulled stuff like this ALL THE TIME. I am officially coming out of my lurking shell for this letter because I don’t want the same thing to happen to you. Apologies for the length.
My father was and is a hardworking man. He gave us a lot while we were growing up- he taught us the value of a good education and a strong work ethic, pushed us to achieve more than we thought we could, and I know, deep down, that he loves his family. And I’m grateful for that, I really, truly am. My gratitude is one of the few reasons we still have any sort of relationship at all. But that’s just it- after all these years, we barely have a relationship, because my father cannot accept that other people, even his own daughter, have thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs different than his own. He holds his opinion as the RIGHT and ONLY opinion, and sees any deviance from that as pure disrespect. If he gives you advice, and you don’t take it, you’re a horrible person. If I showed any inclination for activities or people he deemed beneath me, he would forbid from participating, or make me jump through 99 flaming hoops just to see my friends. He would scream at us for hours, threaten us, hit us if we stepped out of line. He spent my entire childhood being so emotionally and physically abusive that it shattered the trust between us, and because of this, my automatic reaction to starting a family is one of fear. I do not know if I will ever be comfortable enough to have my own children.
I was never a bad kid. I got consistently high grades, volunteered, did after-school activities. I tried so hard to be the kind of person he would like and approve of. All I wanted was for my daddy to be proud of me, the me I chose to be. But as the years went by, it became clear to me that nothing I did would ever be good enough for this man. Eventually, the level of disapproval and manipulation was just too much to bear. I thought about GETTING OUT constantly- running away, and in my darkest moments, suicide. My entire childhood, I couldn’t wait to grow up. Finally, I stopped caring about what he wanted. I went to college at the opposite end of the state. I threw aside his dreams of law, and studied the things I wanted. I got a job that would make me happy. After I moved out, the only me my father knew were the lies I told him. I had to do this, to recover the emotional health I had lost to him. From age 18 on, he never really knew who I was, what I liked, even WHERE I was most of the time. It was just too dangerous to let him in.
When I started dating my current boyfriend, my dad threw a fit. He never went to college and has a blue collar job, so in my father’s mind, he is “beneath me.” Nevermind that I was happy, nevermind that for the first time, I was in a relationship with a man who respected me, loved me, made me feel safe. To my dad, my boyfriend is a stumbling block. He quickly accused BF of supplying me with drugs and alcohol, of convincing me to give up “my” law dreams to pursue my current job- basically every decision my dad disagreed with was scapegoated onto my wonderful partner. Instead of pulling me back, this just cemented for me that my dad was not a safe person to be around. By rejecting my wants, needs, and partner, he had rejected his daughter.
At 22 years old, I moved in with my BF and my dad cut off all financial help. I was okay with this- it meant he could no longer give strings-attached gifts or guilt trip me. I encourage you to do the same, if you don’t approve of his living situation. At 27 years old and barring any disabilities or emergencies, your son should be able to support himself. I knew my independence would come with a price, and I gladly pay it. But realize, if you continue to reject his partner, his job, his way of life for no other reason than your disapproval, you are also rejecting your son, and you will pay the price of his absence. Unless you KNOW your son’s girlfriend is abusive, you have no right to make her feel unwelcome. Be proud that your son stands by his partner- you raised him to be loyal. I’m sure you’d want your partner to do the same for you. And please, please consider that maybe you don’t know your son as well as you think you do. I can promise you that he senses your disapproval, and edits what he shares with you accordingly. I’d also like to remind you that sometimes, people lie to get their way. I had a roommate in college who went tattling to my parents, telling them I was A DRUG ADDICT to get back at me for not letting her break our lease without paying the rent she owed me. Of course my dad believed her, even though it wasn’t true, even though I had no history with drug abuse or trouble with the police, and even though he knew that SHE was a liar and a terrible person. He took her word as law over mine, his own daughter, because he wanted to believe I was unable to function without his guidance. LW, I tell you all this because the pain of a fractured family is one that lasts a lifetime, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Leaving my father’s control and striking out on my own was the most liberating thing I have ever done, but it came at a high cost. I am happy and independent, but I will never be able to let him back in.
“My gratitude is one of the few reasons we still have any sort of relationship at all.” — Orangekitties, thank you for sharing this story here. I just wanted to give you big jedi hugs. What your father did to you was terrible and no one should have to put up with it, ever. If gratitude is the only reason you still interact with him at all, please don’t. You don’t owe this man a thing. The good things you say he gave you? Don’t magically mitigate the bad, terrible things he did.
We’ve had a very similar upbringing.
I too want to emphasize that the pain of a fractured family lasts forever. It is not something you just outgrow, nor is the damage done by rejecting your son’s partner something that can be easily undone even if they ultimately end their relationship.
How important is your relationship with your son to you, truly? I feel like so much abuse/dysfunction/etc stems from the belief that said relationship is safe, since you will always be his mother. But he is not a little boy. He is an adult with the autonomy to choose what he wants for himself and who he wants in his life.
Thanks Ve and Bookwyrm. It’s unfortunate that other people are able to relate, but it’s nice to feel like I’m not alone. It seems like many grown women have issues with their mothers, not their fathers, so sometimes I feel “weird” for being on the outs with my dad (for the record, my mom is awesome!)
Bookwyrm, I find it difficult to cut off full contact with my dad because two of my sisters still live at home, and my mom is sadly still married to him, with no plans on divorcing until the girls go to college because it would be too heavy of a financial burden for her. I’m afraid if I refuse to talk to him, he will limit any contact I can have with the rest of my family. It’s important to me to be there for my sisters, because I can provide them with emotional and financial support. As the oldest child, I never had someone to look out for me who understood how to “work around” my father without making the problem worse, so I can’t deny them that. Do I find it acceptable that he has this kind of power over them? No, but I can’t do anything if my mom won’t leave, and various authorities outside the family will only do so much since he always knows not to take things over a certain line (because hey, emotional abuse isn’t REAL abuse, right? [sarcasm]). Being financially separate from him also gives me more of a “right” to call him out on his behavior, because he can’t threaten me with not paying the bills anymore, so that helps. I realize it’s just a short term way to cope until my mom can separate though. He has moments where we can still see the old him, but he’s never going to go back to the reasonable person he used to be. And he will probably end up very lonely down the road, which is a sad reality, but he chose it himself.
Honestly though, to me it’s always seemed like most people tend to have problems with their fathers…or at least, it seems like it’s more socially acceptable to voice such problems. I feel like admitting that you had an abusive mother is more taboo, since mothers are supposed to be nurturing, loving, etc. For me, the book, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” helped me in that respect, and even talking about the family dynamic and the role the father plays in all of this. I honestly wish I had the strength to get out from under her clutches completely when I was 18. It took until I was 27 to realize how truly dysfunction all of this was. Especially since no one believed me save for my college best friend and my mother’s youngest sister.
Best wishes to you and your family ❤
I am the girlfriend and now wife that my mother in law hated. Didnt give me a chance from day one all because I said I had waited to have kids with a man who would be a good father. This is her whole basis of hating me. 5 years later, she still hates me. His other family on both sides love me.
My husband is caught in the middle. I have tried to play nice but she wont, so I have stopped trying at all. Its really awkward at family events because she goes out of her way to be awful. She ruined Christmas and my husbands birthday this way. She’s tried to place conditions on her love and mess with our kids heads to get rid of me.
Dont be that mother in law. It will drive your son away ans break his heart
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