Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Jul 20, 2004
Our son has asked us to be cool toward the parents of his ex-girlfriend. Should we do what he wants?
My college-age son just went through a nasty breakup with his girlfriend, which was largely due to her treating him incredibly poorly. I saw it unfold, and, though I have a bias, I know that he was mature in the situation and it was she who acted out of character.
The problem is that, socially, we run into the girl’s parents quite often. My wife and I were already quite nervous about this situation, especially since they, most likely, do not know the details of the breakup as we do. My wife and I had discussed it, and thought it may be best to just act like nothing has changed when we see them.
But then my son made a strange request: He asked that we act coldly toward them. In his own words, “Don’t be mean, just don’t be nice.” It seems he’s trying to send a message to their daughter through us. While I feel this request is a bit out of line, my allegiance, of course, lies with my son.
So how should we act?
Polite Parent in a Pickle
Dear Polite Parent,
I think you should act decently toward the parents of the girl, since they have done nothing to you. What your son is really asking for, in his oblique way, is not so much that you treat her parents a certain way, but that you reassure him of your loyalty to him, and give him no reason to doubt that loyalty. He may be afraid that you’ll hear a different side of the story and turn against him. Indeed, he may have exaggerated certain of her wrongs and covered up his own, and may be afraid that if his errors come to light, he will lose your support. So more than anything he needs to know that you are on his side. So reassure him. Tell him there’s nothing to worry about.
You know your son’s degree of maturity better than I do, and you know what kind of relationship you have. So I would leave it up to you how far to take the conversation. Some parents might find it an opportunity to discuss the principle involved — that though you support him and are on his side, you have to observe certain boundaries. Others may intuit that such a conversation would just confuse him, or undermine the basic message you are trying to give him. Maybe all he needs right now is your emotional support. You must be the judge of that. In any case, try not to get drawn into either committing or refusing to commit any specific act of social warfare. Just find some way to show him that in his moment of vulnerability and hurt, you’re on his side.
When we’ve been hurt, the hurt is sometimes compounded by a feeling that we are powerless to strike back and thus feel humiliated. So naturally one would dream of having the powerful figures in one’s life — one’s parents — do the bidding of a wounded ego, much as a wounded country might send its army to bomb the wrong country. Part of growing up is understanding that such wishes are best not acted on.
I would suggest that when you see her parents, ask them if they are aware of what happened between their daughter and your son, and suggest to them that it sounded like a very painful breakup. Ideally, you and the girl’s parents, as adults capable of dealing with the difficult truth about things beyond your control, could talk with compassion and understanding about what happened between your kids. Shake your heads, commiserate and move on. Though you may feel his pain as heartily as if it were your own, you cannot fight his battle for him.