How to Talk to a Teenager Through their First Breakup?
November 15, 2011 3:31 PM   Subscribe

I know how to help myself through bad times, but how does a mom help her 20-year-old child through her first serious relationship breakup when the reasons for it are the same as her parent's divorce (boy cheats on girl)? What are the magic words?

My 20 year old daughter was in a (she thought) relatively solid, loving relationship with a very nice person for about 2 years.

She recently discovered that throughout those 2 years, he was messing around with/dating someone else. Cutting to the chase, she texted him the other day to discuss weekend plans and he said that out of respect for his relationship with "Other Woman," he had to cut off all communication with her. End of discussion.

Major shock to the system, obviously. But as she's been talking to her sister (not me) about it, she apparently is starting to see little pieces come together (he was suddenly busy certain nights, he acted oddly if she just stopped by his house all of a sudden, etc.).

Her dad and I broke up a long time ago and it turns out he had a girlfriend on the side (it was her best friend's mother, ick), and here in her first real relationship for her to have to live through a breakup that involves someone lying to her because they're seeing someone else....oh my gosh.

What do I tell her, as her mom, to help her? It was her first relationship, I know it hits way too close to home to what her own father did, and I don't know how to help or what to say.
posted by kinetic to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
you let her know you're there if she needs to talk, and if she comes to you to talk, you don't talk about you and your husband until/unless she leads the conversation that way, and only to answer specific questions she asks.
posted by davejay at 3:34 PM on November 15, 2011 [10 favorites]

There are no magic words. Let her know your door's open and if you've got that kind of relationship, send her cookies or whatever. Make sure she knows she's invited to the usual family festivities at the end of the year, especially if she'd been planning on doing stuff with the boyfriend this year or had done so in the last few years.

Don't trash the guy or his behavior and (double extra emphasis here) don't trash your husband or your marriage or talk about your divorce unless she leads you straight there and you can't find a way to change the way the conversation is going.

Please, please remember that her relationship with her father should not be defined by your relationship with your ex-husband, no matter what else is going on in her life or how much she already knows about what happened. One of the hardest things for a kid whose parents divorced is the idea that they're going to be stuck in the same kind of pattern - being told flat-out "this is the same kind of pattern" is not really helpful, and chances are she's already hearing it really loudly in her head and could use hearing something considerably more helpful, such as "come over for dinner, we'd love to see you."
posted by SMPA at 3:43 PM on November 15, 2011 [10 favorites]

Oh hi, my fairly serious boyfriend and I just broke up last week. What a timely post.

Even though we split for very different reasons than your daughter and her boyfriend (no infidelity), I think the way you handle this is the same:

"Honey, I'm so, so sorry. It sucks. I know it sucks. There aren't words to capably express how sorry I am that this happened. Is there anything I can do for you? I'm always here to talk. If you'd rather just cry while I hug you, that's OK, too. It will be OK. Would it help if I told you about [this mildly humorous thing that happened recently]?"

There's nothing you can do to make it better. She just needs time. Time and support. When I'm sad, I don't like to talk about why I'm sad, but I do like for my sadness to be acknowledged. And that's about the best you can do.

It'll be OK. Still really, really crappy. But, eventually, OK.
posted by phunniemee at 3:44 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Take her out for milkshakes and let her cry with her face on the table in the diner. Just a wild suggestion...not that I've ever done that or anything...*cough*...
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 3:47 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the milkshakes thing. My friend took me out for milkshakes the day after, too. What is it about milkshakes, I wonder?
posted by phunniemee at 3:49 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sometimes you don't need words. You just need to be there.
posted by timsteil at 3:52 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can I/should I/is there a way to say to help her know that even though her boyfriend did the same thing as her dad, this won't happen in every relationship she has?

That's what I'm most worried about; she's going to have some very serious confirmation bias and trust issues (the only 2 men in her life did the same thing)...
posted by kinetic at 3:57 PM on November 15, 2011

Just follow her lead, and quietly let her know that you love her and she deserves to be loved. She isn't really a teenager anymore, so try to give her space to figure out what she needs and how to ask for it. She'll talk to you when she's ready.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:01 PM on November 15, 2011

Can I/should I/is there a way to say to help her know that even though her boyfriend did the same thing as her dad, this won't happen in every relationship she has?

That's what I'm most worried about; she's going to have some very serious confirmation bias and trust issues (the only 2 men in her life did the same thing)...

It sounds like one of the most likely ways for her to develop that trust issue is for you to tell her the kinds of things you've been telling us about how her ex-boyfriend acted so much like your ex-husband. So, don't do that.
posted by John Cohen at 4:03 PM on November 15, 2011 [30 favorites]

I think it's important to remind her, when the time is right (not now - perhaps at some point in the future if she's being gunshy, etc.), that not all people lie and cheat. Those who do aren't necessarily evil and those that don't aren't necessarily saints. They are human and have faults, as do you and as does she.

She can only take this and add it to her catalog of life experience. When she's ready to date again support her choices and if she expresses doubt and concern encourage her to trust her gut, but not to jump to conclusions.
posted by FlamingBore at 4:06 PM on November 15, 2011

I may be clueless here, but I can't see why it's so out of bounds to discuss the issue with her directly. You certainly shouldn't force that conversation on her, and if she doesn't want to go there, then don't. I don't think it's that unusual for us to choose partners like our parents, and if that's in any way what happened here, I see it as better for her to be aware of this (without throwing it in her face) than to go through the next 10 years unconsciously picking the same kind of guys.

The most important issue is that she know that you love and support her. Ask her if she wants to talk about it, and if she does, then ask her if she wants to talk about her father. If she says no at any point, drop it and don't bring it up again. She'll bring it back to you if she needs to. I don't see the harm in simply bringing the question up for discussion.
posted by cnc at 4:11 PM on November 15, 2011

When I was about your daughter's age, my high school boyfriend did something very similar to me. Unfortunately, our break up was very drawn out and it took me about 3 months to realize what was going on. A friend of mine finally had to tell me that he was cheating on me. At the same time, my father was having an affair. He ended up coming clean to my mom and I after he saw what I was going through. I lived with my parents while they were processing and dealing with the fallout. To say that I was miserable is an enormous understatement.

With time and work, came healing. No one, at the time, could convince me otherwise that all men are liars and cheaters. Through the support of friends and extended family as well as two excellent mental health professionals, I made through both the initial break-up and all of the resulting tremors. It's only been through a lot of processing, thinking and self-reflection that I could see otherwise. It is only through this healing that I have found love and am in an excellent relationship with a brilliant, honest man.

I want to echo the sentiments that have already been expressed here. Someday, it will be okay and that miserable ache in the heart will fade. You just need to be there for her, which is something I wish I would've had from my mom and I wish I would've been able to give to her. Our individual pain isolated us from each other in a time of need and made the whole thing even worse. Let her know that you care and that you're there for her when she needs you.
posted by godshomemovies at 4:17 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know it hits way too close to home to what her own father did, and I don't know how to help or what to say.

That's what I'm most worried about; she's going to have some very serious confirmation bias and trust issues (the only 2 men in her life did the same thing)...

Just to be clear -- how do you know that it hits too close to home for her in reminding her of what her dad did? Did she say that explicitly? Has she mentioned her dad in relation to this? Has she mentioned trust issues in relation to this? Because if she hasn't, in your position I might worry that I was projecting or might be harping on it myself in a situation where it's not necessarily foremost in her mind.

--IF-- she has explicitly mentioned it and brought it up of her own accord I would say the following: there are dishonest men and dishonest women, and there are some very concrete things we can do to tell them apart.

- First, we have to just get to know them and there's no way around that. We have to observe them over time.

- We find out about their pasts, how honest they've been in their past relationships both romantic and non-romantic, because traits like these often don't change very much.

- We observe how honest they are in their day-to-day lives in general. What do they think about cheating in school, pocketing things that don't belong to them, telling "white lies?" Even if the person doesn't do anything that major, if they're, say, telling white lies constantly because it's easier/less awkward for them than being truthful, that's something to watch. We observe how reliable it is that they do what they say they're going to do.

- We observe whether their actions match their words.

- We observe how they treat others generally. Is it very important to them to treat others well and not hurt others?

-We listen to our guts. Even if we think our feelings are silly or dumb or we can't explain them, we don't just shove them off to the side and ignore them. We listen to them and respect them.

That's what I'd tell her.
posted by cairdeas at 4:39 PM on November 15, 2011 [9 favorites]

Just to be clear -- how do you know that it hits too close to home for her in reminding her of what her dad did? Did she say that explicitly? Has she mentioned her dad in relation to this?

Yes, she said all of these things to her sister and me.
posted by kinetic at 4:44 PM on November 15, 2011

There is a reason she is talking to her sister and not you.

If she comes to you, listen and don't talk.

This is about her. You're kinda making it about you. You're reading an awful lot into this that is there for you, but might not even be on your daughter's mind right now.

Re-reading your question, yeah, you are making this about you. It's not about you. Your daughter is an adult, so really, her intimate relationships are none of your business. I hope you agree.

If she comes to you, just listen. Otherwise, back off. This is not about anything other than your daughter. It's not about you and your ex. Stop feeling tempted to make just about everything about the way your ex abandoned you and them. You are picking scabs everytime you go there.

If I had just been dumped, I wouldn't want the scab of my parent's divorce picked over my relationship. Why? Because some shit is private! Also, if you keep picking scabs, they never heal!

Stop picking scabs. Your own, or your children's. Maybe you mean well, but I promise you, it doesn't help any of you.
posted by jbenben at 4:51 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you gone on to have relationships with men who didn't betray you in this way? That might go a long way in eliminating confirmation bias.

Now i'm going to say something offensive --but bear with me: what is it about women in this family that participate in relationships with men without noticing signs of cheating...without noticing what should be obvious problems with the intimate fabric of the relationship?

As offensive as it is to suggest there's something wrong with you---THAT'S how wrong-headed it is to think that this is all men.

I'll tell you what, though--looking at it in my offensive way means you and your daughter have some control over your next relationships. It takes practice ---which means she has to at some point try again. She has the advantage of being young--she can get really good at it!
posted by vitabellosi at 4:58 PM on November 15, 2011

I would follow her lead. If she suggests some things are similar, talk to her about them and ask her if she can see any ways that it is different. Given examples. Try to help her see this is not all men. Has she had other relationships, even with friends, that you can use to show good relationships? Or relationships her friends or family have?
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 5:02 PM on November 15, 2011

To be fair, a genuine way to pose this question might have been...

"My 20 year old daughter was cheated on in her first serious relationship. This brings up a lot of emotions for me since her father's cheating led to our divorce. I'm conflicted as a result of my own experience. What do I say if she comes to me for advice since my objectivity is compromised whenever the subject of cheating is involved?"
posted by jbenben at 5:03 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

jbenben, she brought it up to the sister AND the asker. The daughter hasn't excluded the asker but instead purposefully brought it up.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:18 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yikes...I wrote "But as she's been talking to her sister (not me) about it..."

I meant her sister (AND me).
posted by kinetic at 5:31 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are kind to want to help her so much, and it's not just motherly, it's empathetic and friendly and that's lovely. Really, there is not much you can do, and phunniemee's suggestion is perfect (and, sorry for your troubles too, phunniemee). Comforting things - a milkshake, a few great chocolates, a good movie that'll make you laugh and cry... comfort is best. From experience, it's probably true that it's better to know these things sooner rather than later, but that's a small comfort at times like this.

In the past, when infidelity was the primary cause for my first marriage's breakdown, the most helpful thing anyone told me was something to the effect of "Not much grows on a mountaintop." Fine, I know that lots of stuff grows on real mountain tops. But what she was alluding to was that when you're in these valleys in your life, that's when things are more lush and fertile like in real valleys, and that's when you grow. It is one of my favourite things to remember when times are tough, and I'm in what I think is a valley instead of on some peak in my existence.
posted by peagood at 6:00 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Here are some other things I'd say to her if she came to me to talk about this:

-When I broke up with *my* friend serious boyfriend (at 20, also), for the first 3 days I literally did almost nothing but lie in my bed, cry, and go over and over the whole relationship in my mind from start to finish. Compounding it, it was my spring break in college and I'd planned to be on vacation with him. I watched melodramatic movies and thought there was a good chance I would be pining for him for the rest of my life, and I would have a mental breakdown to ever see him with someone else.

Less than 6 months later, I had another boyfriend. After a year, it was weird to me to think how crazy I'd been about him, like it had been someone else's feelings. Now, several years later he is engaged, and when he announced it, I was nothing but happy for him. I am no longer even attracted to him and couldn't imagine ever dating him again.

Now those are my experiences and I don't know if you have similar ones or not to share with her, but the upshot is -- no matter how badly it hurts now, no matter how much it seems like these feelings will last forever --- they totally don't at all. She will be surprised by how she feels at 3 months, 6 months, and further on. I recommend keeping a diary just to look back and see how drastically the feelings change.

If she were to tell me she is taking his cheating personally like it means she's not as pretty or the other girl or not worthy of love or there is something wrong with her, and/or she should have done X Y and Z to keep him happier, I would tell her:

-Many of the most wonderful and beautiful people have been in relationships where they've been treated horribly, and many of the most issue-laden, not conventionally attractive people have been in relationships where they've been adored. How your partner treats you has to do with THEM, not with you.

-If someone acts like a hardcore jerk and does something awful to you, there's a pretty good chance they're going to be a hardcore jerk to the next person too unless they somehow undergo a LOT of personal growth in the interim.

-If someone is prone to cheating there's NOTHING you could change, do, or be to prevent it.

-If you're not someone's cup of tea there's nothing you can do about it and it's a waste of effort to try; instead it's so much better to find the ones who prefer *you* just as you are.
posted by cairdeas at 6:21 PM on November 15, 2011

"Yikes...I wrote "But as she's been talking to her sister (not me) about it..."

I meant her sister (AND me).

Yikes! that does make the thread kind of weird.

I do, however, still think that almost all of the advice in this thread does still stay relevant. That the best course of action is still to do as little as possible to make this about your relationship with your ex-husband as possible, while acknowledging the connections she makes and answering any questions in that area she might have as honestly and faithfully as you can. Really the best thing you can do is hopefully what you have already done, modeling for her the best way to respond and move forward.

Acknowledge her sadness and perspective, don't judge her actions unless she asks you to, try to be as honestly magnanimous as possible about your ex as possible if/when she brings it up in the future, and for the love of God bring up connections between the relationships that she hasn't or hint that any might exist at all period. Its non-obvious, and I can only imagine quite difficult, but will pay off so hard.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:27 PM on November 15, 2011

Stop picking scabs. Your own, or your children's. Maybe you mean well, but I promise you, it doesn't help any of you.

OP, I want to jump in here and say I did not get this impression at all. In fact, I think you are being wonderfully sensitive to this issue on top of being empathetic and sympathetic and motherly to boot. I think it's fantastic, not to mention difficult, that you are consciously working to not let your own bad experiences color your reaction to your daughter's situation in a way that she can see and will influence her.

Because it would be real easy here to make this about you; or even to "bond" over how men are untrustworthy. (In fact that's maybe what a girlfriend would do in this situation.) But you're not her friend; you're her mother and you don't want her to let this poison her ability to trust men and have healthy future relationships. I admire this.

In terms of what you should do instead, other commenters have better specific advice, so mine just sounds like platitudes, but: Just be there for her, to listen if she wants to cry. Take her out to get milkshakes and comfort food. Let her talk about it if she wants to, and don't make her talk about it if she doesn't. Basically, treat it like any other break up--it's going to take time and distance to heal.

But DON'T get into a feedback loop with her. Don't let her start believing she's at fault or was "stupid" not to see it coming. And if or when she starts to talk like she thinks all men are going to be like this, be firm and articulate in your own knowledge that it's not true. There's nothing you're going to be able to say to her in the short term that will "magically" make her understand this, but your example over the long run will sink in. And I hope you have been able to have healthy relationships after your ex. If so, use those as examples.

Good luck to you both!
posted by alleycat01 at 6:39 PM on November 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

I don't know what sort of relationship you have with your daughter, but coming from my own experience, I would NOT want my mother to bring up this sort of thing with me if I was in your daughter's position. I'm a 23 year old female in my first serious relationship, and I know that if my boyfriend and I ever broke up and my mom were to come into the picture offering advice and trying to talk me through it and bring up stuff relating to her, I'd be angry and annoyed and frustrated and it would probably make my grief worse. That, however, is the relationship between my mother and I...though I do strongly suggest you don't say any of these things to her unless she brings it up to you herself.
posted by Emms at 7:32 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think anyone has ever said anything to me, in the wake of a breakup, that has made me feel better. They've bought me drinks, hugged me, let me cry, all that. I remember that. I don't remember a damn word they said, and I know they said plenty.

The milkshakes sound like the best idea, really.

I'd want my mom to be sympathetic and to listen. And hug me a lot. Not necessarily to provide answers.
posted by bunderful at 8:32 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just listen. No advice. Just hugs. And milkshakes (apparently.)
posted by canine epigram at 6:52 AM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

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