How can I support my adult son whose father has turned on him?
May 24, 2012 5:49 PM   Subscribe

How can I support my adult son whose father has turned on him?

My son's father got married about a year ago (to a woman he barely knew, which may or may not be relevant). Son is 23 and has had a hard time of it since toddlerhood: learning difficulties, anxiety, depression, etc. Today he is an amazing, creative person who has come a long, long way (although he's not quite ready to live on his own). His dad and I were amicably divorced when son was very young. My son was until recently living with his dad. We had 50/50 custody when son was growing up. Son moved in with me after tensions with new wife culminated in her decree that son must stay in his room and never emerge unless his dad is home. (She did this by email, which son showed me, so yep, this is true.) Dad defends his wife and has now become overtly mean and critical of son after being an extremely relaxed father who treated him son as his buddy (lots of movie outings and takeout pizza, not a lot of structure or involvement with the hard stuff like doctors and school issues). He sends my son berating emails and texts almost daily about how much his wife cares about him and how dare he reject her; he meets son for lunch and yells about how son has mistreated his wife. Yes, son and new wife have had arguments, but son is (trust me on this) one of the most gentle people I know and I am confident that any of the initial tensions between son and wife were at best mutual (and surely not out of the norm for "blended families"). Now son wants nothing to do with her, a decision which his dad has declared to be "hurtful," "insulting," etc. Son is distressed at father's crazy and about being rejected. How can I best support him? Son and I have a good relationship. I have thought of sending ex-husband a WTF email -- we were, after all, relatively friendly co-parents for years -- but want to help reduce drama, not feed it. Also, what the hell is going on? Son's dad has his issues, but I would have never guessed that this was in him.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do you have any reason to think that his dad might be bipolar or on a new medication or drinking or on drugs? Those are typical causes for major behavioral changes.

Of course love is its own kind of drug. I know of a lot of asshole women who basically go into a relationship with the sole purpose of alienating the kids so that the guy will focus all his time/attention/money on them. They specialize in this kind of "him or me" manipulative bullshit.

I'm sorry you're dealing with this.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:26 PM on May 24, 2012

Your son is an adult. Barring developmental/mental health issues that go far beyond what you've said here, it is for him to manage his relationship with his father and stepmother.

Being the adult child of divorced and remarried parents (especially parents who remarried after one was already grown up) is a weird thing. Every family is different. Every parent-child dynamic is different, and ever parent-new spouse dynamic is different.

My only advice to him would be to not say derogatory things about his step-mother in front of his dad, and try to take as neutral a stance as possible. It's also probably for the best if he attends family gatherings and outings with the two of them and acts as tactful and polite as possible around his step-mother, regardless of his feelings about her. Though I agree this is probably hard to do if his disagreement with his stepmother hinges around her interrupting his living situation. I mean, it's sort of hard to show up to the Memorial Day Barbecue and just pretend that didn't happen.

In terms of what you should do? Stay the hell out of it. Period.
posted by Sara C. at 6:33 PM on May 24, 2012 [8 favorites]

Addendum - aside from living with his dad and depending on his dad for material support, is it possible that he could just let it ride, so to speak?

In my experience, sometimes it's better to just have your parent be upset and go live your own life while they cool down and get over whatever set them off. Even if that means you can't be 100% super close besties with them every single day of your whole life.
posted by Sara C. at 6:36 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think you're right about keeping the drama down. I would imagine that your son needs reassurance that he's doing the right thing, help coming to clarity about what he wants, and communication tactics for when dad gets crazy. It sounds like he has drawn some boundaries, which is likely good. You might also reassure him that even if it's hard now, the situation will likely change over the years to come.
posted by salvia at 6:39 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

(the young rope-rider: "A lot"? You don't hang out with them on purpose, do you? People who are that toxic are not healthy for anyone to be around.)

OP: My money is on jealousy or toxic crazy from the new wife. But your son's never had to share his dad, either, from what you've said, least of all with someone who also lives with both of them. I think you are maybe in a bad position to advocate for your son, here, because if anyone is judged to have an agenda in trying to talk to someone about his or her spouse, it's the ex-spouse. Can you maybe just keep being supportive of your son and helping him wait it out? Eventually your ex will notice if his wife is a two-faced psycho, but right now, he sounds pretty protective of her interests (which is appropriate - that's partnership, and a short courtship with a year-long marriage also puts it in the honeymoon period - but which is probably pretty hard for your son, whose interests have until now reigned supreme.)
posted by gingerest at 6:44 PM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

In your shoes I'd be really annoyed and sorely, sorely tempted to step in on your son's behalf. But I don't think that's really wise, for a couple of reasons:
  • He will be dealing with crappy/unfair situations for a long time to come, and he has the skills (or can develop them, with your help/therapy/etc.) to cope with them effectively on his own. He needs to practice this for his own self-worth and basic "mom won't be there forever" reasons.
  • Your ex-husband has about ten thousand reasons, including some outstandingly strong biological ones, to take your interference in this matter very, very badly. Also, he lives with the person he's choosing to side with right now; she is in a much better position to make her case (even if it's a stupid, wrong, and evil case) than you will ever be. I think it's likely that you giving him a piece of your mind (even if tactfully phrased) will make this situation last a lot longer.
  • Your son is not currently in physical danger, has a safe and supportive place to live, and this is in no sense a crisis. [This is really important - just because something totally blows does not make it an emergency.]
  • This really, really, really isn't your problem. It's your son's problem, and his father's problem, and the new stepmom's problem. You have lots of other problems to take care of (including more general support and care and presumably financial aid for a very challenged young adult.)
I think that your best bet is to try and help your son cope with whatever emotional and logistical fallout there is, and offer to help him come up with solutions on his own (and maybe counsel patience, understanding, and wisdom type stuff while you're at it.)

This is also a great learning opportunity for him about the perils of love and hormones, and how one's decisions have an impact on others. Someday he might be looking for a new stepmom for his kids, after all.
posted by SMPA at 6:57 PM on May 24, 2012 [8 favorites]

Yea, you and your son have my empathy. Dad really shouldn't be forcing the issue. Regardless of age, no one should be expected to simply accept a replacement mother, father or sibling. Step situations are almost always very complex and tough to deal with and live through.

Step mom should be backing the hell off too. I think anyone with any common sense, AND if they were truly invested would know that kids come first and foremost.

I'm a step dad myself, and I've been very successful. I had to work my ass off though, and had to earn every little bit of respect and love that I get.

If you feel compelled to talk with your son about this, I would just say that Dad cares a lot about this person and is being very forceful about it because he wants her to be a part of the family. (Which is probably true.)

Otherwise, you've already gotten him out of that toxic living situation and for that I say, Good Job!
posted by snsranch at 7:02 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was the kid in a similar situation. This is tough. IMHO, your son needs to tell his dad to back the eff off and treat him like an adult, or he won't see him or talk to him at all. Period. Whenever Dad starts yelling, just hang up the phone or leave the room. Dad needs to be reminded that having a relationship with his adult son is a privilege granted by his son, it's not a right.
posted by gnutron at 7:06 PM on May 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

Your son has to decide how he wants to proceed. In my opinion, that would mean cutting his father out of his life for the moment. No on should tolerate the abuse his father and stepmother are dishing out. It isn't normal to ask an adult you share a home with to stay in his or her room until someone else comes home. That's kinda straight up crazy.

Your son needs to set boundaries with his father. He can let him know that he loves him and wants a relationship but he refuse to engage if he's going to be badgered and belittled over his father's perception of how he ought to behave regarding his stepmother. Cutting off his father is unfortunate and is probably what the stepmom wants but putting up with unwarranted incivility is unacceptable.

You can mostly stay out of this other than to continue to support your son. If your ex seeks you out, you can be honest and say that your son wants a relationship and that it saddens you that things have fallen apart between them. You might suggest some family counseling for your son and ask that his father participate too.
posted by shoesietart at 7:19 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

A lot of the advice above is predicated on assumption that Dad will react and engage rationally here, where there is copious evidence he will not.

Dad needs to be reminded that having a relationship with his adult son is a privilege granted by his son, it's not a right.

Yes. Son also needs to be reminded he has power in this relationship; he can block his dad's texts and send emails to recycling and basically refuse to engage with someone who is behaving abusively.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:44 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

as re the WTF email... I would recommend NEVER communicating about a situation this fraught with peril via email. Email is too easily misinterpreted from both a tone and meaning point of view. If you need to talk to the father, do so live if possible, otherwise by phone. Even the fact you name it a WTF email suggests it would not be constructive. good luck.
posted by jcworth at 11:20 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Email is a bad idea. But a parent-to-parent chat is totally legit. You can frame it as "son seems unhappy and frustrated with this dynamic and I wanted to get your take on what's going on" rather than "by all accounts, you're drunk on lurve and being a jerk to our kid, WTF."
posted by desuetude at 11:31 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

He has to sort this out with his dad. You should step back and offer a sympathetic ear and undying support but there's really nothing more you can do without amping up the drama.
posted by h00py at 7:19 AM on May 25, 2012

Sorry, so my answer to your question is, be there for him to talk to and offer consoling words, advice, hugs and anything else that involves purely your son. You probably won't be able to resolve things by talking to his father about it all. Your son is an adult and this is a relationship he needs to navigate for himself. Listening to your son and having your door open to him is the best thing you can do.
posted by h00py at 7:24 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Be supportive of your son, and stay the hell out of it. I know, you hurt when he hurts, and this is a terrible situation. Helping your son cope with it is the best thing you can do.

You might want to suggest to your son that for now he may want to limit contact with his dad. Perhaps even roleplay how he'll handle the situation.

I wouldn't put anything in email, not you, not your son. And the next conversation that your son has should go something like this:

"Dad, I know you love X, and that's fine. I think that since you're recently married, that it's best to give you your space as a couple. I still want to have a relationship with you, and for now, I'd rather not interact with X. Just as I respect your feelings, I hope you respect mine and I hope that we can come to some agreement on some time that we can spend together, just father and son. If not, that's okay."

He can be firm about what he wants and if his Dad isn't amenable. "I'm sorry you feel that way, the door is always open on my side. If you change your mind in the future, you know how to reach me."

It's very difficult to be rejected by a parent or to be displaced by a new relationship. There's nothing your son did that caused his dad to start acting like a total dick. That's on his dad. But no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

No law says that your son has to like his step-mother, be in her company or put up with any of her nonsense.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:08 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sadly, it is very common for women who marry men with children to be at best indifferent to those children and at worst actively hostile (this is where the Wicked Stepmother trope comes from); even more sadly, it is common for the men involved to allow their infatuation with the woman to override their natural affection for their child and cause them to take the stepmother's side. There is nothing you can do about this except to be supportive and explain the situation as best you can in whatever way you think your son can handle. I'm sorry he and you have been thrust into this situation, and I hope it resolves itself in a way that isn't too harmful for your son.
posted by languagehat at 9:09 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

(N.b.: By "very common" I certainly don't mean "usual," just "far from rare.")
posted by languagehat at 9:10 AM on May 25, 2012

Wow, so hard! The stepmother seems so awful... but some possibilities could exist that might tell a different story. It may be that she doesn't understand certain behaviors/exchanges that are common coin between you, your ex, and your son, and may be reading as hurtful targeting some stuff that you would read as affectionate needling (or some similar ordinary dynamic that she is unfamiliar with that seems aggressive or hostile to her). In other words, it might be essentially a culture clash of emotional/social dynamics.

The possibility also exists that your son really is being purposefully horrible to her for the usual reasons that children often resent their parents' new spouses/partners. I think it would be unwise to absolutely rule out the potential for that. People can surprise us, even our nearest and dearest.

But even keeping all that in mind (as well as the obvious possibility that the new wife may simply be selfish, manipulative, cruel, sociopathic, or just stupid/immature), the most important aspect to you is the emotional health and well-being of your son, and I think that to promote that you just need to do what you are doing without trying to solve a thing that you don't actually have anything to do with. Keep on with your program: being there for him to discuss things with or vent, being there as emotional and practical support and the loving parent you are, being there for your ex to come to for advice and help if he chooses. But don't try to make it all okay, because it's just not at all okay, and you can't unilaterally fix that.

I would recommend advising your son that he doesn't have to engage with his dad's hurtful emails/texts, but if he does, he can answer with something short and simple, along the lines of, "I love you, but I won't respond to attacks," or "I love you, but this is a problem we will have to solve at a later time," or something similarly short, kind, and very resolute that makes sense for the situation – and that he can do likewise at real life meetings that become abusive: repeat that response, and then leave.

If the texts are too distressing for him, they should be forwarded without reading to another account that you (or someone else your son trusts) can monitor in case there's anything important that might warrant a response.

Good luck to you and your son. You're doing great.
posted by taz at 8:46 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

i think what you're doing so far is good: give him a place to live. i don't want to tell you to treat him like a child, to clean up after him, etc. because he's an adult, but short of that, give him a place where he can do his own thing while he regroups so he can figure out his next step. school? a job? you can't force him to do anything. but, as an analogy, while he's treading water you can give him an edge of a pool to hold onto and rest for a bit so he can swim and get past this messiness with your ex-husband.
posted by cupcake1337 at 10:04 PM on June 3, 2012

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