A mom asks how to repair the rift between her husband and their son.
Dear Dr. McKinley,
Our son, who’s in his midtwenties, came out about five years ago. My husband has tried to accept every part of his life. Things had been going well until recently, when we went for a visit.
Our son has a new boyfriend. They’re very physical with one another. We went to dinner, just the three of us. Our son had way too much to drink, which is way out of character for him. Long story short: he got angry with us, and in turn my husband got angry back and, in the course of conversation, remarked how uncomfortable he felt with all the affection displayed between our son and his boyfriend. Our son got very upset and asked us to leave. We cut our visit short by three days and left.
My son and I are on good terms. I’ve always accepted him 100 percent. My husband has apologized to our son and knows he’ll have to spend the rest of his life proving his acceptance of my son to him. My husband is a good man, a loving man. I know he is truly sorry.
Do you have any words of advice on how we move forward in this situation?
Dear Concerned Mom,
This question has three themes that I want to address, and all of them are significant.
First, it is always heartwarming to be reminded of the unfailing love of a parent. Your support of your son is reflective of what most of us long for in life: a caregiver whose love and compassion are steady and consistent. Thanks for being a great mother by demonstrating unconditional positive regard for your son. Creating a loving space where he can safely explore his interests without condemnation or disdain is the best move. By consistently being loving and open, you aren’t implying agreement with any of his many life decisions; you’re simply validating that he has the right to choose.
The second theme is the normal reaction we all feel when someone we respect, love and care about chooses a path we aren’t comfortable with. Being frustrated, scared or confused is not only normal but also simply human. The challenge comes when our normal fears and confusion lead us to judge and attack the people who act and think differently than we do. Although being a parent does come with responsibilities, choosing the way in which our children live is not one of them. Personal choice is one of the precious gifts we all have. It is the secret to all healthy striving and the hope for an adaptive and fruitful life. Unless someone’s choices are breaking known laws, any attempt to take personal choice away from someone is useless striving for control, superiority and/or revenge. Personal choice is an essential psychological need. Your husband’s conflicted feelings and thoughts are part of being human. How he chooses to resolve his internal conflict is the key to being a healthy parent. It’s common but ineffective to try to resolve internal conflict by controlling, judging or persuading someone else. A healthy approach would be for your husband to seek out counsel on how to sort out his emotions without damaging his relationship with his son. I hope you will do the same. “Stuffing” feelings to avoid conflict is not good for you, your husband or your son long-term.
Not what but how.
Parents often start off with the right intentions but can quickly get derailed by their emotions and/or judgments. Meaningful and courageous conversations require thoughtful and safe environments. Alcohol doesn’t reveal one’s true feelings but rather can give a person false permission to be cruel and offensive. If the environment isn’t thoughtful and safe, find another time and way to have these conversations; control the impulse to just “get it out on the table,” which is just a way to alleviate one’s own pain and doesn’t demonstrate care and compassion for the other person. In the absence of time to prepare and be intentional, follow the old adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
More often than not, it’s not what we want to talk about with our children; it’s how we talk with them that makes all the difference. Take the time to sort out your feelings and find healthy ways to share them with your son. In turn, permit him the same courtesy of sharing his feelings with you, and show him you care about him unconditionally.
In summary, I suggest three ways to move forward with your son:
- Love wins, so continue to find ways to love him.
- Lean into the idea that your son needs to choose his own path. Anything else would rob him of the freedom to be himself.
- When you do feel prompted to share concerns and/or express negative feelings, focus more on how you say it than what you say.
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