Should I Interfere With My Adult Son’s Relationship?

The fact that our children grow up does not mean that we cease to be their parents. We continue to want to protect and guide them and watch them make the best decisions for a happy and fulfilling life. But how much interference is too much interference when it comes to their romantic relationship? One mom asks: “What do you do when you know that your adult child and his significant other are not right for each other?”

Dear parental counselor,

My son is 20 and is in his third year of college with a degree in musical performance (jazz), and his classmate is 22 and she is in her final (fifth) year of a dual college major in music education and opera. My son has a history of ADHD, depression and anxiety. Apparently, his girlfriend also suffers from these problems and is taking medication.

It is clear that her family is somewhat different from ours in temperament, and this, of course, influenced her personality. My son is one of those people who prefer to stay at home and watch shows, order food and just vegetables, while his girlfriend sometimes does it, but always comes up with something in her head. My son loves to spend time and do something, but not as often as she made him do it when they got together (and before COVID-19). After COVID-19, she was at our house at least 3 days a week, as I would rather they were here than to her. She would rather be here too.

In short, I noticed the following differences:

* She is assertive, and he has to work on self-affirmation. I listen when I hear her pushing him and I bet I intervene if I think she’s pushing too hard. Case in point: She wanted him to go with her (that is, take her because she doesn’t drive) to her friend’s meeting in Philadelphia over the weekend. There would be a lot of strangers, and there are more cases in Philadelphia than in the suburbs where we live. He really didn’t want to leave, and she kept trying to convince him. If someone is hiding under cover to avoid you, you should probably stop pushing them! He says that he is more and more asserting himself, and in the end they did not go (on the advice of her mother, ultimately, since she trusts her mother from a medical point of view, because she is a physical therapist), but this assertiveness worried me. This is not the first time this has happened.

• She is very picky about food, has an unhealthy diet and wants to eat out all the time. He grew up eating what we do, eating leftovers whenever possible (since we usually have a full refrigerator), and making sure he eats fruits or vegetables in most cases. Eating in moderation is our business, and he recovered a lot the first time they were together. He says he’s lost something now, which I can see because he starts talking when he doesn’t want to eat this shit. She comes here and is so picky that sometimes she orders something instead of eating what we have prepared. She also dislikes leftover food, which is a DIFFERENT story financially.

* Talking about financial prospects, she likes to spend money and buy clothes, etc. He loves to spend money on his hobbies, but usually he has very few “desires” and understands the importance of frugality since we raised him that way … I have reminded him many times that he does NOT have to say yes to all the Broadway shows, escape rooms, vacations, and purchases she wants to make. He started to resist again, but I feel like it shouldn’t have been that hard from the start. To her credit, she makes a lot of sales, Groupon, etc., but the volume of purchases almost makes up for the money saved.

* She constantly talks about how we “put our hearts on our sleeves” and that he is “more of a bleeding heart” than she is. My son LOVES, adores animals and cares deeply for people. She cares about people, but not as much as he does. We love and appreciate wildlife, all dogs, cats, any animals. My son is watching a video about rescuing kittens because he screams out loud! She is of little interest. She also cares about people, but I’m worried about what happens to the animals, since he loves them very much.

* He recently helped (and continues) to take things out of her shared apartment as the school year is over and she will not be living there next semester. For all his confusion – and he is an AWESOME mess with ADHD – he actually told her, and I quote, “If we ever live together, our home won’t look like this!” Her mess must have been TOTALLY offensive, even if he commented on it!

* She snores and keeps him awake, and he is always exhausted after she leaves here.

I don’t dislike her as a person, it’s just that she is very different from him, and I am worried about the stress that this puts on him. She does a lot for my young children (planning games, projects and nice gifts for their birthdays and holidays), but in my experience other differences are difficult to overcome. I would know, since I am divorced from his father for many similar reasons. I think my ex is a great person, but we couldn’t live together.

I have discussed this with him lovingly in order to achieve his health and well-being, and have given tips that can improve the situation. He is generally very attentive to my advice, and we have a great relationship. However, I’m not sure if I’m advising too often or not. I don’t do this all the time and mostly wait for situations to appear, which I then comment on. However, he is quite used to the fact that I do not hold my tongue, and I really try to sprinkle her with compliments or optimistically praise what she does / interest in her attempts to balance it out.

The end point here is that it’s hard to watch a relationship develop that you know is unlikely to work out in the end, and that makes you uncomfortable as a parent. I try to keep the point of view that it is a learning experience for them, and every learning experience is important. I just don’t want him to be “stuck” in this relationship.

Sincerely,

Worried mom

Dear caring mother,

I thought about shortening your letter a little to make room, but I think the level of detail you give is important in shaping my answer, so I left it untouched. The first thing that really strikes me, is that the part does not look like your son and his girlfriend so different from each other.

They both study to pursue a career in music. They both have a history of issues related to ADHD, anxiety and depression, and I think they are probably related. They’re both dirty, she’s just dirty. They both have things that they like to spend money on, but she likes to hurry up . They both care about people, but he cares more.

Even the things that you call more serious issues, such as that he is more of a couch potato and her desire to go out more, should not necessarily interfere with the agreement. When the couch potato and social butterfly get together, usually the couch potato comes out a little more than they would like, and the social butterfly stays at home more often than they would like. I think they are figuring out where those boundaries lie, and in the particular case you illustrated, they ended up staying at home the way he preferred. (And I really think it’s okay if she’s not crazy about cats; that might be his business.)

I understand that the business you are building is not about deep grievance or dysfunction in the relationship – I am not reading anything about infidelity or abuse here. If this were the case, it would be appropriate or necessary for you to step in, give your opinion, or offer help. But what I’m reading is more about compatibility, and compatibility is subjective. It is possible that your son has decided that some of her most desirable qualities – like being considerate of her siblings, for example – outweighed her loving junk food and snoring.

Maybe they find some of their differences attractive or even attract them to each other in the first place. Maybe there is a part of him that wants to be a little more outgoing, and she likes that she challenges him this way. Maybe the fact that he loves animals so much is something she admires, even if she herself is not obsessed with animals. It’s okay for them to be a little different, and it’s okay for them to learn to compromise.

Their relationship is now too much under the microscope. And I know that this is partly due to the fact that he lives with you at home, and now she is more often at your home due to the pandemic. If she teases him with something like a trip to Philadelphia, it sounds like you tend to focus on the conversation and wait for the right moment to intervene. What if you try to do the exact opposite? If they are quarreling about something, and it gets on your last nerves, because she does not calm down, and he literally dives under the covers, go to another room. Put on some music and start your meal or take a relaxing bath. I know it won’t be easy. I know you want to help and that you have come from a place of love, but I also think that your participation can exacerbate the very stress you are trying to relieve.

You mention that you divorced your ex-husband for many of the same reasons. This could very well mean that you might spot a train that eventually derailed, or your own hard, painful experiences might cause you to look too closely at the warning signs. Either way, my advice would be the same: keep loving your son. Be kind to his partner. And be the person they – and especially he – can turn to if he needs advice, if he wants advice.

Because he really wasn’t stuck in this relationship. At least for now, he wants to be there. And if he and his girlfriend just don’t fit in the end, he will have to come to that realization in his own way and in his own time.

Do you have a parenting dilemma? Send your questions to mwalbert@lifehacker.com with “Parental Advice” in the subject line.

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