Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My ex-wife and I divorced shortly after the birth of our son. I got really screwed in the divorce, something I do not hide. My son just introduced me to his serious girlfriend and, wow, does she remind me of my ex — similar mannerisms, ideals, and general outlook on life.
I advised my son to tread very carefully, and he was angry. He said he was tired of hearing me talk about his mother and wouldn’t listen to it anymore. Now he isn’t returning my calls.
I want to protect him, and I’m the bad guy? I don’t know what to do from here.
Start by understanding that you can be right here and still be wrong.
And you might not even be right; just because the girlfriend triggered you doesn’t mean your son will marry the same mistake you did.
But since people gravitate to what is emotionally familiar to them, I believe you’re right that your son has chosen an emotional echo of Mom.
But you’re still wrong in seeing it as your place to protect your son, and believing it was wise to cry “ex!” outright. You’ve been doing some form of that for decades.
To you, your ex is the harpy who punished you for loving her, but to him she’s Mom; even a highly mature child can feel protective toward the difficult person who raised him.
And toward the girlfriend he loves.
His defensiveness was foreseeable but you triggered it anyway. So now you can’t protect, you have to rebuild trust instead. You need to apologize immediately – for overstepping and overreacting, because you owed it to your son not to jump to (even correct) conclusions, out of respect both for his autonomy and his girlfriend’s status as a being unto herself versus a spirit-double of your ex.
A parent who hasn’t overplayed his hand could say to a son, “I might be wrong, but I noticed X when you two came for dinner the other night. Is everything OK?”
But assuming you and your son are ever able to talk unguardedly again, you’ll have to weigh carefully how much license you have to judge his personal life. My guess? Very little – even if he can trust you to take any untold I-told-you-so’s to your grave.
It’s an uneasy and often painful business, watching a child make what you think is an avoidable mistake. But “avoidable” and “mistake” are both in the eye of the beholder, and that strictly limits what you can do.
Re: Son’s Girlfriend: I am the girlfriend (now wife). My now-father-in-law told my husband how I’m going to trap him and get pregnant, and how I’m just like his “horrible” mother.
Eleven years later, we’re married and my husband barely has a relationship with his father. He meddled in our relationship and the relationship won. Oh, and my “horrible” mother-in-law is a wonderful woman.
This is valid, of course; refusing to see past angry old prejudices can cost people dearly.
But I think fairness demands we distinguish laughable misogyny like, “She’s going to trap you and get pregnant,” from a carefully observed, “When your girlfriend publicly shamed you, saying, ‘(direct quote here),’ it gave me a painful flashback.”
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.