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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Adult Son Is Being Devoured By A Cougar

A mother is concerned that her 32-year-old is ruining his life by taking up with an older woman. (Margot Pandone/ Unsplash)
A mother is concerned that her 32-year-old is ruining his life by taking up with an older woman. (Margot Pandone/ Unsplash)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

My young adult son, with whom I am very close, is in a long term polyamorous relationship with a much older woman (he is 32, she is 49). Admittedly, the polyamory bothers and perplexes me. But, truly, that’s not the worst part. It’s that she just isn’t good for him. She’s manipulative and selfish, and I think her negative qualities are rubbing off on him. I feel like he’s mesmerized by her, and like he’s trying assert himself as his own man – separate from the boy I raised. It’s not that I want to keep him in some kind of a bubble. I applaud him for finding his independence. (Isn’t that what we all want for our kids?) I just don’t want him to cut off his nose to spite his face.

Please help me to reconcile who my son is and who I want him to be.

She’s been married, has kids, and doesn’t wish to do either of those things again. He still very much wants those things (at least he did until he met her), and I think his decision to be with her is holding him back. Recently he let it slip that he was conflicted about his desire to eventually get married and have children, and his desire to stay with her. Shortly thereafter, I introduced him to a lovely woman his own age. I see a lot of potential in their match, and so does he. But the problem is, he isn’t willing to cut ties with his older girlfriend. Now he wants to maintain relationships with both of them! I am questioning everything, and now I’ve dragged this poor young woman into it.

I imagine you’ll tell me to stop meddling, and to live my own life. Please know I’ve tried. Please help me to reconcile who my son is and who I want him to be.

Sincerely,
Not My Boy

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Dear NMB,

Oh mama. What a complicated situation. Look: my kids are still so young that I’m more worried about them falling out of the tree in our front yard than falling into a dysfunctional relationship. I have no idea what it’s like to be the parent of an adult child. But I can extrapolate, at least a little. It must be terribly anguishing to see your son get involved in a relationship that not only deprives him of certain experiences he says he wants to have (marriage, kids), but also—in your view—seems to be negatively affecting his personality.

You’re worried and bummed. You have cause to be. I get it.

All I can do is to suggest, gently, that you surrender the idea that you will be able to control your son’s choices in life. And furthermore to suggest that any effort you expend to control his life will make matters worse, both for him and for you.

I say this because I sense you may still be having trouble facing, deep down, that he’s a grown-up—not a “young adult” as you call him. At 32, he’s nearly a decade out of college. He gets to make his own mistakes.

My hunch is that your son knows—both consciously and unconsciously—that you disapprove of his older woman. And that, to some extent, this is why he chose her. If you look at your own language in the letter, you seem to be right at the edge of this realization: “…he’s trying assert himself as his own man—separate from the boy I raised.” Precisely.

Chances are, he wouldn’t feel such a strong need to assert himself if he believed, deep down, that his mother accepted his independence.

any effort you expend to control his life will make matters worse, both for him and for you.

Again, this is speculation, but my guess is that your son feels conflicted about his own close relationship with you, and that taking up with another older woman is one way of pushing you away, while also keeping you close. I mean by this that he knows you will view this relationship as a repudiation, but also that it will have the effect of keeping you involved in his life.

That’s certainly how it’s played out, with you going so far as to try to engineer a better match for him. Now you’re really embroiled in his life. He’s playing out a dynamic known to all parents: seeking negative attention. And you’re responding in a manner that is almost guaranteed to keep the cycle going.

If you want your son to engage in the process of finding a romantic relationship that will bring him happiness and stability, it’s your job as a parent (and Lord knows this is the tough part, whether your kids are two or 32) to disengage from the ancient, unconscious drama being reenacted.

This means not only accepting that you can’t protect your son from bad decisions that belong to him, but also that your very efforts to do so—no matter how well-intentioned—will keep him from finding his own way. And learning his own lessons. In the end, our children get to be who they want to be, not who we want them to be. Our job to love and accept them, even if (and especially) in the midst of our disappointment. Sometimes the best thing to do happens to be the hardest.

I know. I know. It’s easy for me to say. Just do your best and forgive yourself the rest.

Steve

Author's note: Obviously, I was out of my depth here. So can I hear from parents of adult children who have faced this (or a similar) dilemma? How much did I get wrong? What did I miss? Send your thoughts along in the comments section below. And hey, send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A. 

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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