Ask Sahaj: How can I get my husband and son to fix their relationship?

Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy, answers questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more.

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Q: My husband of 30 years and I have four grown children. Our youngest, who is in his mid-20s now, has distanced himself from his dad over the past couple of years – exacerbated by the pandemic, as we live in different states. There was no single event or argument; my son and husband were very close throughout our son’s high school years, but as our son matured, he began to view my husband more critically. He worked earnestly for several years to act as “family counselor,” and while it may have seemed that my husband was listening in the moment, our son didn’t perceive any lasting changes in my husband’s behavior.

Neither of them feel like the other does enough. I believe that our son does not feel “seen” or “heard” by my husband as he figures out his post-college life and isn’t “performing” as he did in high school and college. I have tried to help my husband to soften his approach and responses to our son to no avail.

In my mind, regardless of how the distance was created, my husband should step toward our son with expressions of love, and attempt to make contact. But he feels that our son should be making more of an effort. My son feels hurt and ignored, as does my husband. Stalemate.

I feel caught in between and am heartbroken over the rift (which is not a complete estrangement). They are able to be pleasant when they are around each other, but it feels stiff and lacking in any true closeness. What do you advise?

Stuck in the middle

A: Being in the middle of a conflict between two people you love is certainly a difficult position. I hear grief for a lack of cohesion within your family that you wish existed, but I also sense that you feel a responsibility to fix it. Where does that come from?

It does sound like your son has tried to be explicit about his needs or expectations with his dad – to no avail, as you said. There are only so many times someone will keep coming back to an empty well, so it makes sense that your son has withdrawn to protect himself.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that post-college life can be such an enlightening yet confusing time for young adults. Your son is navigating his independence and learning more about himself – away from the expectations and pressures of his parents. He’s naturally changing along the way.

But when people don’t feel “seen” or “heard,” it can indicate that they don’t feel particularly safe being honest or authentic within a relationship. Your husband may feel as though being direct or honest about your son’s diminished performance is to help and support him, but your son might actually be experiencing it as criticism of his personhood. And I wonder if the parallel is that your husband feels criticized by his son.

Given that they are still in contact and not estranged after a few years with distance, both parties, it seems, aren’t ready to give up on the relationship. But they are stuck in a cycle, and disrupting a cycle requires someone to do something differently.

But this question isn’t necessarily about them. It’s actually fraught with your anxiety and discomfort about what is happening between your husband and son. I wonder: What is being triggered in you? It’s natural for you, as the mom, to want to step in and fix this, but it is also important for you to build up your own tolerance for giving your son and husband the agency to figure out how to fix it themselves.

You get to decide if and where you may want to set boundaries. Are you caught in the middle because they are both coming to you to talk about the other? If so, are you truly comfortable with that, or can you encourage them to communicate directly?

Ultimately, you can open yourself up to be of support to either or both parties in trying to mend the relationship and create a new, healthier dynamic. But you will never be able to do the work, or manage their feelings, for them.



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