Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My 30-year-old son and I had a fight on Mother’s Day, and he walked out and went home. We screamed at each other and both said things that were extremely ugly and hurtful. However, I cannot get over this hurt.

He was recently married and his wife (whom we adore) was with her mother that day. I know we’re both having a hard time separating—he is an only child and we have been very close.

I just can’t forgive him for walking out. I think that walking out on Mother’s Day is the meanest thing a child could do to a mother. He wants to press the reset button (is that a Millennial thing?) and just say, “Forget about it. Let’s get past it.” But I feel we have to do a do-over. I want him to fix it, and he is being stubborn and won’t. We have been talking about it for six weeks now, and he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.

I adore my son, but I’m still so angry. What’s a mother to do?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I can understand how hurt you are not only that this happened, but that it happened on a day in which mothers across the country were being celebrated. Holidays can be especially loaded—something that happens on, say, someone’s birthday or anniversary can take on more meaning than it would otherwise have. But if you can separate out what happened from the day it happened, you won’t feel as injured, and you might also be able to see more clearly something important about your relationship that will help you both going forward.

I don’t know what your argument was about, but if it was anything like most arguments between parents and their adult children, it ultimately had to do with what you mention: separation—that is, renegotiating your roles as your son gets older. Indeed, your son just got married, and though you adore your daughter-in-law, this does represent a new life phase for him, one in which his primary relationship is the one he has with his wife. That doesn’t mean you two will necessarily be less close—plenty of married adults are very close with their parents—it just means that you have the potential to develop a healthier and less fraught kind of closeness. In other words, this is a wonderful opportunity.

Most children, with or without siblings, go through a process way back in toddlerhood called “separation and individuation.” Separation refers to the child’s recognition that he or she is a separate person from the parent (as opposed to the infant’s concept of “fusion,” in which they’re part of the same whole). Individuation refers to the child having his or her own thoughts, feelings, and ways of seeing the world that may be different from the parent’s. If all goes well in this process, the child feels connected to the parent, but also free to be his or her own person.

Sometimes, though, parents and children become “enmeshed,” usually because the parent—due to her own history, or her not getting her needs met in other ways—struggles to let go. With separation and individuation, the parent and child feel both comfortably connected and separate. With enmeshment, however, it becomes hard to distinguish one person’s emotional experience from the other’s: The parent tends to be over-involved in the child’s life (for instance, trying to direct the son’s or daughter’s choices), making it hard for the child to become independent. The thing about enmeshment is that it can be confused with closeness. And when there’s a breach, it feels particularly painful.

All healthy relationships go through rupture and repair. There’s a rupture—a misunderstanding, an unfortunate interaction, hurt feelings—followed by a repair. The repair might involve one person or both people taking responsibility for their actions, making a genuine apology, or working through a difference. I have a feeling that your son was also upset by what happened on Mother’s Day but instead of taking into account his experience and what you can do to repair your part, you’re insisting that he re-create the Mother’s Day you wanted—as if a do-over consisting of him grudgingly restaging the day’s festivities would repair this for either of you.

If you can see beyond the hurt, you might view your son’s walking out not as “the meanest thing a child can do to a mother,” but as an indication that he wants to preserve your relationship. The meanest thing a child can do isn’t leave during a chaotic argument so that both of you can calm down and not do even more damage; the meanest thing isn’t being willing to move forward despite the extremely hurtful things that were said; the meanest thing isn’t his saying, after six weeks of hearing you attempt to get him to accede to your demand, that he feels those conversations need to end because they aren’t helping either of you. He’s essentially saying, I’m not giving up on us, Mom, but I care too much about our relationship to argue about this anymore—let’s agree to disagree, as all people must do.

Of course, this do-over feels so important to you because you imagine that it would lessen your hurt. But taking a different approach will alleviate your pain more effectively—and not just in this situation. You might consider that part of loving someone is encouraging that person’s selfhood, and that one of the most loving things you can do as a mother is redirect some of the energy you’re focusing on your son to your own pursuits. You love someone by acting lovingly toward them, not demanding that they take you to brunch. Since you adore your son, you’ll want him to have a happy marriage and the skills he’s showing bode well for that. Since you also want to have a happy relationship with him, you’ll need to consider how you can be the mother he’ll genuinely want to fete next Mother’s Day, rather than forcing him to do so retroactively and with resentment.

Both of you lost your tempers on Mother’s Day, but now you have the chance for your own do-over. Email or text him (after all, he’s a Millennial): “Dear Son, I’m sorry that we upset each other on Mother’s Day and I apologize for the hurtful things I said. I understand that you want to move past this, and I do, too. If you ever feel like talking about what upset you, or anything else going on between us, I’d be interested to understand more. If not, that’s okay, too—just know that my door is always open. I love you very much and look forward to seeing you soon.” He may or may not reply, but he’ll appreciate the larger message and feel less of a need to pull away from you. Over time, the more you can make space for your differences, the closer he’ll come.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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