For instance, when your son lets you know how he feels about the way he and his sister were treated, he’s not saying, “You were awful people.” Instead, he’s saying something like, “Sometimes I didn’t think you were there for me when I needed you.” And if you reply with, “This is not the case—we did so much for you,” what he hears isn’t your love, but another perceived rejection: “You’re not interested in my experience. My inner world doesn’t matter to you.”
That’s not to say you didn’t do everything you remember doing for him. It’s just that it’s equally true that he has different recollections and experienced the dynamics in the family differently than you and your husband did. If you want a relationship with your son and his family, you’ll need to take his perspective seriously—you don’t have to agree with it, but you do have to understand it and know that it’s just as valid as yours. There’s no point in arguing over whose version is more accurate, because the truth is that both of your experiences are subjective.
Your resistance to hearing his pain surrounding this may be one reason he’s choosing not to spend time with you, but it might not be the only one. Perhaps he’s genuinely overwhelmed by the responsibilities he mentioned—his job, his spouse, his children. Perhaps he’s struggling with alcohol addiction and is avoiding you (who will call him out on it) as a way to avoid dealing with his need to get treatment. And perhaps there is something else that isn’t even on your radar yet. The only way to know is to ask—but from a place of deep empathy rather than blame.
So instead of “Why don’t we ever see you? Is a quick visit too much to ask?” you might try something like “I imagine there’s a reason we don’t see much of you, and I wonder whether we’ve done something to push you away. We love you and care about you deeply, and I know we haven’t been as open as we should have been in the past when you’ve shared some of how you felt about us and our family. We regret that we weren’t more receptive to your experience, but we are now. The last thing we wanted to do was hurt you, but we probably have, and we’d like to understand more about that so we can do things differently to support you.”
Your son may not be open to this conversation initially, but the more you refrain from complaints like “What, you can’t drive 15 minutes to see us when you spent the entire day with your wife’s family?” and instead stay on point about wanting to hear him out and support what he needs from you, the more inclined he’ll become to move toward you and share what’s really going on.
Meanwhile, you can send more enticing invitations. There’s a world of difference between “Will you be coming over for Easter?” (meaning: for our sake) and “Hey, we’d like to do something fun with you. Why don’t we take you all out for dinner at your favorite restaurant—or take the grandkids to the movies so you two can have some downtime?” When your son begins to see you as helping him rather than asking something of him, the dynamic will gradually shift, making it more likely that he’ll be inclined to talk to you about what has been getting in the way of having a closer relationship. And talking to each other—and listening—is the best path toward the relationship you so deeply want.
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. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.