BIANCA BAGNARELLI

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,

I have two adult sons, both of whom live far away from me. Their dad died unexpectedly 15 years ago, and I have since remarried someone who is a good fit for me but who really has no experience being a father. We have been a couple for seven years and married for two.

From time to time, we visit with each of my sons, either at their house or ours. We have no problem with my younger son—my husband gets along great with him and his wife. It’s my older son and his family who are the issue.

My older son and his wife have two young toddlers, whom we both adore, but despite the fact that my second husband is the only maternal grandfather the grandkids will ever know, my son and daughter-in-law encourage the kids to call him by his first name, rather than “Grandpa.” I have asked them many times to have the grandkids call him Grandpa to show him respect, but it’s like I’m talking to my hand.

This sets up bad feelings between my husband and my son and his wife, as my husband feels disrespected and unloved. I feel ignored. We try to correct things directly with the grandkids, but they take their cues from their parents. The end result is a lot of tension in the house when they visit, as they don’t like or respect my husband, or make him feel wanted, and he feels that and responds negatively in a passive-aggressive way. The bad feelings have always been just below the surface between my older son and my husband, and although both men try not to make them overt, they come out in subtle forms.

The other problem is that my older son and his wife are inconsiderate houseguests. We know it’s hard to pick up after toddlers and we cut them a lot of slack for that, but I’m talking about things such as cooking for themselves and then leaving a sink full of dirty dishes for us to do while they go out “for a run.” Or leaving us wastebaskets (plural) full of soiled diapers to empty. Or eating candy and tossing the wrappers on the floor or table. Or cooking food in our microwave without a cover so that it explodes all over the inside of the microwave and then leaving the mess that way (after multiple reminders to cover their food while cooking). Or using up the last of some food staple, such as butter or salt, without telling us, then “forgetting” to restock our pantry when they make a grocery run for themselves. We get the sense that they are this way all the time, with everyone they visit, as my youngest son has let some comments drop. Their own home is dirty and messy, and that’s fine for them if that’s the way they want to live, but it stresses us out when we have to live in extreme mess for a week and then spend an entire day deep cleaning the house when they leave. My youngest son and his wife are the opposite: neat, thoughtful, and respectful. As a result, we love spending time with them, and dread a visit to or from my older son and his family.

What to do? My older son and his wife are going through marital difficulties and my daughter-in-law is very insecure and sensitive to criticism, so we have shied away from having “the big talk.” Do we just suck it up for their one-week visits, for the sake of family harmony? (Easier for me to do than for my husband, as there appears to be some mutual dislike on both sides there.)

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I have a feeling that you and your husband have something in common with your older son: You all feel disrespected, unloved, and ignored. I’m saying this up front because this is actually good news. By that I mean, as upsetting as this situation is for you, once you see the similarities among the three of you, you’ll be more open to considering your son’s point of view, and that, in turn, can help set the stage for improving the issues among you.

Let’s look more closely at the first issue that bothers you: your son’s decision to have his kids call your husband by his first name. You’ve expressed how you and your husband feel about this choice, but have you considered why your son feels the way he does? Fifteen years ago, perhaps right around the time your son was entering young adulthood, his father died—and not in a way for which he could try to prepare emotionally, because it happened unexpectedly.

Clearly that’s a significant loss, and I wonder how much you know about your son’s experience of it. I imagine it was a chaotic time in your family, and like many parents in that situation, you might have been so focused on managing your own pain and taking care of the day-to-day that you weren’t fully focused on what your son was going through.

As for your son, many people who lose a parent don’t know how to talk with their surviving parent about their feelings about the other parent’s death. Some are afraid that bringing up their own grief will overwhelm their parent, who just lost a spouse. Some try to be strong for their parent and numb their own pain. Meanwhile, many parents want so badly for their kids to be alright that without realizing it, an implicit message is sent: Please act as though you’re not in pain. If you seem okay, then I will be less anxious about how this death is affecting you.

All this is to say, the tension your son experienced with your husband from the get-go might be related to his way of working through his ongoing grief; it might be related to your husband’s lack of experience as a father; or it might be related to both of those things. Whatever the reason, the “bad feelings” between the two have spent years lurking “just below the surface,” where I imagine they continue to fester. Then your son had kids, which may have brought up new and unresolved feelings about his father’s death and fatherhood more generally. Amid this sea of feelings, you asked him to meet the needs of a man he never got along with, without giving due thought to your son’s needs too. Could it be that your son also feels disrespected, unloved, and ignored?

You may find it confusing that your younger son gets along easily with your husband (you don’t mention whether your younger son has kids and, if he does, what name they use to address your husband), but that may be because he’s had a different reaction to his father’s death than your older son has. Grief, even over the same exact loss, is an individual experience—no two people will go through it in exactly the same way. It sounds like your older son is understandably protective of his father’s memory, and even more so because of his feelings toward your husband.

You say that you’ve shied away from “the big talk,” but now is the time to have it—though not the talk you’re alluding to, about the mess (which I’ll get to in a minute) and the name your grandchildren call your husband. The big talk is about your son’s grief and how to make room for it in your relationship. I say “talk” but what I mostly mean is “listen”—you’ll want to listen to what your son says without trying to talk him out of his feelings about his father’s death, or about you, or about your husband. You might say something like, “I love you so much, and I know there’s been tension during our visits. I’ve been thinking that maybe I don’t understand a lot of what you’re feeling, and I want to be there for you in the ways I can. One thing I’ve been thinking about is that we haven’t really talked about Dad much lately, or maybe we haven’t talked much about his death at all, and I’m wondering if we can now.”

Once you begin talking more openly and honestly about the loss your family experienced, you may find that other conversations go more easily. It seems that your son and his wife have different standards of cleanliness than you do, but the more goodwill you build up together—which is to say, the more he feels understood on the big issue of his father—the more receptive he’ll likely become to your reasonable requests during his visits.

And even if he doesn’t change his messy ways, you do have options. One is to visit him in his city and stay in a nearby hotel or short-term rental. Another is to have him and his family do the same in your city. And the third is to let them stay at your house while carrying a lesson from your husband’s death with you: Life is short, and we could lose our loved ones at any minute. All families are imperfect, but I’ll bet that your son and his toddlers have some lovely qualities. It would be a shame if, while you’re arguing about a name or a mess in the microwave, you miss the joy that surrounds you, which your son and his family have brought into your home.


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.

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