Carolyn Hax: Dependent adult son pushes back against mom’s pressure


Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My adult son lives with his dad. He took six years to earn an associate’s degree. He has been working the same part-time job since high school — except during peak covid, when, much to his delight, he earned more through unemployment than he did when he was working.

I’m encouraging him to get a full-time job; he’s talking about a bachelor’s degree. Cynical me says that’s because living off dad is easier than working and paying his own bills. And, because we are paying for his younger brother’s bachelor’s, he expects we will do the same for him.

Dad seems content to allow the situation to continue; he’s certainly reluctant to force any changes. Son’s demeanor toward me — not others — is confrontational and at times aggressively defiant. How dare I expect him to get a job!

I realized he makes me feel as if I am being … bullied. By my son. I love him, and I’d like to have a relationship with him, but I need to protect myself. I’m not sure what to do.

Failure to Launch: Leave him be. An adult not using your money and shelter to live this way isn’t your business. When you keep pressuring him, you cross boundaries and interfere in his life and the arrangement with his dad.

That might be hard to accept when you know that, on some level, you’re right about the enabling, and when you still feel like a parent, even though your child is grown. But hard is not impossible. Release. When you talk to him, talk about something else. You did what you could. Now it’s up to him.

Dear Carolyn: I’ve decided to have minimal or no contact with my only living immediate family members: my siblings. I’m no longer willing to subvert my dignity and self-respect to maintain a superficial front of family togetherness only to be subjected to a steady stream of abuse.

How do I respond to longtime friends of my parents, or to relatives who refuse to acknowledge the validity of keeping my distance from my siblings? It’s hurtful when some question, downplay or deny my sound reasons.

I wish I had a better response than, “You’re entitled to your opinion, but I actually find that hurtful,” which I haven’t had the guts to say. Suggestions?

In the Family Wash: Then that’s what you need to say. That’s your peace of mind. The words are just fine, but the saying is where you’ll find strength.

It’s okay that you haven’t found it yet; this is a huge and wrenching process, and its rewards are going to come to you incrementally with each step. No need to pressure yourself for the next one; you can just rest a bit with this first step of minimal contact. Ultimate goal? Needing no one’s approval but your own.

In the meantime, lean on simple, disengaged non-responses: “Thanks.” “Okay, then.” “Interesting.” “Hm” [while nodding your head]. In lieu of reasons — their questions are not your obligations — try saying: “Long story,” “No, thanks” (great as a non sequitur), “I’d rather not say,” “Thanks for your concern,” changing the subject and walking away. They can’t challenge you if you’re not there to be challenged.

Tell us: What’s your favorite Carolyn Hax column about love?

· I don’t have any advice, but I hope Family Wash’s explanation stands as an example for all the well-meaning people who try to reconcile estranged family members. It is incredibly hard to get away from abusive people, and it’s so much harder when the people in your own circle don’t believe you or don’t think it’s that’s bad.

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