After betrayal, 18-year-old son is caught in the middle
Q: I was married for 19 years and got separated over a year ago. Before we were divorced (hence her now being my ex), my now ex-wife started dating a friend of mine, whom I did things with off-and-on for 17 years and leaned on when my separation began.
The problem is not only the betrayal I feel, but also, because of this new boyfriend, the strained relationship between our 18-year-old son and his mother. My son believes my friend betrayed me and doesn't want to be around him. It goes against the ethical code we raised our son to have.
I have tried to explain to my ex that their poor decision is going to have a lasting effect on our son's trust in her. But she just says time will make it all better — even though my son has said, "Mom chooses him over me."
Lord knows I have no desire to be his friend again. I have a strong belief in friend ethics. Any advice on how to handle this? I've only said, "Son, you're an adult and must make your own decisions." Can this be fixed?
Circle of Betrayal
A: Which is your stronger belief, in "friend ethics," or in the bond between mother and son? Between telling your son to decide for himself, or setting an example for making enlightened decisions?
I've found that advising the high road has two steps: (1) Explain to a wounded party that he needs to make the next sacrifice; (2) Duck.
So here's my shield. I'm not giving your ex any awards for sensitivity, selflessness or taste; though inconvenient feelings do happen and needn't necessarily be denied for all eternity, they can certainly be held at bay until fewer nerves are exposed. Meanwhile, her "time will take care of it" plan for healing is an abdication, and your friend apparently wasn't much of one. No heroes here.
But you could be one. Your righteous anger is fueling, and arguably encouraging, the strain in your son's relationship with his mother.
His grievance against Mom has to be his alone. If her choice torpedoed a real chance at preserving his family, for example; or if he thinks she needlessly hurt you; or if he thinks both mother and boyfriend are ethically challenged, then his feelings certainly can and should reflect that.
He is also free to weigh these things against the 18 years of maternal love and care he has so far received. Surely that collection of her choices — some of them larger and more dramatic than her recent clunker, some impossibly small and mundane — says more about her as a mother, good or bad, than this latest one does.
He is also free to forgive her.
Such a complex emotional transaction is difficult under any circumstances; for a fledgling adult, even tougher; for someone under pressure to carry the banner for Daddy's "code"? Good luck.
That's why you need to take that pressure off, explicitly. No one can make the case more powerfully than you can, that your son should judge his mom on all 18 years of his life with her — not on one slap to your face.
Hurt feelings are a reflex; letting pain take the reins is a choice. Show him what real strength looks like.