Dear Carolyn: My father was widowed about five years ago and has remarried. Hurray. Except he keeps talking about his second wife as “the love of my life” in front of us and his grandchildren. I’m increasingly resentful of this phrase and have minimized contact with him as a result. He’s complaining and I don’t know what to say. “Quit [dumping] on the memory of my mother in my presence and you’ll see us more than twice a year” is what I WANT to say.
Resentful: Then say it. Maybe adjust your bluntness levels first to suit your dad’s tolerances, but otherwise it’s something he deserves to know. Even an unwelcome message is kinder than vanishing on him without explanation. “Hey, Dad, I really am happy you’re happy — but it’s hard to hear you be so effusive about your new love while I’m still missing Mom so much.”
About that: You’re the one, not your dad, making the connection between his love-of-his-life swooning and “[dumping] on the memory of my mother” — so you can break it, too. You had your own relationship with your mother and it is yours to treasure and grieve. Nothing your dad says or does now puts a dent in that.
He, meanwhile, is and always has been free to have his own feelings about your mom. It doesn’t discredit her, him, them, or you if their marriage was, say, a B+ to his current A+ remarriage. It doesn’t discredit either of them as people if they loved each other and made a life together and maybe didn’t always fit as effortlessly as they would have liked. Great people and great loves are separate things.
Or, alternate thought: Even such a beautiful, loving, nuanced thing as a marriage that only death could tear asunder can get trounced in a feelings pageant against new love. Which, by the way, twitterpates older people with almost the same intensity as it does the young.
So, maybe your dad had a tough road into widowerhood and is just feeling stupid giddy right now.
For either possibility, a lovingly phrased, “Hey, I’m happy for you, but I’m not ready to hear this,” might be all you need to solve this. Please at least give it a try before you scrape any more plans off the books.
Hi Carolyn: I’m going through a very difficult time with my 17-year-old son. Most of my parent friends have children who aren’t yet teens. These parents tell me it will get better, that my child won’t hate me forever and will become a productive member of society.
I want to scream when they say this because they don't know! My ex to this day hates his mother and struggles with life. This could be my son!
How can I nicely tell people what they are saying is not helpful and makes me want to scream? Perhaps I should keep my struggles to myself.
— Raising a Teenager
Raising a Teenager: No no, please don’t do that.
I see your point about the hollowness of your friends’ advice. But discarding all peer support is not your only option. You can offer details to your friends, ask questions, and nudge these conversations — and the underlying relationships — toward a more productive place.
To their it-will-get-betters, you can reply: “I want to believe that, but some families don’t recover. My ex’s is one of them.” That invites discussion. So does asking friends about the source of their optimism. Their kids aren’t teens yet, okay, but they were teens once. Plus they have siblings, cousins, niblings, neighbors.
Or they have professional experiences as teachers, youth coaches, babysitters, camp counselors, therapists, managers of teen employees, and similar. Seek out any you know; they've seen enough to be as useful as parents of teens.
That is true in part because the informal network of shoulder-crying, storytelling and assurance-seeking will always have its limits. No one knows for certain how they themselves will turn out, much less how their own child will, much much less someone else’s. So the best you can hope for is enough comfort and context to see you through to the next phase, whatever it may be.
Fortunately, comfort and context are pretty powerful things. Your friends care about you and you value them enough to share your pain. If their assurances aren’t working, then guide them toward what you need. Or let them be an argument for the power of context: Your experience (with son and husband) says one thing but friends can attest to the possibility of other things.
Circumstances also can be too much for the friend network to handle, and that’s normal as well. For that there’s professional help. Here are some resources to get you started.