Dear Carolyn: Our 28-year-old son “Bill” has been married for five years to a woman we are slowly starting to resent. “Jennifer” is working on an advanced degree in Italian. She took the opportunity to study abroad for a year in Italy, and Bill suspended his own career path to go to Italy as well. They ended up living in separate cities. Shortly after returning to the states she took a job as a flight attendant, which means she spends days at a time away from home. She has recently received two scholarships for study, one in another city for three months and the other to return to Italy for a year. Bill will not leave his job for either one. We’re finding it hard to shake the feeling that she prefers to spend time away from Bill.
In addition, her father is fairly wealthy and has bought their two homes for them; Bill’s name does not appear on either. She calls and visits her family regularly, but we see her maybe once a year, and we never speak on the phone unless we ask if we can say hi.
Bill is very intelligent, personable and hardworking (as is she), but we’re wondering if he’s just “settling” for someone who doesn’t seem to give him or his family much of her attention. He says they’re doing “fine” but doesn’t want to talk in any more detail about their marriage. My wife has been pushing me to pursue a deeper conversation with our son. Thoughts?
– Bill’s Father
A: “One of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah I know, and such small portions.’ ”
From “Annie Hall.” That was, for better or worse, my first thought.
Your son is precious to you, and to watch him be treated as an apparent afterthought must be a steady source of anguish. I’m sorry. I’m also sympathetic to your wife in wanting to take action to fix it. But it’s neither your place nor hers to do that; in fact, you can’t even say for certain that anything needs fixing. Imagine a kite anchored to the ground. Some couples use their love and their promise to each other as that anchor, so they can remain secure but also soar on their own.
Maybe your son has that kind of marriage, maybe he doesn’t, but either way, your job is to treat things as “fine” unless and until he chooses to tell you otherwise. Presumably he gave you that answer when you asked whether everything was OK between him and Jennifer. If so, that tells me you dangled before him a clear opportunity to share with you, and he didn’t bite.
So don’t push for more from him. Instead, give more to him: Check in a little more often, unobtrusively. Get him talking about non-charged topics. Love him, respect him, listen to him, stand by him. These confer strength, and strength is something you can be sure he’ll need – without having to do any prying into what he’ll need it for.