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My Needy Son Hates My Boyfriend. How Can I Avoid Choosing One Over The Other?

Question:

I have been divorced for almost 9 years. I have 2 children ages 22, and 14. I am now living with someone and have been for the past 4 years. We bought a house together. Before that we had been together, broke up and then got back together. When I divorced, my ex husband took my son away from me (brainwashed him) he was about 13 years old then. He has stayed with him but that was because he was able to do whatever it was that he wanted to do. He eventually got into trouble, we (my ex and I) bailed him out more than once. He is now 21 years old and my problem is this, he says that he can’t stand the man that I live with. At one time when the court placed my son with me, they exchanged words telling each other that they didn’t like each other. He and I ended up breaking up and I was alone with my kids for a while. It was nice, but I missed him. Eventually we got back together. My son has since had a girlfriend, lost a girlfriend, lost a daughter (born very premature) and lost a step son who his mother took (the girlfriend he lost) He is now living alone. He comes over to the house once in a while. He has now however been wanting to spend the night more often. I don’t have a problem with this, but my boyfriend does. He doesn’t like my kids and he doesn’t trust my kids. My son can be very manipulative, just like his father, and will try and make you feel guilty for something that isn’t even your fault. Well to make a long story short, what do I do when my son wants to spend the night? He sometimes needs someone around. He still sees his father, but his father will want to talk to him sometimes and makes him feel like a "loser". My son is not a loser, he is just lost. I am seriously thinking about leaving my boyfriend because I think my kids need me. Or is my son just trying to break us up and making me feel guilty. I don’t know what to do. There is a lot of tension when they are both at the house. I love my son very much, but I can’t let him run my life either. What should I do?

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Answer:

It’s a bind you’re in for sure, being pulled between roles as you are. I think many women and men alike can sympathize with you, however. You’re certainly not alone in facing this issue. Most any divorced parent with children will see some likeness.

There are a number of issues going on here that make the key issue (e.g., how do you choose between your boyfriend and your son) complicated. The first thing is that divorce is naturally hard on children, and much harder when one parent tries to turn children against the other parent. There is a name for this these days. It’s called Parental Alienation Syndrome, and recently, Mental Help Net did a podcast interview on this subject that you might want to listen to so as to learn more about it.

The brainwashing your son received at the hands of your ex-husband seems to have made it especially difficult for him to view you in a positive light. The loss of security that comes with divorce may have contributed to his current relative immaturity and depression, although the other losses he has suffered cannot be discounted either. All in all, he has had a rough coming up, and he is presently emotionally needy and angry. It’s easy to imagine your son attacking your boyfriend who is, after all, an easy target for your son’s rage. He needs to preserve you and your ex-husband as positive figures in his life as much as he can do that, but your boyfriend is and will always be alien to his birth family and therefore fair game. If your boyfriend was not himself very mature and able to see the hurting boy behind the attack, it would be natural for him to start to see your son as little more than a threat. You prioritizing your son over your boyfriend can only have reinforced his perception of being secondary and discardable when push comes to shove. I’ll bet your boyfriend is feeling quite vulnerable that you’ll leave him again under whatever masculine bravado he shows you.

So you are caught between roles that are important to you and not seeing a way to avoid choosing one role over the other. This is a problem because the last time you did this, you suffered and realized that it was a mistake to have rejected your boyfriend for your son. It is only luck or fate or God’s will or whatever you believe in that runs the universe that made it possible for you to undo that mistake. Maybe this time it will be better to avoid making it in the first place.

I can totally relate to your loyalty to your son. He is your baby and he is letting you know he needs you and it is only natural for you to want to run to his aide and give the adult equivalent of the breast. Your son is not an infant anymore, however. He is a young man several years beyond the age of majority. He’s made adult decisions and has suffered adult grief. It is time to temper your desire to suckle him with respect for his adult status. He may want to regress towards childlike behavior during this low and lost time he is in, but it is not necessarily in his best interests that you support him in this.

It is not necessarily in your own best interests that you give up your boyfriend for your son either. Quite apart from missing him, you are an adult woman yourself who has needs for companionship and sex and an intimate life as you can make one happen. Allowing children into your adult intimacy will sabotage that intimacy and then you will become needy too. Your past experience has already shown you that being a mother only is not enough. Being with a man of your choice is a vital part of what makes your life work.

There is historic anger and tension between your son and your boyfriend, and maybe it is too much to hope that this can be completely overcome. Still, you maybe don’t have to overcome or resolve that tension in order to find a workable alternative solution for how to support both your son and your boyfriend at once. The key to such a workable solution will involve figuring out what boundaries you need to set with your son and with your boyfriend, and then figuring out how to enforce those boundaries creatively.

Myself, I think that it is vital to your relationship with your boyfriend that you show him you are committed to him. This may mean that you do not allow your son to sleep over without asking your boyfriend’s permission in advance, so that he has time to make alternative arrangements for what he might do besides staying in the house at the same time your son shows up. If your boyfriend has a regular guy’s night out routine, you might ask him what he thinks about you having your son over the house while he is out. This is not so much about asking permission as it is about respecting his need to have some advanced warning and a say in determining how his space gets invaded. You might decide to tell your son that he can come over for a visit, but that it doesn’t work for him to spend the night. Perhaps you can visit with your son at his apartment or the both of you can go out for an inexpensive dinner at some restaurant so that your boyfriend’s space is not invaded. If you can keep the two of them apart, and show both of them that you love them dearly, but also need to ask each of them to respect what you need to do independently , you may be able to keep both of them satisfied.

Your son needs to respect that you need to be with your boyfriend and that limits what you will do for him unless it is a real and dire emergency. He recognizes your love because you give him everything you can support-wise except for the things you cannot give without harming your relationship. Your boyfriend needs to respect that you need to support your son and this means you will have less time for him. He recognizes your love because you are respecting his primacy as your mate and his need for peaceful space in his own house. You may need to yell at each to get them to see what you are doing, but hopefully neither is so dense that they don’t ultimately get it and accept it.

This is a tough one. You’re going to have to figure out what your limitations are and make some hard decisions based on those limitations. You’re going to have to enforce those decisions in the face of two men who will likely push you to cave towards their own way of looking at things. You will need to maintain some independence from both men if you are to succeed in making this sort of solution work. From what I can see, however, you are up to the task. Good luck to you.

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