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Son struggles with intimate relationships after death of father

Carolyn Hax
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D ear Carolyn:

My adult son, now 29, lost his father in a freak accident the day before he turned 13. For more than two years after the accident, his dad lingered in a near vegetative state. A grief counselor I consulted back then told me that as a result of this experience, my son could have difficulty later in his life forging intimate relationships.

My son and I have talked several times about this possibility and about how counseling could help.

Now he is having trouble in his intimate relationships, but he’s closed to the idea of therapy. He is otherwise a really good man, thriving in his career and regarded by many as a really charming guy. How can I help?

— Anonymous

I’m so sorry this happened to your family.

I think the most helpful thing you can do for your son now is accept that you have done what you can. At least on the matter of his getting help.

You spoke to a grief counselor at the time; you shared with your son what you learned, several times; you love him and see the good in him.

The rest is up to him. And that’s so difficult, I know. It is human nature to want to fix things, to connect dots, to do the obvious, aaagh!

But they’re his things, his dots. And your obvious is your own — even when someone is visibly suffering for the lack of it. You’ve given him what he needs. As long as he is competent to manage his own life, he is free to mismanage it, too.

But there are still two things you can do outside the scope of his decision on going to therapy. You can keep loving him and seeing the good in him, toward the goal of maintaining the health of his relationship with you.
One good connection can be the model for eventual others.

And you can overrule your impulse to see this version of him at 29 as
the person he’ll be for life. He’s an adult but still a young one, plus we are all protean in a lot of ways; just think of yourself at various ages and stages if you doubt this. Plenty of nontraumatized adults go on to adopt courses of action they had once pooh-poohed as silly, unnecessary, fine for somebody else. Maturity is a powerful force.

As are peers: You
haven’t been able to persuade him now but someone else, someone who loves this “really
good man” and is frustrated by the intimacy issues, even someone he loses because of his stubbornness, may have the leverage he needs.

Stand by, with no open wringing of hands.

•••

Dear Carolyn:

Recently, I began digging into my family’s history and ancestry, particularly since all my grandparents are gone and the family is drifting apart. One of my uncles, “Ted,” has gone through periods of being the family black sheep, and I am no longer close with his kids, my cousins.

Long story short, I was under the impression Ted had been married twice, one leaving him a widower and the other ending in divorce. According to a marriage license I found on a well-respected genealogy site, he’s been married thrice. This third marriage was actually his first, brief and resulting in no children, when he was in his early 20s.

I have been sitting on this information for a year. I want to ask my mom, his sister, about it, but I’m worried that if she doesn’t know, then it will only make their fraught relationship worse. I’m not sure if she would confront him about it, or their other siblings, and what the fallout would be — or even if his kids know about it. What should I do?

— Possible Sole Bearer of a Family Secret

“Squat” sounds pretty compelling. Unless you’re the “bupkis” type. Or “fox-all,” to put it slyly.

You write of possible fallout — but what of any benefits? What would your family gain by knowing?

Truth is often its own worthy end, yes. But I can see that applying here to one of Ted’s kids … say, because one of them keeping this secret might affect the chemistry among others. It would apply maybe to Ted’s siblings. Or to others after Ted and his generation are gone.

As only a not-close-anymore niece, though, and amid all these siblings still able to speak for themselves, you risk coming across as a pest.

Ted is still Ted. Your family is still your family — his early marriage has no effect on the headcount. It’s not a scandal, or a game-changer or a truth that’s straining itself to get out and therefore a burden to you. It’s not presenting any kind of meaningful challenge to Ted’s entitlement to some privacy.

It is, in other words, a fine thing to sit on unless and until you’re certain you need to speak up.

Email Carolyn at [email protected], follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.