With all the strife occurring between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, where does your son fit into the equation? Does he play a role or is he a victim of circumstance?
As I write in my book, a son needs to emotionally separate from his mother (as does a mother from her son) so that he can grow into the man he needs to be. This often occurs on several levels and over a length of time. What this looks like and feels like to him is often very different from what it looks like and feels like to you, his mother.
Here's a scenario -- Janice and her son Peter:
Janice shares with me:
"My son and I have always been close. Even though he has been on his own for quite some time, he's always called once a week or once every two weeks. We don't necessarily talk long, it's usually a quick update on what is going on in his life, or if he needs to, he'll ask my opinion about something."
As Janice talked she was clear she had emotionally separated from her son and that he was his own man. She was also quick to say that even before he married he hadn't needed her in the same way he did when he was younger. To Janice, though, her relationship with him changed drastically once he married. He was no longer the son she knew. He was distant and unwilling to really share with her as he had done in the past.
"I don't know what's happened. Since he's been married he hardly calls at all. When he finally does call it is usually when he is in the car on his way home from work. So I find myself having to call him just to find out what is going on in his life. And when I do call he seems short, distracted and almost angry with me. He was not like this before he got married. I think his wife is threatened by me for some reason. I think she doesn't like him talking to me, and so she gives him a hard time about it."
Janice is sure her daughter-in-law set these changes with Peter in motion because she wanted him all to herself. But, is this really what is going on? It could be. This does happen. A daughter-in-law can set into motion such marital contention with his mother at the core that it is easier for him to pull completely away from his family just to make peace at home. However, sometimes what you see on the surface -- his pulling away -- is not about this at all. It is important to recognize that there are other ways to interpret a son's changes.
When you go back to the scenario with Janice, she believes she has completely let go of her son, but she has really only let go of him on one level. There are other levels in which she has not yet done so. She also does not seem to have a clear understanding of what Peter's transformation from a child to an adult means to him. In other words, what that looks like for him from his perspective.
When this separation from your son is not complete it makes it easy to misinterpret his behavior. After all, on some level you still see him as your child and remember his behaviors from that period in time. But he is not a child. Here are a few other reasons why he may be pulling away:
• Your son may be pulling away because he is currently moving through another level of his developmental transition. He is not pulling away because he loves you less or wants you to feel excluded. Instead, as he matures and grows further into manhood, he feels the need and desire to share less. He is moving further into what being a man is for him and talking to his mother -- sharing with her -- is no longer something he wishes to do.
• Your son may be struggling within himself. He is feeling the need to move beyond where he is, trying to transition to the next level of manhood, and yet he feels you pulling him back. As much as he needs to move forward, and even wants to move forward, it is hard for him to do so, because of how close the two of you have been. He loves you, but he is trying to figure out a different way to love you as a man, not as a boy. He can feel you making it harder for him to move forward (albeit unintentionally) and this just adds to his struggle. As a result he may be short with you, irritated when you keep pressing, or even avoid your calls altogether.
• Another reason may be that he has transitioned into a man more than you realize. He sees himself as a "grown-up," and he wants you to see him that way, too -- not as your child, but as your son who is a man. Setting boundaries, deciding where and how often he has contact with you, making decisions you are not happy with is not about you as much as it is about who he is as a man. It is his way of letting you know things are different now. His priorities are not your priorities.
He sees his wife and children as his family. These are the people with whom he is focused and with whom he sees as his priority. It is not that you aren't important, but your importance -- your role in his life -- is not at the top. His wife and children are at the top. He doesn't love you less. He loves you differently. He wants you to see that his priorities have changed. He wants you to respect him and appreciate the man he has become.
It's interesting because most moms want that for their sons, and feel they have done their part in letting go -- but it's hard to let go, especially when there are so many levels to letting him go. This is the part in which you have control. His transition -- the changes in his behavior -- is where you have no control. When his transition happens it doesn't necessarily feel good. You feel the loss of the son you've known. You feel the loss at such a deep level that it hurts more than you thought it ever could. And you now have to figure out a different way to relate to him -- one that may feel more distant, but may be more respectful of where he is in his life.
As you can see, although it may feel as though your daughter-in-law is the cause for your son's distant with you, it is important to look beyond the surface. Taking a heartfelt look at some of these other reasons will help you with what may really be going on. Love your son, but do so in a way that lets him be the man he was meant to be -- the one you dreamed he'd be. Let him be a man who loves his wife and children as much as your husband has loved his.
In the next blog I will focus on the daughter-in-law's side of things and explore the husband's role in the relationship between his mother and his wife. So stay tuned!