Carolyn Hax: Parents stuck in sons’ love triangle
Dear Carolyn: Our oldest son, “Jay,” lived with a girl I’ll call “Stephanie.” He and our youngest son, “Sean,” were the best of friends and went everywhere together. Both young men are 30ish and have their own places.
Jay and Stephanie didn’t work out, and she broke up with him. The breakup was pretty rough on Jay, and he wanted Sean to un-friend Stephanie and not hang around with her anymore. Sean refused and the two of them fell out over it, and still don’t get together anymore except here at Christmas and important holidays.
Fast-forward two years, and now Sean has started to “see” Stephanie as something better than just a friend. He has told me he wants to have her move in with him.
I have told him what I believe will happen if he does: All hell will break loose and my wife and I will be right in the middle of it with no clear winner on either side.
I understand there is nothing to be done for affairs of the heart, but couldn’t he have chosen another girl? We are at our wits’ end trying to figure out what to say and what position to take on this. Any thoughts? – St. Louis Dad
Clearly the easiest thing for all of you, even Sean, would be for Sean to break up with Stephanie and live happily ever after.
Just as clearly, that’s an outcome you don’t have the power to choose; you have already requested nonetheless; and Sean has already rejected.
Plan B time. To start, look at the angle you and Jay took from the beginning. Both of you reflexively blamed Sean. He’s the one who didn’t drop Stephanie out of respect for his brother, and he’s the one who, as you noted, “had to pick this one.” It’s a path well-worn by the many people who find themselves in your position.
Have you ever asked yourself, though, why your mind didn’t go straight here: Why couldn’t Jay himself be the bigger man, and recognize that his wounded feelings didn’t – and don’t – give him the right to ask his brother to surrender a friend?
Had Stephanie abused Jay, I’d take that back. But if the Jay-Stephanie breakup was merely a matter of dwindling affection, then Jay is the one who owes it to Sean to reach across the chasm between them. Cheating is a betrayal; getting along then falling in love is not.
And if it was a third possibility – that there’s sibling rivalry stuff at play and Stephanie is merely its manifestation – then the best way to end that struggle was for Jay to say, “Hey, I can’t tell you who can and can’t be your friend. I just thought I’d ask.” Poof, power struggle over before it starts.
It’s taken almost as an absolute that these love triangles must be broken in favor of the family (as in this case) or the original-friendship bond. In “Bros before hos,” it even has its own revolting little motto.
If it so happens that Stephanie, the (er) X factor here, is using Sean for her own ends, then my only advice here is for Sean: Break clean of everyone for a while to get your bearings again. Barring that, my advice is for you, to consider that Sean’s reason for maintaining his friendship with Stephanie was more compelling, more worthy of support and celebration, than Jay’s reason for asking him to end it.
Take the hard feelings away, and this is the right thing to do. Put the feelings back and it hurts like hell, but the right thing to do hasn’t changed.