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Give son time to accept this drastic change

Dear Carolyn: Over the past two years, I have, not very artfully or compassionately, ended my 25-year marriage to have a chance at a different reality for the next 25 years. My son is aware of the woman to whom I gave myself in creating this new reality. Of course he wants nothing to do with her. Of course I, who have underestimated the costs of this decision, want to reintegrate my life around her and around him.

My hope is that they meet … sometime in the near future. She has children in college and beyond, and my son is still in high school. Help? – Midlife Dad

Translating from new age-ese, I think you’re saying: “I screwed up, but I miss my son.”

But here’s what you sound like: “There, I admitted I screwed up. Are the consequences over yet?”

Yours is a fairly common frustration. People who willingly take responsibility for their mistakes, who aren’t trying to pretend that everything is OK, often come to wonder whether they get any credit for that.

You do, of course. Just not instantly in the form of normalcy ever after. You don’t get to decide that everything will be OK just because you admitted, “My bad.” You can’t un-ripple the pond.

Pretend you’re the son in this story. Dad wants a new life, so he “not very artfully or compassionately” breaks up your family to get it, while granting you no say in the matter.

Some degree of this happens to kids every day, of course; living with a parent’s choices is part of being a kid. But your son is closing in on adulthood himself, and the change you imposed was drastic, and your reasons for imposing it were all about you.

Until you acknowledge this, your son won’t have much respect for whatever else you’re saying. In fact, the truth is the only thing he’s likely to respect, so your acknowledgement should include that you didn’t handle this well; that you can’t make him understand the new arrangements or embrace your new love; and that you hope he’ll do both anyway, when he’s ready.

I think it’s also important to say that you don’t regret the reason you made these mistakes – since presumably you regret the way you left your marriage, not the leaving itself. As impolitic as it may seem, the honesty is essential. Pandering is as bad as pressure when it comes to restoring faith with your son.

That’s because, when you’ve pushed someone into a position of powerlessness over his very emotional core, his response will be to seize control where he can. Accordingly:

He needs to decide when he meets the new woman, if ever.

He needs to decide whether and when to forgive you.

He needs to decide what to do with these new facts of life.

The way to get close to him again will be on his terms. Set an example of strength by making yourself vulnerable, instead of going on the offensive or defensive, as so many people do. Then, let your son come to you.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 9 a.m. Pacific time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.
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