Carolyn Hax: Parents ‘heartbroken’ over son’s affair and quick divorce

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Dear Carolyn: Our 40-year-old son, who lives about 900 miles away, announced he is divorcing. We knew they were stressed by highly demanding work schedules, busy young children, homeownership and the like, but the Zoom calls and quick visits seemed good. We were therefore shocked to hear him say he has been miserable and is in love with someone in another state whom he met through work. He said she has been his support and confidante since he and his wife “grew apart” three years ago, when they were expecting their second child.

His wife, who was completely blindsided, evidently found out by accident when she was using his phone. Instead of giving up the affair, he moved out immediately and legal papers have been filed. He says the other woman will sell her house and live with him after the divorce is final, and he is confident he will be able to successfully co-parent for the next 15 years. We have our doubts any of this fantasy will work, and our hearts break for his wife and the children.

This is not how he was raised, but it seems to be who he is. We don’t want to give approval to our son’s behavior and have little interest in meeting this other woman. We also don’t want to lose our son completely, or the already limited time we have with the grandchildren. His wife is still friendly with us, but who knows where her career and life will eventually take her.

What do we do? How have others walked this tightrope?

— Heartbroken Grandparents

Heartbroken Grandparents: If sympathy helps, you have mine. It’s all so painful.

But the advice I have probably won’t feel so good.

That’s because if you want your son and grandchildren in your life, then you’ll have to choose them over getting any kind of moral satisfaction here. If you want any moral satisfaction here, then you’ll have to choose it over having your son and his kids in your life.

Not that you can’t have both — it’s just that having both is not up to you. Choosing your priorities is.

And telling him you are horrified by his behavior and struggle to accept how far short he has fallen in becoming the person you raised him to be? That may feel like a requirement for a responsible parent — but no adult needs that kind of parental soul-spanking. Either his own moral reckoning is already in progress, internally, or he’s not capable of having it (yet). You can’t make it so.

Hedging, too, will cost you — a judgmental jab here, an overture to keep seeing the grandkids there. He’ll see through that.

Better to tell him, “I’m sad, and will need time to get used to this,” then do the rest of the work in-house.

These may help you accept your son’s new life configuration while you work through your grief privately:

1. You don’t actually know what happened between your son and his wife, because no outsider ever truly sees inside a marriage. That is both universally true and highly convenient when you need to suck it up and behave as if you’re not catastrophically disappointed in your kid.

2. His new love didn’t take the vows, break the vows or end the marriage, he did — so shunning only her is misplaced. And unfair, because the fury you’re dumping on her is primarily at your son, you’re just more willing to alienate her. Better to square up and meet her when the time comes. Get to know her for who she really is: the extension of your son’s life over which you have absolutely no say. Treat her as the possible future stepmother of your beloved grandchildren, too. That includes asking yourself, will she do a better job in that role if you create emotional obstacles for her, or remove them?

3. At this stage in all your lives, “parent” is your title but not your job.

4. People mess up. That means your son, that means the driver cutting you off in traffic, that means you at any number of crossroads in your life. People mess up. People mess up. Make it your mantra, because it is incumbent on all of us to respond with our shared frailty in mind. Not with a free pass, but with proper perspective.

A good approach when you’re not sure: If forgiveness is available — meaning, basically, if forgiveness won’t foreseeably create more victims — then forgiveness it might as well be.

Hello Carolyn: Our son’s wife of several years chose to hyphenate our last name with her maiden name. Whenever we are with them, she always identifies herself with her maiden name, from setting up reservations to public places requiring identification. It can be hurtful to us. Are we being too sensitive?

J.: Unless you can persuade me that her name has even the slightest thing to do with you, I’m going with yes, too sensitive.

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