Perspective | Carolyn Hax: Yes, your son is a pain, but he’s also in pain


This behavior has repeated itself over and over for decades. Also, my wife refuses to confront him, always leaving me to be the bad guy. I think it would help if she also told him to stop being so disrespectful to us. Suggestions?

Confused Dad: I’ll say this upfront, preemptively: Nothing that follows is a defense of “criticiz[ing] us continually.” If I were answering him instead of you, then I’d be addressing his immaturity at length.

But I’m answering you. And your responding to your son’s behavior as a matter of disrespect and seeking redress for that is not working.

You’re sitting on decades of proof of that. Even if she were to do it, which she clearly won’t, your wife probably wouldn’t get better results if she adopted your failed strategy with you.

So I urge you instead to look at your son’s behavior as something he does to get something he needs. Stop reacting to what it says about you and listen for what it says about him.

Adopting this viewpoint doesn’t imply that his need or his way of meeting it is healthy; it’s not an endorsement. It is simply bringing pragmatism to a problem righteousness hasn’t solved.

So — what need could these complaints and eruptions be filling for your son?

Without pretending to know him or what he experienced or how he feels, I can hazard some guesses: He feels bad about himself and wants to put that weight on some other back than his own; this dysfunction is his (ironically named) emotional comfort zone; his woundedness and your defensiveness from your very first arguments — way back when you were both new at the business of being a child and a parent, respectively — initiated a cycle of unsatisfying outcomes and neediness that defines your relationship to this day.

It could also be a midlife version of an adolescent mainstay: He has bad or uncomfortable feelings he can’t manage effectively, building up force, so he (unwittingly) pokes-pokes-pokes others until they blow up at him, which then makes him the victim, which gives him both an excuse for an emotional release and a convenient person to blame.

Bottle, buildup, boom, repeat.

With any one of these, you could disrupt the cycle by recognizing your role as the one who gets provoked into argument, and mindfully stepping out of it.

Where you typically rebut his complaints point-by-point, you can instead validate them in general as markers of bad feelings he’s struggling to manage. You can decide, instead of reacting, to reflect what he’s saying back to him: “I see you’re ___”. Upset, angry, frustrated. Or, “If I hear you correctly, you ___.” And, “I’m sorry to hear that.” “Is there something I/we can do?” Neutral, sympathetic, open-minded.

If he asks for something unreasonable, say gently, “I love you, [son’s name]. I/we can’t/won’t do that.”

You can also redirect: When you first detect an uptick in criticism, breathe. Then ask him about . . . his work. Home. Friends. Or a problem he might want to talk through with you.

Or, alternately, veer away from problems you know he won’t want to talk through with you now or ever ever again.

Instead suggest a walk or a ballgame, or cook together. Get off the I-want-him-to-admit-how-disrespectful-he-is path and meet him where he feels competent, confident, strong. “Meet” can be literal or figurative, whatever works.

Commit to the best listening you’ve ever done. Hear what he’s saying, verbally and non-. Hear yourself, your emotional reflexes, hobby-horses, go-to defenses, tone changes.

Break your habits in responding to him, and see if that takes you all somewhere else.

Your wife can probably identify these habits, as the quiet witness to it all. You want her support, but her insights might offer more.

I recommend this approach not because it’s certain or even likely to work. It might, sure, be enough to relax him into healthier ways of coping . . . or he might see through you, ignore you, push back harder in frustration. What it does guarantee is a calm template for listening and for loving acceptance while disengaging from the mechanics of the dysfunction.

It’s difficult at first and may feel alien. But give it a chance as you mentally recite the mantra, “He’s in pain” — thereby retraining yourself to listen for his instead of acting on your own.

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