The Unconditional Love Test

Dear Mr. Dad: This isn’t strictly a parenting question, but here goes. My daughter, 26, met a man, left her husband, and is already moving in with her new boyfriend. She never gave us any indication that she was unhappy. It all happened very quickly, in a matter of a month. He’s a nice enough guy, but she kind of forced him on us and we’re not ready to bond with him yet. We’d feel disloyal toward our son-in-law if we welcome this new man into our family. What can we do?

A: Actually, this really IS a parenting question. Our kids are our kids—no matter how old they are—and we’re still going to worry about them when they’re all grown-up. The only difference is that since your daughter’s an adult, you can’t really tell her what to do or ask her to follow your house rules—unless of course, she’s living in your house. You basically have to accept her actions, even if they go against your own judgment.

The end of a marriage or long-term relationship is, in a way, like a death in the family. There’s a natural grieving process, mourning the loss of the relationship and of the people connected with it–especially if you were close to them, as you are with your former son-in-law. If your daughter’s marriage had been bad for a long time, her leaving her husband might not have been much of a surprise.(However, even the end of really horrible relationships involve some grief—the loss of hopes and dreams.) In your case, since this all happened so quickly, you haven’t had enough time to completely come to grips with it.

None of this means that you have any obligation to support—or even agree with—your daughter’s decisions. If you didn’t already, have a talk with her and tell her exactly what you wrote here: That you’re confused, that her actions took you by surprise, that you don’t understand the reasons behind what seems like completely irrational behavior, and that you’re going to need some time to adjust to the changes.

It’s not unreasonable to ask your daughter to explain what happened that led her to make such a sudden, drastic change. Has she really thought everything through? (Going by what you say, it doesn’t seem like she did.) Did she try counseling—with or without your son-in-law? Did she consider a trial separation, to decompress and think things through before plunging headlong into another relationship? Keep your expectations low, though. She may open up and give you a decent explanation, or she may refuse to talk at all, falling back on a favorite teenage refrain: “It’s my life and you can’t tell me what to do.”

Given enough time, you might end up agreeing with your daughter’s decision and loving her new partner. But it’s just as possible that you’ll never understand why she did what she did, and never warm to him. Either way, you’ll have to come to terms with the new cast of characters in her life. One of the most difficult things we have to do as parents is to just be there. So when you’re ready, invite them over for coffee.

Two more quick things. First, be thankful your daughter doesn’t have children—that would complicate things by a factor of 10. Second, given your close relationship with your former son-in-law, it’s fine for you to keep in touch with him. But be very careful not to do anything that your daughter could interpret as “taking sides.”

Supporting the New Guy No Matter How Much It Hurts

Dear Mr. Dad: I was divorced in 2001, when my daughter was 1. She’s now 11. Here’s my dilemma. The person who was a big part of the divorce is still with my ex. But up until recently, my daughter knew him only as a cousin. After all I been through, I resent him when my daughter talks with him or spends time with him. Do I just keep swallowing my pride and let it go, or is this something I can talk about with her in a subtle way. She understands that her mother and I were divorced but not that this guy was involved.

A: I totally get that you’re still angry with the guy your ex is involved with (and who, if I’m reading between the lines correctly, was involved with her before she became your ex). And you have every right to resent his proximity to and relationship with your daughter. But be very, very careful. As painful as it is, you’re going to need to swallow your pride for a while longer—at least until your daughter comes right out and asks why you and her mom got divorced. Given that she’s perched on the brink of becoming a teen, that should be pretty soon.

When that day comes, you can—and should—tell her the truth. But do it in as calm a way as you can. Do not come across as attacking anyone (and by “anyone” I mean your ex or her “friend”). Just lay out the facts—and make sure they’re facts no one can argue with. The last thing you want is to get your daughter involved in a he-said-she-said kind of thing. She’ll end up in the middle, and that’s a place she should never be.

Like it or not, your ex’s friend is a part of your daughter’s life, and you need to bite your tongue and support him. If you can’t bring yourself to be supportive, at least don’t do anything hostile or vindictive. There is absolutely no upside to that. The only thing that will come of it is that your ex and, most likely, your daughter, will turn on you, and you’ll become the bad guy.