DEAR AMY: Our adult son “James” lives on his own and has a successful career. Suddenly, without notice or explanation, James has cut off all communication with his two loving parents — myself and my wife. Just three months ago, we were all together enjoying a birthday lunch (for me), where James introduced his new girlfriend. James and his brother provided a very thoughtful and generous gift, and I thanked them both, sincerely. Inexplicably, since that day James has not responded to any form of communication. My wife and I are tearing ourselves apart seeking a reason for this estrangement. At first I was wondering if he was having professional difficulties, or even feeling suicidal, but he maintains a good relationship with his younger brother. It seems the grievance is with us. James refuses to talk about it — with his brother or with us. I’ve offered multiple times to meet up and apologize for any transgression, but James won’t. I’ve offered that “adults can’t resolve problems in silence” — to no avail. His new girlfriend seems to be the only variable in the family equation that has changed. Is she manipulating him? Our family is small and we love being together a few times a year. James’ silent protest has, perhaps deliberately, now destroyed these future family functions. Amy, we want our son back in our lives. What do we do?
DEAR SHUTOUT: I shared your query with Karl Pillemer, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University. Pillemer is currently studying family estrangement.
He responds, “In a survey conducted by Cornell, I asked respondents whether they were estranged (that is, they no longer had contact with) one of these relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother or sister. Over one-fifth (22 percent) of this nationally representative sample reported having one of these estrangements. Therefore, people experiencing estrangement should know that they are by no means alone.”
Anecdotally, almost every family I know (including my own) has at least one estranged family member. The reasons can be varied, and complex.
In your case, I agree that your son’s new relationship seems to be the main variable. Abusive or controlling partners can isolate people from their loved ones. You and/or your wife should call him at work to see if he could meet you that same day for coffee. Be very cautious about blaming his girlfriend for his actions; this would cause him to dig in further.
Do NOT allow this to “destroy” your family. Painful as this is, you should carry on as a family. Continue to include and invite “James” (and his girlfriend) to all functions. Do your best to connect, without overwhelming him. The harder you push, the easier it is for him to resist.
DEAR AMY: My husband and I host an Independence Day barbecue every year and invite all of our friends. We provide all of the necessary food, including a vegetarian option. Every year, at least 70 percent of the guests ask what they can bring. If I tell them not to bring anything, many bring things anyway, and then some of the folks who didn’t bring anything feel bad, so they bring things the next year. Some of the guests seem annoyed that I don’t give them more direction on what to bring. I am a little annoyed that it doesn’t seem to be possible to host a party nowadays that’s not a potluck. What are my reasonable options?
Host with the Most
DEAR HOST: A July 4th barbecue is different from a dinner party. People do feel compelled to bring something — anything.
You could handle this by giving people a clear and modest directive: “One bottle of root beer would be most welcome.”
Alternatively, you could use this party to host a mini food drive for your local pantry. Asking guests to bring canned goods might satisfy multiple needs.
DEAR AMY: I could not believe your homophobic answer to “Mama Bear,” who was trying to protect her bisexual son from his homophobic aunt. You should never give advice to anyone.
DEAR DISGUSTED: My answer was supportive of this teen (and his mother). I reminded them that it is not their duty to disclose or discuss his sexuality to someone who is bigoted and hateful toward gay people. Her bigotry is her problem; I felt these two were taking on her problem and in danger of making it their own
You and your wife should see a therapist for support and ideas.