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How can I help my son with his relationship?

Our agony aunt Mary Fenwick is offering a new perspective on whatever is troubling you

by Psychologies

Q. My son has been going out with his girlfriend for four years. They seem happy enough together, but he recently confided in me that he has serious doubts about their long-term future. He says that she has been ‘pressurising’ him to move in together for some time, but he feels happy as they are.

Eight months ago, he told me that they had agreed to start looking for a flat to buy. I was initially pleased, but then he added: ‘The pressure on me to propose will be enormous after we move in together.’

That was an alarm bell for me. At the time, I simply advised that they shouldn’t get married unless they both wanted to. He says he cares for her, that they trust each other, and perhaps he will feel better if they just rent a place and move in together. I don’t want to tell him what to do and I don’t want to criticise his girlfriend. He freely admits she is ‘demanding’. How can I best support him to come to his own decision? Name supplied

A. It is so difficult to see our children in pain, no matter how old they are. I married the wrong person the first time around, and wonder what advice I would have listened to back then.

My best answer is to hold on to your love, and hold back any criticism. Right now, there is tension in the fact that your son shares his feelings with you, but you are not doing the same. There are echoes here, too: you are worried about the consequences of what you say to him; he is worried about what he says to his girlfriend. Perhaps he needs to hear from you how to approach a difficult topic.

Here are some thoughts that might be a way in: How do we talk about things that trouble us, especially when it’s about someone we care for? What gets in the way? What makes it easier? How do we deal with it if someone doesn’t like what we tell them, but it needs to be said?

It is hard to go wrong if you start from your own perspective and use gentle curiosity: ‘I notice you using the word “pressure” – what does that mean to you?’; or, ‘I’m curious about what makes it difficult for you to talk to your girlfriend about your feelings’. Notice I am avoiding the word ‘why’, because it prompts defensiveness and excuses.

I am intrigued that your son says he and his girlfriend trust each other – and yet he can’t raise his doubts. The Relate website has a useful quiz on what trust really means to each of us. It also offers online conversations with a counsellor, which could help your son find clarity.

The key is that, whatever happens, he’s got your support, along with your determination to treat him as an adult. He will feel stronger when he is reminded that you accept and love him, no matter what.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.

Photograph: iStock