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For three years, a suburban New York family embraced their son's postcollege girlfriend. She joined them for Sunday dinners, birthdays, holidays, weddings and funerals. The unspoken expectation was marriage. Then, after several months of turmoil, the couple split. The man's mom was heartbroken: "I feel like I lost a daughter," she says.
Breaking up is hard — and not just for the young couple. Many parents form bonds with their adult child's significant other. Perhaps they've known them since they were kids, or the couple lived together — almost married — so the partner was part of the family.
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And sometimes after a breakup, parents worry their child will never find another seemingly perfect partner, says Susan Newman, an author and social psychologist in New Jersey — "especially if they are looking for grandchildren."
What's a parent to do? Erase the former partner from memory? Reach out and say goodbye? Tell your child he or she is making a big mistake?
"Parents always need to side with and support their child, even if they think they are nuts for breaking up," says Linda Lewis Griffith, a marriage and family therapist in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Griffith, who counsels young adults in her practice, notes that a breakup can be an intense period of sadness, upheaval and adjustment for the couple. If parents want to vent, they should express their feelings with friends and other family members, not with their kids. "Parents need to allow themselves time to grieve, then adapt and move on to make room for the next relationship," Griffith says.
While it's not necessary to unfriend the former love on Facebook, she says, don't actively engage with him or her. Continued contact leaves both parent and child in an emotional limbo. If it feels impossible to have no contact at all with the ex, Griffith suggests sending a card with a simple message of best wishes.
And if a card seems too cold, Newman offers the following advice:
- Consult your child. Ask how your son or daughter feels about you continuing the relationship. Explain the difficulty of severing a longtime emotional connection. "Some adult children couldn't care less," Newman says, while others will be upset, "feeling parents have abandoned them."
- Give it some time. If your adult child reacts negatively, you might wait a month or two until emotions are not so raw. Then ask again about reaching out. But don't push it.
- Call the ex. If your child doesn't mind, call to express your sadness, how much you will miss the ex and the hope that your paths will cross again.
Finally, whatever you do, don't get caught in the middle, Griffith says. If the ex calls and wants you to advocate for him or her with your child, don't. The fallout can get messy.
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.com.