My married 27-year-old son texted me three days ago to say he was “hurt about what I said about him” in a letter to his mother-in-law. He will not respond to my question about what I said in the letter that hurt his feelings. Why would someone say that and then not respond with the reason why? I have texted him (his preferred method of conversation), called and left a message on his cell phone, and emailed him to ask him please to let me know what I said. No answer. I do not know what I said to offend him!
— Perplexed Mom
Dear Perplexed Mom: You’ve got some troubles here, but probably not what you suspect. A couple of things are “red flags” in your brief paragraph. These include:
- Your son is offended but won’t say why,
- He’s offended about something you mentioned to the mother-in-law,
- He doesn’t reply to calls, email and text messages, and
- Texting is his preferred method of communication.
Here’s my theory (psychologists have a lot of these!). Your son is involved in a controlling relationship. The mother-in-law (MIL) has created this conflict by exaggerating or inventing some type of offensive comment or interpretation based on your communication with her. While most in-laws feel a need to protect both-side family members, even by ignoring casual comments that might be offensive, this family takes the opposite approach. If he’s in a controlling relationship, the wife and MIL will be working hard to separate your son from you and his other family members. This is why you are not allowed or permitted to engage in “normal” communications with your son such as phone calls, emails, etc. The wife or in-laws want access to all communications you have with your son. In truth, your son may not know why he is offended as the MIL may have taken the approach “She (you) said horrible things about your wife in that letter…so horrible I can’t tell you!”
If my theory is correct, you’ve experienced a gradual decrease in your contact with your son. Over the last many months, normal avenues of communication have been discontinued (phone calls, visits, email, etc.) and you are now down to only one channel — text messaging. This experience is a controlling strategy designed to break that link as well — to break off contact with you and your family by inventing some “hurt” or offense that gives the in-laws justification to protest even text messaging with you. If your son mentions contacting you in any manner, the wife and in-laws rebel and protest that they are too hurt and offended to support his calling you. In this way, any thoughts about contacting you place your son in trouble with the other family.
This situation is not unique. I’ve written about the situation faced by you and your son in an article entitled Love and Stockholm Syndrome — available on this website. To control someone, you must be able to separate them from their sources of emotional and social support, and as you can see, this technique works pretty well. What do you do?
- Read the Love and Stockholm Syndrome article. I’ve included strategies for family when their loved one is involved in a controlling relationship.
- Recognize that you probably didn’t say anything offensive or wrong. This is why they have no specific reason or comment to be discussed.
- Continue to assume that the text-messaging channel is still available — although currently closed. As I mention in the article, TM your son on a predictable schedule — offer an apology on the next message but don’t ask what you did that was offensive as that creates more “trouble” for him. Don’t say anything negative about the in-laws.
- Recognize that the MIL created this situation — not your son. He may have fallen for this manipulation by trusting the MIL. You, on the other hand, can’t trust the MIL or other family at this time. I suspect this incident is the tip of a manipulative and controlling iceberg, so you must travel with extreme caution. If the MIL contacts you, don’t go into details about anything because that information will be used against you. Just plead confusion yet continued love and support for your son and his family.
- Contact other family members such as siblings to see if anyone has an open channel with your son. I would imagine those have been gradually closed as well. If anyone has an open channel and is still permitted to talk to your son, as I mention in the article, send a message of love and support through this grapevine channel.
- Review entries from the discussion group on Love and Stockholm Syndrome on this website. Many families are facing this very difficult situation.
- Importantly, recognize that this requires a change of strategy in dealing with your son and the in-laws. It’s not a call for soul-searching on your part or trying to figure out what you did wrong.
You will probably never receive an answer regarding the alleged offense. Manipulations work with hints, assumptions, exaggerations, and purposeful negative interpretations. There is no “core” in this apple. Focus instead on maintaining at least one open channel of communication with your son. If my clinical impressions are correct, he’ll eventually need that channel more than you can imagine.
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