“They say that breaking up is hard to do. Now I know, I know that it's true.”
That Neil Sedaka song was recorded twice — in 1962 and in 1975 — a testament to the truth of the lyrics. Breakups are painful, even when it’s not you but your adult child.
At a recent wedding, a guest looked wistfully at the joyous couple and mentioned that his twentysomething son had ended a long-term relationship with a woman whom the father and his wife adored. She had brought out the best in their son, and the parents considered her part of their family, spending vacations and holidays together.
Yet were the father to pipe up about his feelings over the breakup, he said, he’d feel like the title character of the Chicago song “Mr. Cellophane”:
“Mr. Cellophane shoulda been my name
Mr. Cellophane ’cause you can look right through me
Walk right by me and never know I’m there”
That mom and dad should be neither seen nor heard is the default position when it comes to involvement in adult children’s romances. Still that doesn’t lessen the heartache as we watch a breakup from the sidelines. Perhaps we even fantasized about wedding bells one day.
What is our role? Pretend she never existed? Email her? Take her to lunch? Of course, there are all sorts of variables: Did she dump him? Was it mutual? Were they living together?
For advice, we turned to millennial Hannah Seligson, who writes about Gen Y issues, including A Little Bit Married, a book about long-term unmarried relationships. “There is no modern etiquette guide for these situations,” she told us. “People make it up as they go.”
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Drawing on her own experiences and observations, she offers the following:
- Refrain from bad-mouthing. Couples have been known to get back together. You don’t want anything negative you said repeated. If it was your child who ended the relationship, he doesn’t need to hear what a big mistake he just made.
- Take direction. Ask your child how you can help. Does she want to vent? Does he need help finding a new apartment? Be there to listen, not lecture or advise.
- Ask before reaching out. You may want to call or send a condolence note of sorts, but check with your child first. Then keep it neutral: “Something like, ‘I really enjoyed our time together. Hope you’re doing OK and finding support you need,’ ” Seligson suggests.
- Rethink continuing the relationship. Perhaps you socialized with the parents. “Often there’s too much history and hurt and the boundaries get blurry,” Seligson says. “Consider staying in touch but in a less engaged way.”
- Stay off social media. Stalking the former beloved on Facebook or Instagram is not going to make it any easier on your aching heart.
- Take time to heal. “A breakup, especially when the couple is in their late 20s or early 30s, is shocking and traumatizing for everyone, including parents,” Seligson says.
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