My adult son is disrespectful to his girlfriend

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 12.25.56QUESTION
My 26-year-old son’s behaviour towards his girlfriend has been giving me cause for concern for some time. They have been together since they were in their early teens and are planning to move in together this summer.

The problem is that, on occasion, he shows very little respect for her. I find it both embarrassing and upsetting to observe, and I am ashamed of his behaviour. I am also frustrated and disappointed that she appears not to stand up for herself.

I spoke to him a number of months ago after an incident during which he was verbally abusive to her and about her. I told him that if he didn’t have and couldn’t demonstrate respect for her, then he couldn’t love her. I thought that this would force him to reflect, and I’m sure it did. However, we have had another demonstration of his disrespectful behaviour and it has upset me a lot.
I don’t know what, if anything, I can do but I would appreciate any help.

Once the initial flurry of being in love has passed, close, intimate relationships always bring challenge and frustration as well as joy and contentment. Even the best partnerships have major conflicts and basic personality differences that must be understood and integrated if the relationship is to progress. However, in dealing with these frustrations, one or both partners can get into a pattern of speaking negatively towards the other and this has a tendency to erode and damage a relationship over time.

Relationship expert John Gottman identifies four negative communication styles – criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – that are toxic ways of dealing with conflicts in relationships. Contempt, in particular, can do untold damage.

Frequently, partners are unaware that they have got into the habit of communicating in these ways and their presence is a poor sign of the emotional health of the relationship. In his work Gottman also describes how people in happy relationships learn to curtail their use of disrespectful communication and find more constructive ways to deal with the frustrations and disappointments inherent in intimate relationships (such as humour, empathy, taking responsibility, positively expressing your needs, to name but a few strategies).

While most couples reserve their disrespect towards one another to private exchanges, it is indeed another step up for these to occur in public. Being present when a couple (you care about) express their disrespectful communication can be particularly embarrassing and difficult to witness.

When this happens it is very hard to know how to respond. It feels difficult to get involved and say something and yet, if you say nothing, then you feel you are somehow colluding with the disrespect, especially if it seems one person is being picked on unfairly.

While there are no definitive answers, these are some of the options you could consider:
You could say nothing
Of course you could decide that it is not your business to become involved in any way. In truth, you can’t know the inner workings of any relationship from the outside, and your son and his girlfriend are adults and have to make their own decisions. In addition, getting involved is fraught with difficulties: it can easily backfire and could alienate you from your son – or from both of them, if their relationship progresses.

You could talk to your son
You have already tried having a word with your son in private and it might be too early to say whether this has helped. If you do approach him again, I would suggest starting from a compassionate or nonjudgmental stance: it may be that he is unaware of how he is speaking, or there may be stresses in the relationship that you do not know about.

One option is to start by inquiring gently how things are going for him, his girlfriend and their relationship. Then you can raise your concerns: “You seem to speaking a little disrespectfully to her . . . Are you aware you are speaking that way?” If you do offer a criticism, it is best to try to own your opinion and feelings: “I feel embarrassed/ I don’t like it when you speak like that,” and so on. If the conversation goes well, he may be open to discussing how to sort things out.

You could say something to the two of them when you hear disrespect
This is by far the trickiest strategy to get right, but it can break the sense of embarrassment or collusion you feel when you stay silent in the presence of someone being disrespected.

You could say something like, “That seems a bit over the top,” or “Hold on, I don’t think that is fair,” or “There is no need to speak like that,” or you could try to lighten the mood, “Hey, I’m here . . . there’s no need to speak like that.” Speaking up does break the collusion and offers support to his girlfriend.

You could talk to your son’s girlfriend
Depending on how close you are to her, you could say something supportive to your son’s girlfriend about what is going on. This might be appropriate if you are concerned about her welfare, and it might be worth trying after you have spoken to your son. Once again, this is a delicate conversation to get right and is best approached gently and with an expression of concern.

You could first check how she is doing and then raise gently that you are embarrassed sometimes with how your son speaks to her. Then you wait and listen to see how she responds.

Whether and what you can say to your son about what is going on depends largely on the quality of your relationship with him. You could have a relatively close relationship, in which he is likely to listen to your point of view and accept positive influence, and vice versa, or it may be more problematic.

If you feel he has a better relationship with his father or someone else, it might be worth discussing your dilemma with them first. Ultimately, whatever stance you take, it is important to remember that they are both adults and it is their responsibility to manage their relationship.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, July 2015. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
For information on John’s courses for parents see