Befriend Her

July 05 2018 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: we are two very religious parents, and our four children, thanks be to God, were brought up with sound Christian values which they have accepted.

However, we do have some problems with our smallest child. He is 22 and has a well-paying job which gives him great satisfaction. The problem is that he has fallen in love with a woman who is considerably older than he is; she is, in fact, 35 years old and divorced!

When my husband heard of this he almost had a stroke, while I am literally beside myself with grief and consternation. Our son, however, is completely smitten by her, and says he will soon marry her, with or without our consent.

Can two loving parents be subjected to this ordeal of seeing their son go to the dogs?


It is always painful when our adult children don’t make the choices we wish they did, but how we respond to those choices makes all the difference between whether the Holy Spirit can use us to be instruments of grace in our adult children’s lives, or if we simply end up alienating them with our anger, outrage, and lecturing.

Your son and his intended may know something you don’t about their ability to have a healthy relationship, but superficially, at least, you are not wrong to express genuine concern about your son’s future happiness. The age difference between them may speak to either emotional wounding on your son’s part, emotional immaturity on his girlfriend’s part – or both. Likewise, assuming her first marriage has not been annulled, there are impediments to their ability to be validly married in the Church.  Finally, even if she is free to marry in the Church, second marriages have a significantly higher divorce rate. Canonically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually, your son and his intended may, as you fear, be facing an uphill battle to have a workable relationship, much less a grace-filled one.

But if this is, in fact, the case, their best bet for leading healthy, happy, godly lives is having a mature, emotionally stable, loving couple who can befriend them, disciple them, and be mentors to them. Hopefully, that can be you and your husband. In fact, since you are in this position, this is exactly the job Christ is asking you to do.

The first step will be asking God for the grace to surrender your commitment to what an acquaintance of mine calls ‘scowl-vangelism’, the ignorant but addictive belief that if we can just be angrily disapproving enough of someone, they will suddenly and joyfully embrace the path we have chosen for them. As cathartic as it can be, scowl-vangelism is doomed to fail. Your husband can have all the ‘strokes’ he likes, and you can cover all the pictures in your home with black bunting if you wish, but all it will do is drive your son further into the arms of the woman you are confident will be his undoing.

It is fine to express your concerns in a forthright, helpful way. To say, for instance, “We want you both to be happy. But there are a lot of challenges relationships like yours face. Have you thought about seeking some professional counseling to figure out what it would take to overcome those potential obstacles? We would be happy to help with the cost if you’d be willing to go.”  Regardless of how they respond, they’ll respect you a lot more if you take this approach than if you just keep screaming, “Are you out of your mind?!?” over and over again.

Beyond this, the key to success in these situations is, to paraphrase Sun Tzu, keep your friends close and your future daughter-in-law closer. Get to know this woman. Find a way to befriend her.  Work hard to see what your son sees in her. Invite her to lunch. It’s ok for you to admit that “this is hard for me,” but do it while showing your son and his intended that you are working hard to treat them as people who are worthy of God’s love, and yours.

Do you and your husband pray together? Do you pray as a family? Unfortunately, most Catholics don’t. This is would be a good time to start. Together with your husband, ask God to help you be the witnesses he wants you to be to your son. Ask him for the grace to be an inspiring example of the kind of marriage God wants for all your children. Ask for the humility to seek forgiveness and healing for the ways you have sometimes, perhaps, been a less-than-inspiring example. Show your children that marriage takes work at every age and stage, and dedicate yourselves to being the couple that makes your children want to be like you.

Updated on July 05 2018