My Son Is Dating My Much Older Divorced Friend


Welcome to Ask A MWLTF (Yes, that’s Mother Who Likes to F*ck.), a monthly anonymous advice column from Scary Mommy. Here we’ll dissect all your burning questions about motherhood, sex, romance, intimacy, and friendship with the help of our columnist, Penelope, a writer and mental health practitioner in training. She’ll dish out her most sound advice for parents on the delicate dance of raising kids without sacrificing other important relationships. Email her at askpenelope@scarymommy.com.

Dear Penelope,

My son, a senior in college, recently came home for a visit and shared with me that he’d started seeing someone romantically, and though they hadn’t been dating long, he thought it might be serious. At first, I was thrilled. My son is a sensitive, intelligent young man (I know I’m biased, but he is!), with so much to offer. He’s also quite shy and to my knowledge, hasn’t had many romantic partners. I responded enthusiastically and asked if he’d be bringing her home some time to introduce us. He told me no, he wouldn’t have to because she lived nearby; they’d been dating long-distance for about a year. Surprised, I asked if it was someone he’d known in high school. He blushed and replied, “Sort of.” After another day or two of this coyness, he came out with it. The woman he was dating was a recently divorced friend of mine, not a close friend but a friend, but a woman I like and trust and have known for years. She’s 47! I think of myself as a pretty open-minded person, but I have to be honest: I was horrified. I asked my son if anything inappropriate had taken place between them when he was underage. He assured me that no, the romance had only begun the previous summer, shortly after his 21st birthday. My horror lessened, but only slightly. Suddenly I morphed into the kind of pearl-clutching parent I never imagined myself becoming, changed the subject and asked what my son thought about lamb chops for dinner. He hasn’t raised the subject since.

Now, I can’t stop wondering if I over- or under-reacted, and more importantly, I have no idea how I should feel about this relationship or talk about it with my son going forward. On the one hand, I have no reason to think this woman he’s involved with is an unsavory person, and I’m happy that he seems to be happy, at least at the moment. On the other hand, I can’t help but think about the tremendous differential in power and experience that inevitably exists between a 47-year-old divorcee and a 22-year-old college senior. Should I warn my son that he’s probably being used and exploited? Or should I be unconditionally supportive? Right now I’m still staring out the kitchen window like a deer in the headlights.

Dear Deer in the Headlights,

Your situation reminds me of a conversation I had recently with my father. I was telling him about some difficult situations I was navigating with my teenage daughter, and, a touch exasperated, asked, “At what age does this parenting thing going get easier?” He replied in his usual deadpan, “I’m still waiting.”

It sounds like you might have one of those situations on your hands that proves how parenting dilemmas never get easier; they just become hard in different ways. In this case, you’re faced with a dilemma that brings your desire to shield your son from potentially unhealthy dynamics into conflict with your desire to be supportive of his growth and independence as a young adult. Also, the fact that this romance involves not a stranger but a woman you know makes it all the more… weird.

Well, let’s start with the good news. First and foremost, you should be heartened that your son shared this information with you and seems to want to talk about it with you. When I was in my early twenties, I don’t think I would have shared any personal information short of an impending organ transplant with my parents. The idea of opening up to them about who I was dating or sleeping with would have sent a shiver up and down my spine. The fact that your son feels comfortable confiding in you about something so intimate when he easily could have kept it hidden shows that you’re clearly doing something right.

The second piece of good news is that, at least from the information he’s shared with you at this point, there’s nothing necessarily unethical or exploitative about a consensual, sexual relationship between a 47-year-old woman and a 21-year old man. While it may be unconventional, and while I certainly understand concerns you might have about this woman’s personal boundaries since she did have some form of friendship with you before the relationship with your son began, power differentials take many different forms within a relationship, and there’s no reason to assume that your “friend” here holds all the power in whatever is going on between the two of them.

I remember, for example, a relationship I had as an undergraduate in college with a much older graduate student. I was 21 and he was 36 when it began. I remember that many of his friends and mine found the relationship to be “sketchy,” and assumed he was taking advantage of me in some way. Sometimes I wondered if they were right. But in retrospect, when I think about my actual experience with this person, I think in many ways it was one of the healthiest relationships I’d had up to that point, and maybe for some time after. His position as an older man gave him certain types of power, and my position as an attractive (I’d even say hot!) younger woman gave me other types of power. But the relevant piece of information here was that neither of us used whatever power we had in the relationship to try to dominate or control the other. I learned a lot from this person, and I think he learned things from me. The relationship, while it lasted, was based largely on friendship, mutual respect, and enjoyment of each other’s company, not on dependency or manipulation. There was no way anyone could have known any of this from the outside without my talking to them about my feelings and experience around the relationship.

What I’m saying here is that while it’s completely understandable that your son’s announcement would come as a shock to you, it’s time to stop being a deer in the headlights and let him know that whatever he wants to say to you about this relationship or any other, you’re there for it.



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