Life is a puzzle

Life is a puzzle

My friend Mary has been in despair about her 29 year old son Jeff for some time. He often treats her with contempt.

Jeff has been living in Vancouver for the past five years where he works as a manager for a large department store. He stays with Mary when he returns to Ottawa to visit family and friends.

When she asks him how his day went, he might reply that it is none of her business, or he gives a one word answer. He leaves dishes in the sink after making himself some food and ignores Mary’s request that he clean up after himself.  When Mary planned a pot luck birthday party for his sister, Jeff told Mary she just wanted to get out of work.  (And what’s wrong with that, I might ask!)

Jeff also fails to return his mother’s telephone calls or e-mails.  Mary is always the one to initiate contact and then she waits, hoping she will hear from him.

The most recent of Jeff’s transgressions is that he failed to answer a previously arranged telephone call with Mary. There was no e-mail advising Mary that he wouldn’t be available and no follow-up e-mail apologizing for not answering the call.

Mary decided that it was time to act. She sent him this e-mail:

“Hi Jeff: 

I was really disappointed that you were not available to talk with me on Tuesday, 9 pm Ottawa time, as we had planned.  I was really looking forward to our conversation and hearing about your new job. I had arranged my evening so that I would be here for your call.

You did not let me know that you would not be available and I did not hear from you later letting me know what had happened. When I do not hear from you I worry that something unfortunate might have happened to you. 

I always look forward to hearing from you whether it is by telephone or e-mail. It is rare that you respond to my e-mails which makes me feel very unimportant to you. That hurts me because you are certainly important to me and I would like to know that I am important to you too. 

I have decided that I need to protect myself from further disappointment. So I have decided that I will not initiate e-mails or phone calls with you but I would be delighted to respond to any that you send to me.  

I want you to know that I love you, Jeff, and I hope all is well with you. 


I think this is the perfect e-mail for the following reasons:

  • Mary is telling Jeff how she feels;
  • Mary sticks to the facts and defines the problem ;
  • Mary is very clear about what she is planning to do and why she is planning to do it;
  • Mary writes in a very kind way; leaving the door open for Jeff to contact her;
  • Mary does not name call or belittle Jeff. She does not describe him as rude, inconsiderate or thoughtless. Those words could close the door to further communication; and
  • Mary assures Jeff that although she will not be initiating any contact with him, she loves him and will answer any e-mails he writes.

I once attended a parenting course where the instructor said that there was never any need to yell at your kids. He used the analogy of a police officer who stops a speeding driver. The police officer doesn’t yell or name call; he just saunters over to the offender’s car, quietly states the facts about the extent to which the driver was driving over the speed limit and hands out a ticket. If you are like me, you are terrified the moment you get caught and are very respectful. I know I have done something wrong and I deserve the punishment.

Mary behaved like the ideal police officer.  In a very respectful way, she told her son what the problem was and what she was going to do about it. Like the police officer, she didn’t name call or get angry; she understood there was a need to act and Mary acted.

About a day after Mary sent her e-mail, Jeff sent her an e-mail telling her he had tried to get in touch but the connection did not work and that he wanted to talk right away. They had a pleasant telephone call.

Despite this, Mary needs to stick to her plan. After all, Jeff did not try to contact Mary after the initial attempt failed to find out what went wrong. The situation is symptomatic of a much larger problem and if Mary doesn’t stand firm, she will be in an even worse situation with her son.  He will know that she makes empty threats and he can do as he pleases regardless of what she says.

Mary also now knows that her son is invested in their relationship, given Jeff contacted her so quickly after she sent her e-mail. She could write him a short e-mail saying that she enjoyed their telephone call, was very glad that he had tried to contact her initially, but still feels she would like him to contact her next.

Actions always speak louder than words and are far more effective.

Would you do the same thing as Mary?  What’s your advice?  I would love to hear from you so please leave a response in the Reply Box below.

Lessons Learned
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Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. I think her approach was good and hopefully they have a good conversation about how to stay connected in a way that works for both of them.

    As far as staying connected while living across the country, that can be hard. My brother and sister-in-law recently moved out to Edmonton. They call and speak with my parents about once a week and also send videos of the grandkid – so that seems to work on both ends. For me, we stay connected through Facebook – and messaging on our phones. I “need” less talk time to feel like I’m connected – and maybe Jeff is the same sort of person, while Mary needs more. That doesn’t give him an excuse to disrespect her feelings, however.

    I have to admit, I was more annoyed by the gestures of disrespect when he visited – dishes in the sink, comments on plans he wasn’t contributing to anyway etc… I think that speaks volumes to the underlying issue of lack of respect which is trickling over into calls/connecting. So yes, Mary should stick with it.



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