Dear Carolyn: My wife and I argue about my son, 42, unmarried. He lives Up North but visits for a week each winter to get away from the cold. He likes to socialize with old friends while he’s here. He will usually get in after we’ve gone to bed, which entails resetting the house alarm, which wakes up my wife. She then has a hard time falling back to sleep.
She tells me I should tell him to come home before we go to bed. I say he’s grown so I shouldn’t tell him what to do, and he’s on vacation. She says it should be a matter of courtesy and respect for him to abide by the rules we set up.
I’m having a hard time with this concept and haven’t done it. I tell her it’s only two nights out of the whole year and maybe she can put up with this inconvenience.
There are other issues we deal with when it comes to my son, which I feel make this bigger than just this one issue. It is causing stress in our marriage. Anything you can add?
Carolyn says: It’s two nights per year!
And it’s your son. Adult. Visiting you. And just seeing old friends while he happens to be in town.
I can’t add anything to your ample justification for a rational, minimally generous person to try white noise and back off.
I guess I added the white-noise part. And, here: You can try leaving the alarm off when he’s out.
Obviously it’s time to reckon decisively with those “other issues.” I should include this as fine print with every column: People who re-pick the same fights are denying reality and wasting their lives. And the lives of the people they recurrently argue with.
Whoever takes the initiative to re-litigate old issues is in the wrong, even when that person’s position is technically right.
For example, let’s say — argument’s sake only — your son’s out carousing and abusing your hospitality. Let’s say your wife is right that he’s discourteous.
After the nth time she fights you on this and gets nowhere, it’s time for her to declare her Plan A of winning the argument a non-starter. The persistence becomes the thing.
And yes, it does take two to argue — but the one expecting the costlier concession must back down. Or leave.
Here, she’s fighting to win two nights’ sleep. But her victory might cost you these visits from your son, since conditions so nitpicky and subtly hostile — curfew for a 42-year-old!? — could easily persuade him he’s better off just staying home.
So your wife needs a Plan B that involves accepting that your connection to your son takes precedence. She needn’t love it, just accept it.
She didn’t write to me, alas, so I can only advise you. But the point remains: Recurring arguments are failed grips on reality, and relationships fall with them. So please have out the bigger son-related issues, articulating points each of you won’t budge on — with a therapist/referee as needed — until you agree everything’s been said and heard. Then choose your agreements, understandings, trade-offs, compromises, concessions. Own them to pre-empt resenting each other for them. Then, decline all new invitations to fight: “Unless something has changed, we have an agreement here.”
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.