Why Is My Son So Rigid?

Dear Dr. Coleman,

The most striking characteristic of our estranged 28-year-old son is that he has never been able to acknowledge any other perspective than his own, and has kept the same very rigid view about me and his father for many years. This is despite a lot of therapy. I would have thought his position would have changed from adolescence to adulthood. He has always done well at work but always struggled with close relations. I don’t understand.”

ANSWER: The ability to think about other people in a nuanced way is a psychological achievement. It requires several capacities:

  • The ability to empathize with what others might be thinking or feeling
  • The ability to tolerate feelings of hurt or frustration in close relationships
  • The capacity to understand that a painful or negative interaction doesn’t necessarily indicate a negative intention on the part of the other
    A willingness to change or modify a position to incorporate new information based on the other’s statements or behaviors.
  • Typically those who are rigid in their relations with family members are unable to think in those ways. Black and white thinking, whether it’s in regards to differing ideas about the past, or about the parent’s motivations can indicate a kind of psychological fragility.

Accepting that their version of the past may be wrong is extremely anxiety provoking for someone with this kind of psychology. They often struggle or fail in intimate relationships because black and white thinking interferes with the kind of mutual construction of reality that intimacy requires, whether in relations to family members, friends, or romantic partners.

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