ASK HOLLY: My son's girlfriend is super-controlling. How do I get him to break up with her?

Welcome to Mamamia's new advice column, DON'T FREAK OUT, where Holly Wainwright solves your most personal and problematic dilemmas with her sage wisdom. If you have a drama you need solved, email us at helpme@mamamia.com.au — you can be anonymous of course because otherwise, awks.

Dear Holly,

My 18-year-old son is in a relationship with a very controlling girlfriend.

They have been together for over a year now but I (and the rest of the family) am concerned. She seems to be getting more and more controlling, and he is so kind and easy-going, he just lets her. As a mother, it is absolutely heart-breaking to watch this happening and I don't know what I can do.

A bit of context - they were both part of a big group of friends at high school. Somehow she fell out with everyone in the group and my son was made to side with her - he wasn't allowed to sit with or talk to any of his friends at school. 

When he got his licence he wasn't allowed any other girls in his car, she made him leave group chats if other girls were in it. Since turning 18 he isn't allowed to go out to a pub with mates unless she goes too (she is 17). She has him on a Life 360 app and tracks him everywhere. 

When he was playing football, she would be ringing him at least 10 times and he would get in trouble for not answering his phone, even when he was playing. If he has been invited to a party, she makes sure to organise something so he can't go. If he's at work, she just turns up at our house and waits for him.


He had an end-of-year combined get-together with his footy team and girls' league teams and he and his girlfriend had a big fight about him going - I pushed him to go and organised to drop him and pick him up but she took over and demanded to pick him up.

I have tried to talk to her mother about a few things but that made the girlfriend upset and my son begged me not to say anything and to stay out of it because he was getting in trouble.

He has had one other relationship prior, and she broke up with him because he chose to go away with friends for a fishing trip (because of other commitments, him going meant they wouldn't see each other for a couple of weeks). At that time, he asked me for advice and I told him that his mates were important and if he wanted to go, he should go. I stand by that advice but I felt bad she broke up with him because he went. 

My mother-in-law didn't like me, which made life very hard (she's dead now) and I have always told myself I'm never going to be that mother-in-law, BUT this is just so hard to stand by and watch. My son is not the same happy, outgoing person anymore. He used to have so many friends.

When I can get him on his own, I try to gently tell him to reach out to his friends and offer to drive or collect him. I don't know what else to do, any advice would be greatly appreciated.


Reluctant MIL



Dear Reluctant MIL, 

Have you ever heard the term "unreliable narrator"? 

Because with all the love in the world, I think you might be one. Us mothers often are. 

Like that time I was 13 and my mum asked me why I smelled of cigarettes and I told her I'd walked past a bonfire and breathed in. And then she'd told her friends this mysterious story about how bonfires smelled like cigarettes "these days". My mother's a smart woman, I doubt she believed it herself.

Watch: A spoken word video staring Laura Bryne articulating the contradiction of pressures that mothers face in their daily lives. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

Mother's blindness, it's called. And perhaps there's a tiny touch of it when you're assessing the dynamic between your "kind, easy-going" son and his "controlling" girlfriend. It's just possible that she has reason to be so insecure about his whereabouts and his company. 

But I'm sure you've thought of that, friend. And you're not wrong. There's something very concerning about the language being used here to describe how your son and his girlfriend relate. 


"She won't let him." 

"He's not allowed." 

"He gets in trouble."

"She made him." 

All of this is the kind of infantilising language a parent would use about a child, or a child might use about a parent. None of it speaks to a healthy relationship dynamic, where yes, of course, we have concerns about acting in ways that would hurt or distress our partner, but we are people of free will who are "allowed" to live our lives as we see fit. 

Which is exactly why you're worried, I know. Whether your son is a perfect, kind and an easy-going angel or not, he is entitled to his freedom.

But it brings us to yet another hard truth. You can't do much about it. 

As you've already learned, your advice matters. So you can absolutely express to your son that you think he might be happier in a relationship where he was not always cast in the role of a naughty child who can't be trusted, but whether he's prepared to stay in the relationship is entirely up to him. An 18-year-old isn't going to instigate a break-up because his mum told him to (and if he did, maybe he is a bit infantilised, after all?) If you push your advice too hard, he's going to clam up in the face of your clear disapproval, and it may push him closer to his girlfriend, overall. 

My advice? Withdraw support and interest and provide distraction. If you know all these dynamics because your son shares them with you then maybe, after you've given your advice, you just act a lot less interested in hearing him complain about a relationship he won't leave. Next time his girlfriend comes to wait at your house, you say you're going out and don't offer entry privileges. Make sure he knows there's a version of life where being single is fun and fulfilling, and then let him find his way there if that's what he wants.  


I would also advise him to disable the tracking on his phone. He can do that, and she might not like it, but it's a line in the sand that's entirely reasonable to draw if he's prepared to do it.

Your role now, as your son edges into adulthood, is support and a safety net. Not the controller. 

If your mother-in-law never learned that, and you know how hurtful that was, it's doubly important that you do.

It's impossibly hard and annoying to have to spend time in the presence of a relationship you don't respect, with someone you don't particularly like, but chalk it up as the latest on the long parental list - from watching The Wiggles 25 times a day, to going to sport and pretending to care about Minecraft - of things you'd rather not do but kind of have to in order to keep your kids close.

Big love and luck to you, Reluctant MIL xx

If you have a dilemma for Holly, please email helpme@mamamia.com.au.

Feature Image: Getty.

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