Dear Dr Ren,
I met my girlfriend of four years when my youngest child was in her last year of high school. We moved in together in the spring, and my daughter left for university the following September.
“Christine” has two sons of her own, already grown and gone when we met. The youngest, “Matt,” has always had a bit of trouble finding himself and has now gotten in some serious trouble with drugs. Christine invited him to live with us six months ago to get sorted out. It has been a nightmare.
Matt lies, steals and refuses to contribute to the house. Chris and I take very different approaches to what he needs. I say he should be in treatment and not in our house, while she maintains all he needs is love and support. We fight about this all the time. When it gets heated, she reminds me that my daughter lived with us, so her son should get the same consideration.
This is not what I signed up for. I love Christine but resent the constant fighting that Matt’s lifestyle brings us. We used to make love. Now we just process.
Must I make her choose between her partner and her son? Are there alternatives?
No Good Choice
Dear No Good Choice,
I envy none of the paths you are walking now.
“Matt” is failing at life and is back living with Mama. “Christine” undoubtedly feels guilty for not “setting him right” at first launch and is trying futilely to do so now. You are caught in a circumstance with no power yet great commitment. With no intervention, the situation is unresolvable and circular.
Blame and shame will not work. You and Christine must get on the same side, not against Matt, but against the problem. You can do this by externalizing the problem. Call it drug abuse, irresponsibility or immaturity, but it must be addressed in a depersonalized and rational manner.
This may well be too big for the two of you to manage without help, and there are many professionals available to guide you through the process. Find and use them. Support each other through the painful process of change.
If Christine finds she cannot let her son weather the pain of treatment on his own and needs to keep him under her wing, you may need to give her room to do just that. You may have to get out of her way so she can do what is necessary for her during this period.
How might that look? It might be wise for you to move out while Christine and Matt traverse their unfinished business. That way you cannot triangulate nor diffuse the interactions, and they will be forced to resolve their issues by themselves.
Don’t disappear, but draw clear boundaries. Have the occasional family lunch, but leave if Matt shows up stoned or hostile. Don’t leave huffy, but leave. Welcome Christine to stay at your place, but make it off limits to discuss contentious family matters there.
Or perhaps the two of you could fund a place for Matt, where you can oversee his behaviour but maintain your own domestic stability.
What other options might the two of you devise? Be creative.
As to your owing Christine her son’s stay with you because your daughter was at home when you two first moved in together, this is a red herring. The children, and the situations, are different. Refuse to engage in this argument further.
Must you make Christine choose between you and her son? You needn’t make anyone do anything, and that is part of the solution. Determine what you need and how you can get those needs met. Then do those things. Encourage Christine to do the same. There is almost always more than one right answer for every problem. Find as many of them as you can and choose your best options among them.
You are faced with a terrible situation here. Your challenge is in finding ways where you can feel that you are doing the best you can with what you have to work with. If you stay on the same team and maintain clear boundaries, you can meet this challenge.
Many a good relationship has fallen to stressors that have seemed beyond control. Don’t let this happen to you and Christine. Be determined to succeed.
You say this is not what you signed up for. That’s fair. You don’t have to give up yourself to be with someone else. Still, make sure you keep sight of your goal — maintaining your relationship — while you separate out your invasive family troubles. Temporarily reconfigure your family design to accommodate its needs if you must, all the while holding on to your love. Take space, and stay close.
Tend to your relationship. Invest in a date night weekly. Remind each other of what you appreciate. Reignite hot, frequent sex. Hold one another and wait this out.