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Heavy Meddle: My Boyfriend Refuses To Kick His Adult Son Out Of Our House

What to do when your boyfriend won’t give his alcoholic son the heave ho? (LoboStudio Hamburg/Unsplash)
What to do when your boyfriend won’t give his alcoholic son the heave ho? (LoboStudio Hamburg/Unsplash)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I have been in a relationship with a wonderful guy for six years. About two years ago his oldest son (now 30) had a falling out with his girlfriend and he moved into our two-bedroom apartment "temporarily." Now I fear it is more permanent and my boyfriend is doing little to encourage his son to move on.

He has been hesitant to acknowledge that his son has substance abuse problems and he feels that with time things will eventually work out. I don't agree. His son has totaled two vehicles in two years. The last time he lost his license for DUI. His father drove him to and from work for two months until he got his license back. He has bailed his son out numerous times financially to give him "a fresh start," but the underlying problems have not changed.

I want his son to succeed and be responsible, but without consequences, things aren't going to change. We have enabled him to ignore our expectations.

The son participated in mandatory counseling but doesn't go anymore. On top of that, he considers our apartment a hotel. He does nothing to contribute to the household — he doesn't pay rent, doesn't clean, and rarely eats meals with us. He stays up half the night and then has a hard time getting up for work.

There is no effort on his part to be responsible or considerate. He has made no realistic attempt to pay his father back, despite the fact that he clears $1,000 a week from his job. The money goes to bar tabs, cigarettes and who knows what else. I have discussed my frustration with my boyfriend on several occasions, suggesting that his son pay rent (even if we just set it aside for him), pay his father back, and that he get additional counseling. My boyfriend has talked to his son a few times about budgeting and the outstanding loan, but there is no follow-through. Half the time when he tries to talk to him, the son magically chooses not to come home or he "has to run a quick errand" and disappears until after we have gone to bed.

I want his son to succeed and be responsible, but without consequences, things aren't going to change. We have enabled him to ignore our expectations.

Any suggestions?

Sick of Peter Pan

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Dear SoPP,

Oh boy. Your instincts on this strike me as spot-on. Your boyfriend is enabling his oldest son, and until he stops doing so it’s unlikely that this guy is going to get his act together. But being right and figuring out what to do are two different matters.

Based on your letter, you’ve been living with your boyfriend for at least two years. You have every right to tell him that you don’t want another person living with you, that it’s not the relationship you signed up for, or will tolerate.

The problem is that taking this approach — issuing an ultimatum — puts your boyfriend in a terrible spot. He will feel as if he’s being forced to choose between his paternal obligations and his romantic ones. This is not the case. Refusing to enable his son in this particular moment is, in fact, part of his paternal obligation. But I’m speaking now based on the notion that your boyfriend is in denial about his son’s circumstances and the need to set clear boundaries.

That being said, this has been going on for two years now, not two months. So one way of looking at this tricky situation is that his ability to set boundaries may hinge on your willingness to set boundaries.

Ultimately, though, your best bet is to model for him the kind of compassionate boundary setting that you want to see him establish with his son.

I suggest that you attend a meeting or two of an Al-Anon Family Group and find out more about how you might approach your boyfriend. You need to try to help him face a tough truth: that his efforts to “help” his son are actually preventing his son from facing the truth of his circumstances and thereby helping himself. It might help if, to begin with, you ask him to do a little reading about the cycle of enabling and to attend a meeting with you.

You can and should let him know that you care for his son and want his son to succeed. And that you admire his loyalty to his son, and the good intentions that lead him to support his son.

Ultimately, though, your best bet is to model for him the kind of compassionate boundary setting that you want to see him establish with his son. I’m not a big fan of the term “tough” love, because there’s a certain drama inherent in the word tough. It’s performative. Better to strip away the performance and simply tell your boyfriend the truth: that you love him and want to make a life with him. But that this life has, for too long, involved enabling (housing, subsidizing, chauffeuring, coddling) a troubled adult son who needs help and isn’t getting it.

I hope you can deliver that message in a way that your boyfriend can hear, and that will allow all three of you to support each other as this man pulls his life together.

I wish you every kind of good luck.

Steve

Author's note: : I would love to hear from girlfriends, boyfriends, and mothers and fathers who are in the same dilemma. What’s your advice? Send your thoughts along in the comments section below. And hey, send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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