Category Archives: family

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My family is living in a pigsty!

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 10, 2005

My mom’s a slob, my sister’s a loser. What is wrong with these people?


Dear Cary,

My question is a simple one of whom to be mad at.

Here’s the background: My mom has always been a horrible housekeeper. My dad actually left her because of it — he would come home from working 50 hours a week and then clean on the weekends. My mom would instead read romance novels, talk to her friends in Ohio, and dote on my younger sister and me. After my dad left, the house got messier and messier — the carpet discolored, the dishwasher broken since 1992 (it’s still there). I was kind of an introvert until I hit college and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary about this lifestyle.

My sister never went to college. Let me rephrase: She went to five certificate programs ranging from massage therapy to fashion design, never graduating from anything, until she went to a two-month pastry chef program and finished — hallelujah! She moved out at 22 with her boyfriend and got a job in the big city, and we all thought she had grown up. Unfortunately, she quit under mysterious circumstances (reportedly, her “crazy” boss was about to fire her for being lazy), the boyfriend went to AA, and she moved home into the basement.

In this house live my mom, my weak grandma, who is starting to get some pretty depressing dementia, my sister and five cats. I came home for a month-long stay from my home in New York. The house has been more neglected than I can possibly sum up. My sister and mom both chain-smoke, so I’ve been cleaning cigarette tar off the walls. I’m finding cat poop in random corners. There is junk everywhere. And to top it off, when I was washing the walls, my mom asked me to get a few dark spots from the skin oil of our dog where he used to lay — our dog died two years ago.

I could live with spending my visits cleaning if it weren’t for my sister. She’s 24 and my mom keeps spoiling her. Cooks for her, pays her phone bills, buys her whatever she wants with the money she’s working a 40-hour job for. My sister has proceeded to turn the house into her personal frat house. Her boyfriend spends the night, she leaves her dirty dishes next to her unmade bed, she leaves towels smudged with her eye makeup throughout the house and leaves my mom to return her movie rentals. She has a minimum-wage job at a bookstore and is now taking mythology classes (mostly online so she doesn’t have to go) at the local community college with the intention of becoming a therapist.

After a few weeks of cleaning, I told her how much it would mean to Mom if she helped out. She agreed to help, then covertly left the house only to call me at midnight from the big city — she and her boyfriend were drunk and needed me to pick them up.

I’m pissed at my sister for refusing to care about our home or her life. Maybe I sound jealous of her carefree lifestyle, but I got my butt in gear and learned to cook my own meals years ago. I’m also pissed at my mom for letting my sister walk all over her and not just kicking her out for her own good. My mom protests that when she asks my sister to clean, she just won’t do it, so it’s worthless to ask. I’m also conscious of being the “successful” daughter with a master’s degree and a fancy life in NYC, snubbing my nose at their lifestyle. I’d pay for their maid if I could afford it.

I’m worried that at this rate my sister will never learn a sense of responsibility. She’s 24 and has had two abortions. I’m worried that my sister will get killed in a car accident — she’s already been in two — which would crush my mom. I’m worried that my sister will come to me to support her one day when our mom dies and I will have to say no, get a life.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Cinderella

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Dear Cinderella,

If your question really is whom to be mad at, my answer would be: Don’t be mad at anyone. Leave them alone. Go back to New York and quit trying to fix your family. They are responsible for themselves.

But I sense you are asking more than just whom to be mad at. You are asking why the situation is the way it is and what, if anything, you can do to fix it. What is your role in this, and what are your responsibilities? How can a person of good conscience just abandon her family when it’s clear that things have gone wrong and they need some kind of help?

First, try to put yourself in their shoes. Think how you would feel if your sister and your mother showed up at your home in New York and started cleaning your apartment and rearranging your stuff. You would feel that they didn’t respect you, that they were overstepping their bounds. My guess is that your attempts at helping them are making them feel small and inadequate, and they probably resent you for it.

Next, consider what they might be getting out of living the way they do. Why, you may ask, would anyone in her right mind choose to live like that? And who, having been shown there’s a better way, would continue?

Well, we all do things that don’t seem to make sense to others but that give us what we happen to need. It can be maddening, I know, to watch someone do something one way when you know it would be much easier and smarter to do it a different way. But often the benefits of our seemingly absurd actions are known only to us — and sometimes we ourselves do not really understand what we are getting out of it.

A family is a dense, complex web of dependencies and interdependencies. It is a nurturing place but also a dangerous place, full of threats to our egos, to the way we think of ourselves. There may be individual pathologies at work as well — you mentioned your grandmother’s dementia; perhaps there is depression and drug abuse at work with your mother and sister.

Because the family is such a dangerous place, we all figure out ways to protect ourselves from each other. The dreams, ambitions and shortcomings about which we are most vulnerable are the very ones that we keep most carefully hidden from the family’s view. So it’s no wonder that our actions often seem inexplicable and baffling to the family: Afraid of ridicule, we go to great lengths to disguise our true objectives and our true failings. That is why it is so difficult for one family member to help another one recognize and deal with a problem such as drug abuse or alcoholism: You are trying to help, but you are perceived as a threat.

Not only can your well-intentioned aid be seen as a threat, but so can be your worldly success. Faced with the success of a sibling, we are driven to differentiate ourselves, lest we feel bested, overshadowed. But we must not acknowledge that we are differentiating ourselves in reaction. That would be tantamount to admitting our weakness, our jealousy, our resentment and fear. So we pretend that we are just doing what we’re doing.

Sometimes we go overboard in this symbolic differentiation: If you are going to become the secretary of state, I will become a crack head. That will show you. If you are going to be a pot head, I am going to become a Republican. If you are going to go to New York and become successful, I am going to go home and live in the basement with five cats. That will demonstrate … what? That you’re not right about everything. That you don’t know everything. That you’re not the boss of me.

And so it goes.

To think that you can walk into such a system and fix everything by cleaning the cigarette smoke off the walls is very human and very understandable but quite clearly doomed.

Why not, instead of trying to fix your family, try to understand what emotional needs they are getting met, and what deep and universal values they are exhibiting — for instance, the value of tolerance and patience, of unconditional love. And the love of place and togetherness. No matter how screwed up things seem, they are at least together. They are a family. What is this saying to you? Might it be saying that there are some things even more important than getting your butt in gear?

This may help you stop being mad at everyone. After you stop being mad, please do consider what forms of practical aid you can offer. A regular cleaning service, if you can afford it, would be ideal. And if there are clear clinical pathologies present, then consult with appropriate specialists.

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My dad left us because he is gay

 
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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 22, 2005

Why did he spend 18 years with my mom? Did he know all along, or what?


Dear Cary,

Two months ago my dad moved out of the house. For about two years he has been depressed and then he started to have a drinking problem. My mom tried everything. They decided to go to a marriage counselor but my dad didn’t like therapy. All he did was yell at the counselor and tell her that he did not have a problem and that he was not depressed.

Once my dad moved out he was much happier and calmer. With him here it was like walking on pins and needles. The week he left he called every day and then he called three to four times a week. I was confused. If he left then shouldn’t he just leave and not call to see what was going on? He didn’t check in while he was here, so why was he doing it now? He has been gone for two months now and it is so much better here. Me, my mom and my sister are much happier. But when my dad moved out my mom had not worked for 16 years. So she had to find a job and now has a full-time job but she doesn’t earn much money.

It has been really hard for me to adjust to all of these changes but I have managed. But two days ago my mom sat me and my little sister down and told us that she had to be honest with us about something. She said that she and my dad were getting a divorce and that it was not just because of his depression or his drinking. It was because she could not stay married to a gay man. My mom figured this out four months ago but it took her this long to tell me and my sister. They have been married for 18 years. Did he not know that he was gay? If he did know, then why did he get married to my mom? Was he just trying to make it go away? What was he doing? Why now?

Confused Child

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Dear Confused Child,

Those are good questions. I will attempt to answer them. But first I have a question for you: When you ask an adult a question, do you sometimes find that they don’t really answer it, that they talk about something else that you hadn’t brought up, which you weren’t even thinking about or don’t care about?

I seem to remember that happening to me when I was a child. When I asked an adult a question I had generally thought it through. I knew what I was asking. I wanted an answer. But often I was not taken seriously. Sometimes my questions were complicated, and I was often misunderstood. But I was not looking for sympathy or hugs. I was looking for answers. So I will attempt to answer your questions.

Yes, it’s possible that when your father married your mother he did not know he was gay. He may have felt he was a heterosexual man who had occasional homosexual feelings. As you suggest, he may have thought that getting married would make the homosexual feelings go away.

Why now? Well, as you will find out as you get older, the longer one lives with a truth, the more difficult it is to resist it. It’s as though you were holding up a wall. It becomes more and more tiring. You finally give in and let the wall come down.

So why did he call so much after he left? I can think of some reasons. One, of course, is that he loves you. The sound of your voice makes him happy. Also, he wants to continue to contribute to your well-being. Moving out doesn’t change that. Some people might say he feels guilty and is seeking forgiveness. That may be part of it. But it’s not your job right now to forgive him. You may be too angry at him to forgive him or even to want to speak to him. But if he is trying to be helpful, if he is inquiring as to your well-being, it’s OK to talk to him and tell him how you are.

You also ask why, if he’s going to go, he doesn’t simply go and not bother you? It’s a good question. It would simplify things if he were simply gone. But you would probably start to miss him, too, if he never called. It’s better this way, even though it may be upsetting to hear from him right now, because you don’t want to get into the habit of never talking to him.

For you, having to talk to him is probably a lot of work right now. It requires you to come up with a new way of relating to him. But if I were you, I would try to force myself to talk to him, to keep up the habit. You will probably find, as time goes on, that you settle into a new relationship with him and bit by bit you become glad to hear from him. What makes it hard right now, I’m guessing, is the way all your emotions well up when he calls. You may feel angry and sad all at once. You may feel things of an intensity and complexity that you haven’t ever felt before, and that may be frightening to you. It may feel as though you are getting a little crazy. Intense emotions will do that even to the strongest person. But that’s all right; then they pass and you are the same as you were. Your emotions won’t hurt you. They are not your enemy. In fact, if you look at them as a source of strength, they will help you get through this.

I have tried to answer your questions as clearly as I can, without adding a bunch of nonsense. Even so, I have probably said more than I needed to. It’s hard to avoid doing that. The important thing to remember is that your father still loves you, and things will get better. You can depend on that.

 

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I’m finished with my family — but am I free of them?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 19, 2005T

Is this resolution or abandonment?


Dear Cary:

Thank you, first off, for being a unique voice in a somewhat crude, unsympathetic age.

Here’s my problem in a nutshell: I’ve abandoned my family, and they’ve let me, and I can’t decide whether to let them let me.

I grew up in a family rife with abuse: physical, emotional, sexual. There was active abuse resulting in bruising and bleeding and sobbing. There was passive abuse (some call that neglect) resulting in alienation, fear and self-loathing. Some of it happened to me. Some of it happened around me, and I was powerless to stop it. Some of it I learned about years after the fact.

I grew up and I got out. For the most part, I didn’t look back. I maintained a few ties, but I kept them stretched thin.

I turned 30, and I still couldn’t trust anyone, and I still wanted to die.

I’m a writer, and in the process of sorting through the chaos of my upbringing, I did what writers often do: I wrote about it. Furthermore, I did so publicly, and as myself. I didn’t name any names but my own; but honestly, I wasn’t interested in protecting anyone.

When the family found out, the reaction was uniform outrage. They were incensed that I would air my dirty laundry in such a fashion — that I would air their dirty laundry without consulting them. My response was that they’d had 30 years to bring it up, and they hadn’t. I thought I’d waited long enough before choosing to deal with my past in my own way, on my own terms.

Most interesting is that nobody denied anything I wrote. Nobody owned up to it, either. They were not interested in what had happened. Either that, or they couldn’t allow themselves to face it.

That was five years ago. Today I don’t speak to a single one of my relations. Some days I feel desolate. Some days I feel free. Most days I realize that my plan worked, whether I would admit that plan to myself or not: I wanted the Bad People of my childhood to go away, and they did. If I never contact any of them again, I truly believe that none of them will contact me.

My question is: Is this resolution? Is this a real and valid way of dealing with a monstrous childhood? I’ve done therapy, I’ve cataloged what happened, I’ve inventoried my feelings about it, I’ve tried to speak to siblings and parents about it without success, I’ve confronted, I’ve publicized, and I’ve paid the price. I know I’m capable of moving forward alone. But should I?

Yours fondly,

On the Brink

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Dear On the Brink,

Yes, I think you should move forward. I think this is resolution. It may not feel like resolution. It may feel hollow. But it sounds like resolution — or the only kind of resolution one can have to events whose faint echoes will continue to be heard the rest of your life. It may be the closest you get to resolution.

It may be helpful to ask, If you could have the perfect resolution, what would that feel like? Would it make everything feel “normal”? For those of us who so rarely feel “normal” anyway, how would we know? It’s possible that even if you could have a perfect resolution it would still not feel like resolution, because you have been formed already by these events; you are, in a sense, already armed against such things, already wary, already tensed forever for the next blow.

Besides, is a resolution even possible? What would it look like? I suppose the ultimate resolution would be a kind of radical undoing: These things would never have happened in the first place. You would get a do-over childhood in which you were protected and loved and allowed to grow in a fairly normal way. That is, of course, outside the boundaries of what is possible in this universe. Even if everyone wanted this, we could not bring it into being.

What would be second best? The second best, I suppose, would be if your family members changed inwardly; if there were a God who could reach down and change their hearts, then perhaps they could step forward as a group, in grave ceremony, and confess their shameful acts. Resolution could take the form of a truth commission, a trial, a complete airing of all the crimes you remember. They might offer to bare their backs to you for whipping, prostrate themselves before you and give you all their worldly goods, become your slaves for life in penance — and you, seeking not vengeance but only closure, could take the high road and tell them no, there’s no need for that, all you wanted was a little truth.

But that is not likely either, is it? You know enough about the people involved to know how unlikely it is. They have had their opportunities. It is probably not even worth considering, except as a healing fantasy, a childlike wish.

So what is left as resolution? This relative peace you have found. This cessation of hostilities. The assurance of no further damage. That seems to be about it. You have attained safety. You are not being attacked or belittled. You are being left alone. That may be, in itself, resolution.

It sounds like resolution because you yourself have done a lot of work, thinking, feeling, remembering and going about your life with the echoes of these events occasionally in your mind. The writing was probably very helpful to you as well. It sounds like it did what it so magically seems to do — it let you get a handle on this thing, get your arms around it, define it, pin it down, contain it in words, and publishing it allowed you to defy those who would have kept you silent. That may have freed you from their influence, assured you that you no longer have to fear them.

So, as I say, it may not feel like resolution to you, but I think it is a kind of resolution — not, perhaps, the dramatic kind, but the slow, painful, subtle kind. I wish you luck as you go forward, as free of your past as any man can be.

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Who’s that woman I saw my father with?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 30, 2004
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I’m afraid she’s a gold digger. Besides, it’s too soon after Mom’s death for Dad to have a girlfriend.


Dear Cary,

I am 24 years old and currently attending graduate school in fine art. About a year ago, my mother died from breast cancer after fighting the terrible disease for seven years. I was in another state attending school when complications led my mother to her final hours. I tried to get home as soon as I could, but she passed on while I was traveling home. I regret so much that I wasn’t there to say goodbye.

Time has passed and my family has moved on. My mother died while we were moving to another city because my father had found a new job, and both my parents were in the process of building a new home. My family now lives in the home my mother designed while she was alive. I am not there most of the time due to graduate school, and both my younger brothers are in college, which leaves my father alone for most of the year. He is a physician and is doing well for himself currently. I was worried about him being alone for the first time. My parents were married for over 30 years and my dad is in his 60s, and still very active physically. However, he said he could take care of himself. My brothers and I promised we would visit as much as we can.

Class is out now and I returned home for summer vacation as well as to care for my father. For the first time, I have noticed something different about my father. He is forgetting to pay his bills and return calls to people. He is also forgetting simple things like closing the front door, closing the garage, and even the front door of his car. I thought that he was losing his memory due to his age, but then I noticed while I was checking the phone bill that he keeps calling a certain number. I also noticed that while on the phone he keeps mentioning phrases like “I keep thinking of you,” “like to keep seeing you,” and finally “I love you.” That last phrase got to me and now I realize that he is seeing a woman for the first time. Memory loss now looks like love. He is currently going to Las Vegas for a conference in October and on his reservation form I read the name of the woman who is going to be staying with him. Now I am devastated by this.

My brothers and I have never seen this woman and among all of us, we don’t know anything. I do suspect one woman I saw him with at church, though I don’t have any proof that she is the one. But if she is, this woman is recently divorced and living with her mother, who has heart disease. I saw her less than livable living conditions while my father drove to her house after church with the excuse he wanted to get some food she was talking about to him. At that time, he went inside her house and left me in the car.

If the relationship is so serious, why hasn’t my dad told his own children? I am beginning to suspect bad things about this woman now, whoever she is. My father is a doctor and I know women will go to a man like him out of lust and greed. The last thing I want is my father being in a relationship with a woman who wants nothing but money out of him. I am still wondering why he is being so secretive about it. Should I confront him about my findings? Or should I let him tell my brothers and me about it in his own time? Or is it really none of my business? I don’t think I could control my emotions should he tell me he’s getting married sometime and he’s never even told his children about it in the first place.

I am still recovering from my mother’s death and it hurts a lot that he can proclaim love to a woman other than my mother, for what just seems to be weeks. I’m not sure what to do.

Not Looking for a Stepmother

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Dear Not Looking for a Stepmother,

Rather than confront him about what you have observed, I would suggest that you find some time to sit down and have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father. Ask him about the future, what he imagines doing, what he wants from his kids as the years go on, how he sees the next 20 years unfolding. Does he want to stay in this house his wife designed? How does it feel to be in this house now? Does it remind him too much of her? Does it make him sad or happy? Does he feel content there or vaguely lost? Ask him about grieving, whether he has some support in his grief, whether he’s talking to any counselors during this time. Since he is a physician, he is probably acquainted with psychiatrists, and since he is a churchgoing man, he knows where he can turn for spiritual guidance as well. Ask him if he has talked about his feelings with anyone. Ask him if he would like it if you tried to locate near him, so you could see him often. Ask him how he feels about his sons and their plans. Does he feel lost and lonely without his children around him, or is he in some ways grateful to have some time to himself. Ask him lots of questions. Ask him if he’s got a girlfriend. Ask him if he’s thought about remarrying.

Tell him things as well. Tell him that if he should have a girlfriend or decide to marry or is thinking about marrying that it’s OK with you. Tell him the only thing that would hurt you is if you didn’t know. Tell him not to worry, that his kids are strong and doing well and mostly grown up. Tell him he doesn’t have to shield his kids from the truth. Tell him part of the reason you’re saying these things is that you’re not over losing your mother yet, and you need to feel close to your father. Tell him how you feel about having been so far away when she died. Tell him how hard you tried to get there on time. Ask him if he missed you and wished you’d made it.

Oh, there are so many things you could talk about. I know fathers are hard to talk to sometimes, and as they get older they tend to drift a little, and they get tired and need a glass of water or just a drive in the car. But again, this is what I would suggest: Have a searching, open-ended conversation with your father; seek to know and understand but not control.

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How can I help my grieving daughter-in-law?

Cary’s classic column from

 

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I feel awful there isn’t more I can do


 

Dear Cary,

I always appreciate your philosophical approach to helping people reflect on their problems, and I am interested in hearing your thoughts on mine. How does one support another in grief? I actually am pretty good, I think, in the short run, in the immediate aftermath. I’m a good listener, I share my good memories of the deceased, I don’t try to downplay the pain or offer platitudes, and I do my best to sound out and anticipate what is actually needed rather than just lamely saying, “If you need anything …” which puts the burden on the grieving person to ask for help, and I try to use my own experience of grieving when my parents died to support others. But in the long run, I’m not sure what is right.

Almost three years ago, my daughter-in-law’s younger brother died in a tragic accident when he was only 20. I never realized the kind of void that’s created by the death of a young person. Suddenly, all of the assumptions about the future are destroyed. Even my husband and I, though we barely knew the young man (in part because we assumed that we had all the time in the world to get to know him) had to adjust the future we imagined — in which he was the uncle of our future grandchildren and the father of their cousins. For my daughter-in-law, it has been devastating, made worse, I think, by her feeling that it was supposed to be her job to take care of her little brother, and not ever let anything bad happen to him. She was in no way responsible for his fatal accident.

My son has told both my husband and our other son, that she is still “having a hard time.” She is in therapy. She does function well. She has a job, she has hobbies, and she and my son have a reasonably active social life. But at the same time, I know she is still grieving, and I’m sure at some level always will. When our other son got married recently, I could tell that she was having a hard time holding it together during some of the wedding festivities. My son told my husband that she was sad thinking about how she would never be at her own brother’s wedding.

I don’t avoid talking about her brother, I have a photograph of her and her brother displayed in our home, at the wedding of my other son I put my arm around her as she cried (but, of course, many of us were in tears — it was a wedding, after all), and once recently when we were having a family get-together and I could tell she was trying to keep from crying I went over to her quietly and said, “You look so sad, I wish I could do something for you.” She didn’t say anything — I couldn’t tell if she thought I was being intrusive or not.

The anniversary of her brother’s death is coming up soon. It is made more difficult by the fact that it is near her birthday, and the birthdays of many in the family. Additionally, his birthday falls on a holiday. So, again, my question is, how do I support her in her grief? Do I write a letter saying I remember the anniversary of his death and that I know she is still grieving? I know I am powerless in the face of death but I still want to do something. I want to be there for her.

Sad, Too

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Dear Sad, Too,

Well, for starters, I must thank you for what you said about not saying, “If you need anything …” That is very insightful. When we are clobbered by grief, we don’t know what we need or how to ask for it. If an elbow is proffered maybe we lean on it. But if we had to say, “Would you please proffer your elbow so I may lean on it, because I’m grieving and it would make me feel better, even though technically I am able to stand and walk just fine …” well, that just is not likely to happen.

Sometimes a helping hand, extended without being requested, and without being mentioned, is about the sweetest, most helpful and touching thing one could want. And knowing how to do that is a beautiful thing.

You have a great grasp of the essentials — that when one is grieving one needs support in ways one doesn’t expect to need support, and in ways that are hard to ask for. One needs support without a lot of to-do.

As I read through the rest of your letter, I honestly don’t think I have much to add. You’re handling it very well. But here is one thing I can think of that may help in the long term: Just never forget. She may be grieving for a long time; let her grieve as long as she grieves. There may come a time when other people have moved on and yet she is still raw. Three years from now, five years from now, a decade from now, everyone else may have moved on, yet her wound may still be fresh. It takes as long as it takes. Keep doing what you are doing, remain alert to her fragile feelings, and remember that her sadness will last a long time.

You know, when bad things happen sometimes we feel bad for a long time — and that should be the title of a self-help book: “When Bad Things Happen Sometimes We Feel Bad for a Long Time.” By Cary Tennis.

Yeah. I should write that.

Like I said, you’re doing great. There’s not much more you can do. Just keep being human. Just don’t stop. The one thing you can do is remember when others forget.

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My alcoholic father has a child we never knew about

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, January 22, 2008

 

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Way back when, he gave up rights to the child, but now I want to know my half-sibling.


Dear Cary,

Until a few years ago the only issue I had with my dad was his drinking and resulting behavior. A family member recently uncovered a secret that my dad has been keeping for ages. When he was very young he and another woman, whom he was never married to, had a child. To my understanding my dad tried to provide for that child, but the relationship went sour and the mother asked my dad to sign away legal rights to another man (the person she eventually married and who I believe she is still with today).

My sibling and I have asked questions and have only gotten some answers. My dad is not interested in finding this child, but is not trying to hide from the child’s finding him, either (i.e., he keeps his name listed in the phone book). So, we have a half-sibling out there in the world and have been asked to leave it all alone. My mom supports this notion, stating that doing otherwise would only complicate things (i.e., future family functions or airing the laundry of the past).

I have decided to respectfully leave it alone — for now. My sibling, on the other hand, was for a time on a quest to find this person (with no success as far as I know). When my parents divorce (this is certain) my dad will have a reasonable amount of time to get his life in order and his addiction corrected (i.e., discovering new and healthy coping skills). If he chooses to continue drinking (and I do believe that, to an extent, addiction is a choice), he has been warned that a relationship with me will not be an option. (I’ve carried his weight for too long … I’ve set my boundary.)

Should this be the case, I will then look for the half-sibling because it would no longer “complicate things” due to the ending of contact with my dad. If he gets himself together, however, I will potentially lose this option … unless I go against my dad’s wishes. Knowing that a part of me (my dad) is out there calls to me and nags at me from time to time. (Do I have an entire additional family out there? Am I an aunt? Would I be accepted as part of their family? Rejected as part of “him”?)

Even though my dad has lost just about all respect, I don’t necessarily want to go against his wishes (but at the same time a part of me could give a shit about his wishes). So what do I do? If I do nothing, will the internal nagging go on forever? Do I continue to wait it out to see what my dad does with his life? (As if I haven’t been waiting long enough already!) Or do I go about finding this person because I have some right to know him or her, given our bloodline connection? I realize that this person may not want to be found, and may not want a relationship with other half-siblings, but how am I to know this for sure if I don’t find the person and ask? Any thoughts?

Mesmerized by the Possibilities

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Dear Mesmerized,

A secret in the alcoholic family is like a precious jewel or a newborn child, a thing to marvel at and a cause for rejoicing. I imagine a family gathered around its secrets as though around a warm hearth, celebrating with a birthday cake and candles, passing secrets down through generations like jewelry. Why am I imagining this? I do not fully understand. It is certainly not a literal thing; it is more like a dream. But stick with me here and let us see where this goes.

I note how you calculate the effect of your choices, worrying how people will be affected. I suspect this has much to do with the relationship of a child to her alcoholic father.

Let’s go back a few years. The child of the alcoholic watches his condition. She dreams he will overcome. She tiptoes. She considers her actions carefully, not wanting to hurt the parent or abandon him or draw attention to his frailty, but guarding her flank too, knowing how he can lash out.

She develops theories. She considers whether the parent’s condition is a choice or a sickness. It becomes a central matter, like the existence of God: Is his ailment partly his choice, or is it wholly not of his making? Does he deserve my sympathy and pity or only my scorn?

She conditions her choices on his condition. If he is well, she can move about freely. If the parent seems vulnerable, she reconsiders.

Your concern for how your actions will affect others is nice but it is excessive, and seems to be the legacy of a childhood with a man whose shifts of mood were mercurial and catastrophic.

You had a father who could not be relied upon and trusted, who would not shoulder the burden, who put his burdens on you to carry. He left you resentful and wounded. Step free from this alcoholic father for one precious moment. Make a decision based on your own desire to know. You speak to me of what is right, as if I should know what is right! How am I to know what is right? Something happened in your father’s life and you want to know about it. You want to know your half-sibling. That makes sense to me. It is in fact the only thing in this situation that does make sense to me: You want to know the truth. I want to know the truth, too. That I understand. The feelings of people are something to consider, but in this matter I think you need to honor your desire for the truth.

Oh, people in your family will react. Sure. Of course they will. You can count on people in your family to react. There will be repercussions and effects no matter what you do. Your silence and inaction have their effects as well.

Do what you need to do to know what you need to know. Take up this quest.

I’m aware of the downside. But the upside is that you become a beacon in the room, a ray of light: You broke free. You took some action. You faced a secret.

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My stepmom accused my sister of coming on to Dad

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Cary’s classic column from

I think my stepmonster is a borderline personality case


Hi Cary,

I’m writing to you because, much like many of your readers, I have a family dilemma over a decision I’ve made and I’m getting so many different reactions that I don’t know what to do.

The short version is that when I was 16, after my father’s business tanked and all the money was gone, and my mother was left with nothing in the divorce, my father moved across the country to be with an old girlfriend. He tried to take me, but I refused to leave the place I loved and our depressed, often drunk mother whom I dearly loved and refused to abandon in our usual sick, but well-meaning role-reversal. He did take my little sister.

Clearly this is already a dividing event, but the true problems came when his new wife began to show her true colors. An angry, religious bully of a woman, she pushes everyone around to the point that I’m pretty certain she may have borderline personality disorder. She is extremely quick to anger and almost enjoys seeing terror in our faces, making threats but never getting physical. My beautiful younger sister, 14 at the time and the most loving, guileless human I’ve ever known, was very much caught up in this. One day my stepmonster accused this wonderful girl of coming on to our father at the dinner table. My sister kept this secret from me for years and asked me to do the same from others that could help until she was out of that house. As a result, she often hid herself in baggy clothes, spending very little time with our father for fear of being accused again. This is particularly infuriating as our parents had taught us to never be ashamed of our bodies — that being naked and sexual nudity were very different things. Once my sister moved out, I told our mother and the resulting shit storm has caused a serious rift that my father solely blames me for. As a result of his inability to see his culpability in this (what parent doesn’t immediately leave someone that shows no remorse for doing this to their child?), I have decided to no longer speak to him.

When I told him this, he repeated the same things he said to me when I expressed anger at him leaving: that I’d understand when I got older and that I’d “get over it.” I’m 24. Half the family seems to think that he’s just weak and I should pity him, allowing him to take part in my life. The thing is, he hardly ever communicated before. The only things I got before this were cards to me on my birthday or Christmas that he didn’t even sign (she did).

I feel like making it final was important, that he needed to see that his actions had consequences. He can’t just give up on his girls and expect them to love Daddy unconditionally. Others in the family can’t believe that cutting him out is right or that it’s what I need to do to protect myself emotionally. Did I do the right thing? Or is cutting out a parent, no matter how weak-willed or stubborn, the wrong thing to do as a child?

Thanks Cary. Hope you’re well.

Cut Him Out?

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Dear Cut Him Out?,

I think you did the right thing. It was what you needed to do. You did it for yourself.

I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rule about never being allowed to cut off contact with a parent. Often it’s something you have to do. It may not last forever. But that’s for you to decide.

This is a hard thing to get but it’s important. Sometimes we have to do things because we are taking care of ourselves. It’s not going to make sense to other people. Other people are going to say that we’re not following the right code of conduct. They will say we owe something to someone. We are going to get all kinds of grief from family members when we do things we have to do that violate the unspoken code. That’s the price of doing what you have to do.

It would be nice if we could all do what everybody else wants us to do. But that’s impossible. Why? Because not everybody wants us to do the same thing. If you do what your dad wants you to, you won’t please your sister. If you do what other family members want … see what I mean?

Conflict is good. There’s no escaping it. We all want different things. We’re in conflict because we’re individuals. Knowing that there is no escaping conflict and disapproval is a good thing. Every time I write something, somebody is going to disagree. No matter how hard I try to be on good terms with everyone I know, not everyone is going to like me.

There are a great many unknowns. That’s an amorphous truth that may seem to mean nothing to some but to certain people in certain situations at certain times can seem quite profound. In a family where many relationships are contingent and shifting, it’s helpful to keep in mind just how much is unknown. So you do what you have to do to keep your own sense of balance and well-being, and you recognize that not everybody is going to love you for it.

It’s also helpful to remember that you’re not teaching your dad a lesson. You’re taking care of yourself.  The family is beyond your power to fix or control. All you can do is take care of yourself and refuse to be drawn in to the craziness.

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A good mother

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Cary’s classic column from

I have four kids, so should I break with my sometimes violent boyfriend?


Dear Cary,

I’m a mother of four: three preteen boys from my marriage at the tender age of 19, and a 3-year-old daughter with my current live-in boyfriend. Here’s the deal. I had a lot of sex in my 20s, a lot of boyfriends, and was basically irresponsible. I was married young to my first real boyfriend. He left us when I was 21. Insecurity and immaturity and an endless pursuit for a father for my kids led to a string of real losers. I’m not talking about boring guys or guys who worked sporadically — I mean losers: drug addicts, criminals, men who wanted a free place to live, etc.

And the sex was good, on-the-edge porno-type fucking. When I was 26 I moved 3,000 miles away and started again. I met my current boyfriend, who was sweet, worked hard, and seemed to love me. He was younger, but I was immature, so it worked. He isn’t passionate, though — he doesn’t like to kiss, and he’s sexually selfish, preferring a blow job to the “extra effort” it takes to have sex, there’s minimal foreplay, and his sex drive makes sex every three weeks the best possible scenario.

A couple of years ago my father died, and suddenly I had a moment of clarity and from that moment on my kids have come before anyone or anything else in my life. I must have done something right, because I couldn’t have asked for better kids. They are compassionate, kind, and funny. My boyfriend cares for my sons and tries to show them in his way — which is usually by correcting them and being strict. He is an excellent father to our daughter. He takes on 50 percent or more of her care, gives her attention, and basically loves her to pieces. My ex-husband was remarried two years ago; since the marriage he has paid child support and asks for the boys to visit each summer. It’s fun for them, and I’m supportive of their need to develop that relationship. He was young, I was young, people make mistakes.

Here is my dilemma. I love my boyfriend, but am not in love with him. I was sooo in love when we moved in together, but when I had my growing-up incident a few years ago, I saw him in a different light. His angry outbursts pissed me off more. I was pregnant and since that time, I have often thought about leaving him, but then I look at all the changes he has made, and he tries so hard, and that makes me love and appreciate him, because I’ve met so many people who never try. In the past four years he has completed one degree and is working on another while working full time and making time for the family. He doesn’t drink, go out to the bars, or leave me wondering where he is at night. We have had episodes where there has been some physical violence. He grew up in a violent home. I put it off as the stress of being in a relationship with me, a bunch of kids, my jealousy, whatever.

He’s worked through that and sought some outside help. He doesn’t cheat on me. I’ve already had the experience of raising small people on my own and seeing their sad faces ask me for a father. I also hate thinking I had found one and then realizing that he’s kind of a dick to them — I mean, couldn’t he balance the discipline with some fun? My daughter has her father: Should that be my No. 1 priority? Do people have happy lives without good sex lives? If I told anyone that he has hit me before, they would automatically tell me to leave.

Have you heard of anyone working successfully through something like that? I have worked long and hard to make something of myself and provide a decent life for my children. I have overcome my own selfish, self-centered nature. I have prayed, cried and grown strong. I love my kids and feel that they have enriched my life so much. I love watching them grow and play.

I don’t need him, but I am afraid that I just feel that way because he is around and if he left I would revert to that person I used to be, and what if the next guy was worse? He wants to get married. If we broke up, I’m pretty sure that would be the end of my love life. I don’t think I want to go through the dating process or the having another man in my house process or the introducing my kids to another guy process. Nope, I think I’d be done, but who knows, maybe I’d become a total nympho again?

A Good Mother

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Dear Good Mother,

I recommend that you make as amicable a split as possible with your boyfriend. Support him in his desire to keep close ties with his daughter, but free yourself and your sons from his oppressive yoke.

This is not an easy conclusion to reach. No matter what you do or do not do, someone is probably going to be unhappy with you. So you have to be firm and think of the next five or 10 years. What I’m thinking is that making some difficult changes now will improve your chances for a happy and secure future, and reduce some long-term risk to you and your children.

It’s not an open-and-shut case. As you say, some people will claim that if he’s ever hit you, even once, you have to leave him and that’s that. But abusers can and do change, and there are sometimes core economic and family issues to consider. So I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that you must leave him because he hit you. Others would say that fatherhood and the family unit are sacred bonds that should not be severed under any circumstances. Again, although fathers have certain rights to their children, and children need stability in their homes, I don’t believe that you have to keep mother and father together 100 percent of the time.

It seems more a question of what brings the least harm and the most benefit to the most people.

Sometimes removing a “strict” father who is a source of fear and repression can be a good thing for a child. Those three boys may be absorbing from him a regime of intimidation and implied violence that will make it very difficult for them to live happy, peaceful lives as adults. You might go so far as to say that they are undergoing a process of slow spirit death, the steady banking of boundless rage. The conflict between him and your three sons will only get worse as they become teens and assert their manhood. Dangerous, traumatic and violent clashes could lie ahead. They will question his right, as simply a boyfriend or stepfather, to assert his authority over them; he in turn, unable to accept their challenge to his authority, may find himself striking out with fiendish cruelty, while justifying his violence as necessary to maintain order.

“It’s for their own good,” he’ll say, and by then the damage will be done. Such conflict could make you own life a living hell throughout their teenage years and damage your relationship with your sons for years afterwards. If he became a violent tyrant and you did not protect your sons from him, they would resent you and feel betrayed and abandoned. On the flipside, if you side with your sons against your boyfriend, his violence against you may erupt anew.

So I really think, hard as it is, that you should act now to remove him from your house and try to put in place a system of visitation that works over the long term.

If you find yourself concerned that leaving your boyfriend means depriving your sons of the discipline they need, consider this: While discipline is important, it’s confusing if only one parent is strict. Kids need to internalize a dependable standard of conduct against which to measure their own actions. If you and your boyfriend differ greatly in your strictness, your children may conclude that standards of conduct have no inherent validity but depend on the whims of whatever authority figure is enforcing them. That is a lesson that allows for criminal thinking: The standard of conduct becomes whatever they can get away with. They need to know that there is a standard of conduct that is always applicable. Even if it’s just you making the rules, even if you’re not a great enforcer, at least they’ll know what the rules are.

I sense that you have at times led a chaotic and impulsive life, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: At least you are powerfully alive; you are not meek or cowering; you have a vibrant lust for experience, for ecstasy, for sensation and emotion. You may be a creative type who has not yet found her art, a deeply passionate person who simply has to learn how to direct and regulate her energies. Another reason I think you should move away from this man is that if he is a controlling type, you and he will come into sharper conflict as you begin to exert or sublimate your libidinous, expressive energies into other forms — music, dance or art, perhaps, forms that may threaten his need for control.

I think you will be OK on your own. You say you fear that without this powerful, authoritarian man in your life you may regress into sexual compulsion. I don’t think that’s likely, not if your kids remain your focus. That moment of clarity you had when your father died sounds like a significant, life-changing moment to me. I’m guessing it was about more than simply putting your kids first. I think you may have had a kind of vision, a visceral and highly personal awakening to the sacredness of life and the value of innocence, and the deep importance of primal bonds. If it has caused you to begin to think hard about your choices, it has changed you in a deep and permanent way.

Do not fear change. It is better to try to achieve something good than it is to try to avoid something bad. Both paths have risks, but only one can lead to happiness. So do not simply coast along thinking maybe this is as good as it gets. This is not as good as it gets. It gets much better than this. You need only the courage to act. Take strength in knowing you have come a long way and you are doing the right thing.

WhatHappenedNextCall

 

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Overwhelmed!!!

 

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Hi Cary,

I love your column. I hope you can help me. I have a multitude of problems all happening at the same time in my life.

Well, some started years ago, but as long as they happened one at a time, I managed to get through them. Right now they seem to be taking place simultaneously. Without going into too much detail, I’ll tell you that my family members have or are suffering from blindness, degenerative disease, cancer, serious emotional problems, and alcoholism. I have a care-taking personality, and am physically healthy, so I take care of (constantly worry about) all of my loved ones. I am one of those “HSPs” (Highly Sensitive People) so all of these things make me suffer greatly. I feel like my heart is perpetually breaking. I feel that I can’t be happy unless all of my loved ones are fixed and happy themselves.

I work in an office with a lot of people and marvel at how easy their lives seem, and how they react after the death of a parent, for example. Some of them are back at work in a couple of days, laughing by the water cooler with their coworkers.

I guess what I’m asking is: Do I have a problem with how I perceive life, or is my family really cursed and am I reacting normally to horrible situations?

Overwhelmed

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Dear Overwhelmed,

Please realize that for right now, you are OK. You are safe and protected. Things may be a little crazy around you. You are in a situation with a lot of emotionally volatile, draining people and challenging problems. But at this moment, as far as I can tell, you yourself are OK.

So, right now, wherever you are, take stock of your location and what is going on in your physical environment, in your own body. That is the first step to feeling better and getting out of this feeling of overwhelm. Take a look around you. Are you in danger, physical danger? Probably not. Do you have enough to eat today? Do you have shelter and clothing and a safe place to sleep? Seriously. I want you to orient yourself in your physical environment as a first step to feeling better.

It is possible that your mind is playing over and over certain scenarios: What if this happens? What if that happens? My mind does that, too. It’s just my mind going on and on. So focus on where you are and what is going on around you. If you know how to meditate, do some meditation.

After you take stock of where you are and what is happening around you, take out some paper and pen or use your computer or however you write, and just make a list of all the things you can be grateful for in this moment. Do you like the sky? It’s not too crazy or trivial to mention the sky as a gift. What if you were in solitary confinement in a prison? You would not have the sky. You have the sky. It is like a gift to you. You can walk out and look at it now, or any time you want to. And you have your family. Members of your family may have challenges but they are alive and in your life. So you are not alone. That is a good thing. Put that down on your list. And I think it’s safe to say you are not in great physical pain right now. You could put that down on your list. As you do this, you may find you feel a little calmer.  That’s good.

Just concentrate on how you feel now, in the moment. You can draw a good, deep breath. You could go for a walk if you like. You could get into the rhythm of walking for a while and forget whatever is tormenting your mind. Just take some time to let these things sink in. These things can help you get out of the overwhelm.

Next, make a list of all the places you know you can go where you will feel safe and protected. You might have friends’ houses, a cafe, a park, your car, a classroom. Just make a list of all the places where you know you can go to feel safe and protected.

Then pick one of those places, and set a time today to go there. Or if not today, then tomorrow.

Also make a list of the people you know that make you feel good. Pick one of those people and call that person, or get in touch somehow. Go see that person. Spend some time with him or her. Make eye contact. Enjoy some laughs. These are things you can do right now to get out of that antsy feeling of overwhelm.

Long term, you will want to make some plans for how to structure a life that suits your sensitivities. If you haven’t already, you might read Elain Aron’s book on highly sensitive people, too. But for right now, you need to be able to cope with a difficult situation by lessening the effect of your own panicky feelings of overwhelm.

Life is long.Things change. Situations come and go. You can handle this. For now, pay attention to where you are physically, and how you are breathing, and this will help. Long term, you will need to make some plans. But you can’t plan when you’re panicked and feeling overwhelmed. So don’t worry about the future now. Just take a few weeks doing these simple things and then, when you’re ready, start making some plans.

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I’m in love with a mama’s boy

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, DEC 10, 2002

She not only lives with us but also comes in and lies on our bed and watches TV with us.


Dear Cary,

I’m in a great relationship with a good man. We have been together for a year now and he is good to me, he treats me with so much respect, and he’s kind to everyone he meets and knows. I’ve never had a better relationship than now. He is a hard worker and has a great job. Never been married or has any children. So that eliminates a lot of drama in our lives. We have the greatest sex life ever! But … he’s a mama’s boy!

It’s just the two of them. The brother died a few years ago and the father has been out of the picture for many years. These two act like they are in love with each other. It’s not your typical mother-son relationship. She is absolutely possessed with him. She’s made the comment to me that whatever is hers, is his. And whatever is his, is hers. And that has included this relationship.

When I met him I lived alone with my two children in a rented house. He began to spend the night, then it turned out to be every night, until he eventually moved in. Things were perfect and life was just great, until about six months ago, when the homeowners sold the house that I was renting. I had to move and it was a great opportunity to move into a place together and split the bills and rent with him.

The weekend of moving into our new house, his mother decides she isn’t happy with her relationship with her boyfriend whom she has been living with for the past two years. So of course the loving man I have invites her to come and stay with us. He lets me know his mother will be staying with us. And I was fine with it, thinking it would only be for a few weeks. Well, those few weeks have turned into the past six months of hell!!

At first she was very helpful. She was out of work because she became sick and was too weak to work. That was the main reason I was OK with her staying with us. She would clean the house every day and have dinner ready when we came home from work and school. We never asked her for any money for rent or bills. She was receiving Social Security at the time and we told her to just save her money and get into her own place.

Now, six months later, she is back to work and has absolutely no intention of moving out. The house cleaning and dinner came to an end. She has even loaned all of her furniture to friends so that she won’t have to pay storage fees each month. She sleeps on my couches and stores her clothing in boxes in a closet. And she has not contributed one dime to the rent, bills, or food for our home. She has never bought a roll of toilet paper, a bottle of shampoo, or a box of laundry detergent. But she does manage to wipe her ass, wash her hair and body, and wash her clothes.

She’s even become so comfortable that she wants to spend more time with us in the bedroom. She comes in and lies on our bed and watches TV with us and smokes her cigs in my room. When I tell him how much it takes my privacy from me, he thinks I’m just bitching and having a bad day and want to take it out on her.

Anytime I bring the subject up to him he gets his feelings hurt, defends his mother, and tells me not to talk about his mama like that. I ask him how can she not have any shame. And it causes problems between us.

I’m not a cold person, but people like her don’t even want to help themselves, so why should I? I won’t kick her out before Christmas, but how do I make her leave without hurting his feelings and keep the flame between us going?

I realize she will always be in our lives. I’m not asking him to choose between me and his mommy. I’m just asking to live in my own home without her always being right there taking care of him. What it has come down to is that she can’t have him all to herself, so she sure the hell isn’t going to let me have him to myself.

How do I get rid of the in-law without being an outlaw?

In love with a mama’s boy

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Dear Reluctant Daughter-in-law,

I think you have to throw them both out. But let’s explore the option of just getting her to leave. First, you would have to speak to her directly. You could not ask your boyfriend to do it. You would have to sit her down and evict her. And no explanation could possibly make it seem just in her eyes. Any explanation you give her would only give her a basis for a counter-argument. If you say it’s for financial reasons, she’ll offer to contribute money. If you say it’s because she doesn’t do housework, she’ll promise to do housework. If you say she’s interfering with your relationship with her son, she’ll promise not to interfere. And then where are you? Then the burden is on you to prove the truth of your accusations. So I don’t think reasoning with her or giving her a long explanation is the way to go. I think you just have to throw her out.

But if you just throw her out, you place your boyfriend in an untenable position. He’s already demonstrated that he has an emotional blind spot when it comes to his mother. He can’t hear criticism of her. He has no judgment in this matter. So if you throw her out, he will see you as the villain who threw his mother out. I think it will destroy any happiness you might have in living with him.

So, strange as it sounds, I think to save your relationship with him, and his relationship with his mother, you have to throw them both out. If he lives separately from you, he can still be your boyfriend and salvage some pride in telling himself he’s simply being mistreated by his woman. He can tell himself that you’re a hard, hard woman, but since he’s taking the hit, he needn’t feel like he’s being a bad son; in fact, it gives him the opportunity to do what he not so secretly wishes to do anyway: to live with his mother and take care of her.

I have a feeling, however, that evicting them might put you in a tough spot financially. Your house probably had lower rent; it would have been reasonable to trade up when you knew your boyfriend would be helping out. So now you may not be able to afford the rent on your new place all by yourself. That is a sticking point. But if you relied on your boyfriend’s income in renting your new place, and he has now broken your tacit rental agreement by inviting his mother in, I don’t think it would be out of line to expect him, who has a great job, to at least help you financially, with first and last months’ rent, or a little monthly assistance for a few months, so you can find a place you can afford by yourself.

It’s much easier for a man to live with the burden of supporting two women than it is for him to live with the guilt of having abandoned his mother. It’s not like the choices are pretty, but I think you have a better chance of keeping him as a boyfriend if you throw the two of them out.