Advice Column: Response to “The Girlfriend”

Dear Hailey,

I have been dating a widowed man for almost 8 years. I moved into his family home (at his urging) 3 years ago. He is a father to four adult children (ages 21-30). His 30 year old son lives in the basement and is under/un employed at this time. He may be addicted to video games, and often is up all night playing them, then sleeps until late in the afternoon. Prior to COVID he worked part time (20 hours a week). His father pays for his auto insurance and his cell phone, and sometimes charges his $150/month rent, but not consistently. I made the choice to buy groceries and cook whenever possible as my contribution towards the household, as my boyfriend does not charge me anything to live with them. (His house is paid off). 

The 30 year old will buy himself fast food once or twice a week, but other than that, he eats what is in the house. Over the past year or so, he has added drinking beer that is in the house (that I buy and is intended for my boyfriend/myself and friends, when we were allowed to have people over) – could be 4 or 5 beers a day. He does not contribute to the family/household at all – does not help with lawn care, cleaning, dishes, dog sitting, picking up his room etc. He has ADHD and is not medicated for it. This situation with him has really pissed me off. I am worried that if I voice my opinion to my boyfriend that I think the kid is taking advantage of the dad, and that the dad is enabling him, that it may cause a problem between the dad and I. Blood is thicker than water, right?

The dad and I have a wonderful loving relationship and I would hate to lose it. I will also add that the mother committed suicide over 10 years ago after a lengthy battle with mental illness. I know that this has had an serious impact on the entire family, and I really do try my best to give them all a LOT of compassion, support and love. I think that the dad overlooks a lot of things/behavior in the children since they all suffered such a loss, and he really just wants them to be happy and healthy.

I wonder what I can do to cope with this situation better – or help the dad/son to move forward?

Thanks, 

The Girlfriend

Dear The Girlfriend,

You are absolutely correct on your read of this being a super tenuous situation. It’s difficult to stand by and watch anyone we care about not live up to their potential, or feel that someone you care about is being taken advantage of. There are multiple layers of complication and tragedy involved in these family dynamics. The fact that you joined this family while the children were already in adulthood adds another layer of difficulty. 

This does not mean that you should avoid this situation and continue to tiptoe around it. I absolutely think you should voice your concerns. Here’s some info to be aware of before you open a discussion. 

Here’s a little bit of background of on ADHD so you can understand it a little better if you aren’t familiar with it already. ADHD is an interesting disorder, because not only does it affect an individual’s ability to sustain attention and complete tasks (generally well known), but motivation and energy levels are low as well (less commonly known). Low dopamine levels result in the lower motivation and energy, and low norepinephrine results in the more well-known ADHD symptoms such as inattention and hyperactivity.

ADHD medications help correct these shortages of dopamine and norepinephrine, increasing motivation and the individual’s ability to focus and complete tasks. Certain diets, supplements, and exercise are helpful for some individuals as well.  Untreated ADHD can make completing tasks and achieving goals extremely difficult. Depression and ADHD co-occur frequently as well. 

The biggest factor in approaching this delicately and appropriately is to speak to your boyfriend about your concerns before taking any action. While you don’t have an official title in relation to your boyfriend’s children, you do share a household and some resources. That makes it your business. 

Remember your motivation and purpose in bringing this up. You aren’t bringing it up to make anyone feel bad, to be unkind, or for any negative reason. You are approaching this from a place of love and concern. You don’t like feeling like your boyfriend and yourself and being taken advantage of, but you also don’t like to see your boyfriend’s son stay so far below his potential. He’s your honorary step-son, and you care about him. 

Here’s an example of how to address this delicately, “I love you, and I love your son. I know it’s been a tough year, and that with his history and mental health he is really struggling. I’m worried about your son. I know he has so much more potential than he is using right now. Now talk to me, and tell me your thoughts.” If he is receptive, and seems ready, ask him for ideas on how you can help his son together. This may need to wait until he has had some time to think and process this information. 

You can word this however you want, and include whatever you need to. The important aspects of this are:

1.Express your love for him and his son. 

2. Use as many “I” statement as possible. This keeps the focus on your feelings and makes it clear that you aren’t being accusatory. 

3. Ask for his input and his feelings relating to the situation, and the conversation.  Communication and openness are essential. 

4. A plan, if he is ready. This can wait until he has had some time to mull it over. Read the situation to decide if this can happen in the same conversation. 

This plan could include any variety of things such as firmer boundaries, consistent contributions to household expenses and chores, certain time spent job hunting per day/week, that he make an appointment with a psychiatrist/counselor, or anything else that you and your boyfriend decide is appropriate. The important thing is that you and your boyfriend are both comfortable with it, you start with just a few goals, and that you set very specific expectations. 

As a therapist myself, I always recommend therapy for people who are struggling. It’s been a tough year even without the history that you have outlined. If he hasn’t processed the loss of his mother in therapy, this is another experience he needs to address in a therapy setting. You might want to consider bringing this up to your honorary step-son (or having your boyfriend bring it up) if you feel it is appropriate. 

I wish you luck,

Hailey 

Posted in Q&A

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