Advice From the Trenches

Time Travel: It is okay for her man-child ex to live in her basement?

Dear C and Dr. B;

I am wondering if I am losing it, or if what I am doing is a reasonable way dealing with difficult and unchangeable realities. I’ll explain.

My ex husband lives in my basement. Ha ha. Funny, except it’s true. He really screwed up our marriage and I divorced him for good reason, but two years after that he screwed up so badly that he ended up homeless. I took him in because I did care what happened to him, but after a while he really started getting on my nerves. I was making plans to oust him when the pandemic hit and there was literally no place for him to go.

He is about 6 years old emotionally. During our marriage, I drove myself nuts trying to reason with him like an adult, but I finally got it – he isn’t going to change. So now I have changed my approach. Instead of talking to him as if he were an adult from whom I can expect adult reactions, I imagine that my best friend asked me to be the godfather to her son years ago, then last year, she died in a car crash, and I now have custody of her teenaged son – this role is played by my ex husband. When he throws pointless tantrums, I pretend that I have to be patient with him because he still hasn’t processed his mother’s death. Instead of yelling in frustration, I speak calmly and patiently. How can I get angry? His mom died and he’s just a traumatized child.

The really funny thing is that this works beautifully. He responds far better to being treated like a child than he did when I expected him to be an adult.

Since I have my own friends and my own work, and I don’t depend on him for my personal happiness, it’s a fairly easy role to play. Almost too easy.

So, I wonder – is this a good way to deal with problems that are momentarily unsolvable…or have I gone over the edge into La La Land?

Dr. B says: You are under no obligation, yet you made a decision to care for someone else who has difficulties caring for themselves. It isn’t crazy, but it’s not easy either. There are no right answers, just choices. If this works for you and seems to work for him, then more power to ya. 

Many Americans have the relationship and emotional skills of children, so a useful way to get through work, abusive customers and infantile behavior in general is to imagine you are dealing with 5 year olds. It helps set better boundaries. Use clear and precise language and have more realistic expectations of others. Repeat what the person said back to them, and ask if you heard correctly to make sure everyone is on same page. This is an important communication skill. 

I just wish they didn’t let those adult 5 year olds drive. 

C says: Role playing is a good coping method for times of unpleasant necessity, but don’t get too comfortable with it. When something becomes a habit, it’s hard to change. You divorced your ex for a reason, and however well you get along now, having him in the house really hinders your ability to establish a new life.

I know that you might be tempted to think: “If I’d been capable of using this approach during my marriage, things may have turned out differently…” But let’s get real. The world is made up of two kinds of people – those who can learn and grow, and those who can’t. Since your divorce, you’ve learned and you’ve grown – you’re an adult now and you’re handling things like one. Your ex, however, seems to be enjoying his child role a little too much. Do you really want to play Mommy for the rest of your life?

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