You have problems, I have advice. This advice isn't sugar-coated - in fact, it's sugar-free, and may even be a little bitter. Welcome to Tough Love.
Image via Warner Brothers.
This week we have a woman who just moved in with her significant other and his two sons, who walk all over him. Things are not going well.
'.You have problems, I have advice. This advice isn't sugar-coated - in fact, it's sugar-free, and may even be a little bitter. Welcome to Tough Love..'
Keep in mind, I'm not a therapist or any other kind of health professional — just a guy who's willing to tell it like it is. I simply want to give you the tools you need to enrich your damn lives. If for whatever reason you don't like my advice, feel free to file a formal complaint here. Now then, let's get on with it.
Thirty-seven-year-old lady here, childfree by choice, and up to 11 months ago more or less a free spirit when I made the decision to move in with my significant other and his two teenage boys. It was not a decision made lightly and I knew it would be hard. What I didn't know is that my SO basically has no structure for discipline for his kids. They're well behaved in public, so I had no indication of how different their home life was. It doesn't bug me that they come home, retreat to their rooms, and play video games all night (though it makes me sad to think about); what bugs me is they have to be begged and cajoled to do the smallest thing and it seems no matter how many times they are told to stop abusing their brother or that the dirty plates go in the dishwasher, it never seems to sink in. Also, they are helpless and they yell at him across the house for every little thing. It affects my affection and attraction to him, and it's getting in the way of me developing relationships with the kids. We're seeing a therapist about this. Here's an example from yesterday:
- SO: I need to hear from you about what the repercussions should be for misbehaviour.
- Me: As a non-parent, I kind of feel like that should be your job. What did you do before I was here?
- SO: That's not relevant, we're a new family now. I can't make rules when I have no idea what you want. What are your guidelines?
- Me: I sent them to you in a Word document two months ago, after the last time we talked about this.
- SO: You did? Well, OK then, let's think of some repercussions. What are your ideas?
- Me: How about withholding screen time?
- SO: No way, I don't want screen time to be a reward.
- Me: OK, how about I make them vegetarian dishes whenever they misbehave at the table?
- SO: No! I don't want food to be a punishment! Food issues! Body issues! Bad!
- Me: …
Basically, I feel like he's not parenting and he doesn't want to punish his kids at all, ever. And I wonder if he's projecting this failure on to me. I don't know what the hell I'm doing, and the only benchmark I have is the way my parents raised me, which is horrific compared to his vision of parenting. When I tell him this, he says I'm trying to avoid the issue by "hiding behind" my lack of experience/no kids. So, I need the tough love. Our sweet lady therapist isn't going to do it, so bring it, please.
Mother of None
Hey Mother of None,
I'm going to call you "MoN" for short because it amuses me and I can pretend to have an accent in my head. Hey MoN, those kids sound like a nightmare and absolutely need discipline. If they don't learn how to follow simple instructions and do things for themselves, they will end up criminals, vagrants, or worse, video game streamers that still live with you after they turn 18. And for the record, taking away screen time is absolutely a great punishment when they misbehave. Your SO is flat-out wrong. My parents knew how much I loved my Super Nintendo, so they'd never ground me, they'd just take that one thing away. Guess who shaped up real fast?
But the kids aren't the real problem here - not by a long shot. Your SO is trying to give you the runaround by deflecting all of his longstanding parenting issues on you. He's totally, as you put it, "projecting his failure" on you. He says he wants your input, that you're part of the family now, but then refuses to hear you out and ignores your ideas. Or when he does listen, he just shoots them down without offering any alternatives. That's some serious garbage, MoN. He's trying to make his problem your problem, then hoping you'll eventually get so tired of trying to fix it you'll just suck it up and give in to their unstructured, undisciplined way of life. No, nuh-uh.
You need to lay it all out on the table, either in therapy or when you two aren't busy serving snacks to his kids out of a golden goblet. Tell him this is a serious issue - his issue - and one that isn't going to just go away. You are not going to just roll over and forget about it because you love him. Explain that you're willing to help and be part of the solution, but be very clear that he needs to take action here. He needs to know everything: That his lack of disciplinary action makes him unattractive to you, that you feel like he's blaming you for his shortcomings, and that you feel your affection for him waning because of it. A good parent doesn't let their children walk all over them, then point the finger at the new family member just because they're willing to point out what's wrong. Damn, MoN, it's like you moved into a house with three teenagers. Hope you didn't forget the pizza rolls at the store.
If things don't change after you talk to him (give it some time to see if he really heard you), you have a few options:
- Option one: Try parenting those kids all by yourself and- actually, never mind, screw that. You're not a nanny.
- Option two: Tell him you're moving out of the house to go live on your own again. You're not breaking up with him; you're just waiting for the kids to get older and move out (if they ever do).
- Option three: Give him an ultimatum. These can be risky, and they don't always work, but he needs to know how serious you are about this. Either he starts listening to you and works with you to find a reasonable way to discipline those little devils who are most definitely shouting slurs at people in their online game right now, or you leave for good.
None of those options are easy, but hey, now you remember why you had initially chosen to be childfree in the first place, MoN. If this guy can't meet you halfway and at least try to work through these issues with you, what's the point? You just going to clean up after these slobs and listen to them bark at each other across the house the rest of your life? I wouldn't.
That's it for this week. I probably didn't make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but sometimes what you need is some tough love. 'Til next time, figure things out for yourself.