When There are no Good Alternatives / The Eternal Battle over Stuff
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I am a single mother with a 21-year-old-daughter who has been living with me and my wife. I have been…let’s say, “encouraging” her to get a job and live on her own like an adult, but whenever I bring it up she gets angry and tells me that I should seek therapy because I am “mean” to her. Not so mean, apparently, that I don’t totally support her as she parties her way through life! I suspect she’s the one who needs therapy, not me. What can I do to get her to grow up, but still speak to me afterwards?
Dr. Hurd replies,
If it isn’t evident to your daughter that she should be living a self-responsible life, then no amount of preaching will change her mind. Words are worse than worthless in these situations. Only actions count.
There are two ways for you to “hear” your daughter’s accusations of “meanness” when you state the obvious. One is that she’s irresponsible, sad, and manipulative—all of which she apparently is. Another way to hear her words is to interpret them as “I’m scared.” Because that’s probably true also. If you train yourself to hear her as saying, “I’m scared,” then you might find her less difficult to take.
You have no easy choices here. In all honesty, you might have to throw her out. In nearly 30 years of professional practice, I know of only one case where a parent threw out his adult child who was perfectly able to work. It ended well, and years later I heard from both the grown child and parent that things were still going well. However, it’s next to impossible to convince a parent that he or she must do that. The other success story involves a set of parents who put their house on the market and moved out of state when it was time to kick their 22- and 24-year-olds out of the nest. Fortunately, they wanted to move anyway, and to this day all goes well with them.
How do you throw your grown kid out of your house? The same way you’d remove a stranger. The very last resort might even involve the police, a court or some other rational and legal process. Again, that’s certainly a last resort, but a resort you need to make clear you will use if necessary. The process of “eviction” can start with a series of warnings, punctuated by steps to prove you mean what you say. Strong words, I know, but that’s how it is.
I’m going to venture that most likely your daughter feels entitled to stay in the nest. And I’ll bet that she senses you feel the same. The mixture of fear and entitlement is a toxic and almost impossible force to counteract.
I know you probably wanted me to actualize your fantasy that a sane and rational conversation will somehow resolve everything, as in pretty much any clichéd TV show or movie. Unfortunately, in most cases real life simply doesn’t work that way.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My ex and I broke up several months ago in a rather dramatic scene where he stormed out of our apartment. Frankly, that was fine with me—we had run our course—but the great majority of his clothes and things are still here. I have texted, messaged and called to get him to come by and pick up his stuff…no response. Is this some sort of dysfunctional sign that he wants to move back in, or did I just inherit a 37-pound belt buckle collection and a pile of jeans and shirts that don’t fit me? Or do I throw it all in the Goodwill bin at the mall?
Dr. Hurd replies,
You would be very surprised at how common this is. Given my experience with people who went through this, I know one of two things must be true. Either your ex does not want to permanently leave you, or he simply does not value his possessions. I suspect the truth lies with option #1. Decisions made in emotion are not often what a person actually wants to do. In your case, the emotionally dramatic breakup reflected what you now realize you were ready to do anyway. But there’s a distinct possibility that that’s not necessarily the case for him. He might still be hanging on, as you suggested in your note.
No matter what his motivation, it all boils down to the fact that his choice to leave his things is not your responsibility. You are entitled to dispose of them in whatever way you wish. Remember: For whatever reasons it was HIS choice to leave them. If he does not care about his things, there’s nothing to worry about. If he does want his things, and simply hopes you’re still together, his disappointment when he finds out you’re not interested will likely trump the sense of loss over his personal items. Again, either way, don’t hold your life—or your closet space—hostage to someone else’s emotions and indecision.
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email Dr. Hurd