Moral heroes and victims
My ex-wife is allowing our 19-year-old daughter’s 22-year-old boyfriend to move into their household. I am against this. Our daughter attends community college and plans to continue her education at UC Davis. Her boyfriend is not academically inclined, but he works and volunteers in the community. My ex-wife says what happens in her house is none of my business. She intimated that if I didn’t like what was happening, I should not have divorced her five years ago. I am angry that she has so little respect for being a parent and is trying to be a cool pal instead. I don’t know how to approach this with my daughter. Any ideas?
You may be holding a legal notice of divorce, but emotionally you are still married. That’s why you allow your (supposedly) ex-wife to (drumroll, please) probe your insecurities (yeah, that’s just my fancy way of saying you let her push your buttons). There is a good reason why she seems to be in charge here. The superficial perspective would be that she is über-difficult and wants to punish you for abandoning her. It casts her as the villain and you as the well-meaning but maligned protagonist. The problem is that, as protagonist, you imagine yourself as a moral hero and fail to see that you are simply a victim of your own superiority complex. Your belief that you are a better parent than your ex-wife interferes with your ability to face the challenge of the roommate predicament charitably.
Here’s a different view of your dilemma: It’s an invitation. You have a unique opportunity to learn how to sort through someone else’s drama, without being tainted by it, and to focus on resolving the real issue. That means putting your anger aside. Emotions can be useful as information about ourselves, or emotions can be distractions that hinder us from seeing clearly and making good decisions. Has your anger hampered your ability to collect all of the facts? It’s easy to react with big emotions before investigating reality. Consider, for example, whether the situation is temporary or permanent, whether he has his own room or is sharing your daughter’s room, how long your daughter has known him and how serious they are as a couple. These and other factors can be useful in structuring a discussion with your daughter.
When you talk to her, ask how she feels about her boyfriend, how he treats her and what their long-term commitment is to one another. Gently explain that one of the real hazards of living with a boyfriend (or girlfriend) is how hard it is to end the relationship if it doesn’t work out. When two lives are intertwined and sharing expenses, there is tremendous guilt about leaving the more financially dependent partner and about leaving the partner who has been the piggy bank. That guilt shadows some couples so intently, that they remain together even though they don’t really want to. Many marry and then, of course, divorce. Let your daughter know that you hope she will not find herself in such a situation but if she does, you will talk her through it. It’s important that you talk to her with an open mind and heart. There’s a reason that it was your ex-wife and not your daughter who notified you about the move-in. Are you willing to admit you may not be the easiest person to talk to? Good, now change. And, yes, your ex-wife is right: You do not have the right to control her household. But if you consistently invest in your relationship with your daughter, you can become the parent from whom she seeks advice first.