My ex is a slacker and he's got the house!

My therapist says I'm enabling him, but I do it for our daughter.

Published May 9, 2006 11:43AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a single mother of a wonderful 5-year-old girl. My ex-husband and I were together for 10 years, married for eight. My ex is intelligent, funny and talented, but unmotivated, irresponsible and depressive. As we were remodeling our dream house, part of a seven-unit TIC ["tenancy in common"] in San Francisco, our relationship deteriorated.

I agonized over what to do. Staying together for the sake of our daughter seemed like a good idea on one hand. On the other, it seemed unfair to show her a disconnected and unhealthy relationship as a model. As much as I wanted to move into that home, I realized I would not be happy if it meant staying in the relationship. We were both unhappy. After several rounds of couples therapy, we separated.

We were living in an affordable apartment and planned to finish the improvements on the house and then sell it. I got my own apartment but continued to put time, effort and money into the house. But, somehow, he moved into it.

Of course, he promised to either sell or buy me out when all the work was done. Long after the work was done, however, he continued to live there.

Two and a half years later, he borrowed money from a friend to pay me back, finally, for a portion of the down payment. I let him buy my equity for less than I had invested (I assumed a lot of debt for remodeling costs), in order to let our daughter have a "home" with a yard in the city.

It has been months since he's paid child support. Since summer school tuition was soon due, I told him to take the money he owed me and put it toward tuition. On Easter, he assured me he had paid the summer school fees. Then last Thursday, he called to tell me that that he hadn't paid for summer school and it was due Monday. I called the school and charged the fees to my credit card. I asked my ex why he lied; he said he didn't want to worry me. He said he had been counting on help from his parents but they had a falling out (he never calls them and didn't even call to check on his dad's surgery after they had agreed to send him money). So now his parents aren't speaking to him.

Three days later, on Sunday, he asked to borrow $500 so that his mortgage check wouldn't bounce. I lent him the money because I don't want my daughter to lose her house, but I'm really starting to feel taken advantage of. I work full-time and take on extra freelance projects. He jokes that he wants to win the lottery and says things like, "I need to find a rich, older lady to be my sugar momma." These frequent comments annoy me because he is being so irresponsible!

My therapist says I can't keep giving to him, that I'm enabling him. She says it's like giving liquor to an alcoholic and I'm not really helping him; I'm carrying the weight and it lets him off the hook from facing reality. I am really thinking he should get his act together, but I don't know how to motivate him or help him.

I would be really upset if, after buying me out, he turns around and sells the place for a profit. The whole point of my doing this was to save the house for our daughter. I want him to clean up his act and try to work out a situation so that I can live in the house. How should I deal with this boy who will not grow up? How should I deal with my slacker ex?

Smart Enough to Leave but Stupid Enough to Enable

Dear Smart Enough,

Some adults are actually children who have climbed into adult suits and opened checking accounts. They have fully developed sexual characteristics and are capable of reproducing. But they cannot be left alone in a house without breaking something, and later they will lie about it.

They look so much like adults that you feel silly giving them a timeout.

But that's what you have to do. You have to treat these people like children -- firmly, sometimes with a firmness that borders on the brutal.

You cannot give in to them. They will take over. They will take everything you have because they don't even see you there. You're like a big wallet to them. A wallet shaped like a breast. Weird.

Your therapist is right. You have to stop helping this person.

But the business of how to stop enabling your ex is tricky. (And let's not even talk about the hallucinatory effects of San Francisco real estate or how a couple can start out remodeling their dream house and end up sitting on the floor in the dark amid cardboard boxes, sharpening their knives.)

Ask your therapist for some concrete suggestions. Granted, you have to stop doing this behavior. So what behavior do you replace it with? What exactly do you say when you refuse to write another check? Role-playing might help. If you're unaccustomed to telling your ex-husband no, you might want to practice first.

What you also want to do is try to get some insight into what is happening in your inner world when you are doing this. Can you get in there, in the moment, when you are writing him checks, and discover what is happening? Is there a certain voice or belief that you feel you cannot question? Is there a feeling of panic and fear? Do you suddenly feel that you are unable to think of alternatives, and that you have to just write this check really quick and be done with it?

If so, you may want to also identify a technique you can use to stop and think things through when you feel compelled to help him out. Do you feel he is pressuring you? You may need to delay giving an answer until you can talk to someone about what you're doing and identify alternatives.

I am not a psychologist but I do have a lot of voices in my head and have made a hobby of studying them. One voice I used to have was telling me I had to know everything. It was not OK to not know something. This got me in trouble. I had to pretend I knew stuff I didn't know. Eventually I discovered that I could not know something and that was OK. Lo and behold the universe of what I did not know unfolded before me and it was vast.

I do not think that is your problem. But you may have a little voice telling you that you have to take care of everyone. I don't know. Maybe I'm the only one with these little voices. It bears some looking into.

Anyway, adulthood is very hard.

If I were emperor, I would make adulthood optional. For some of us there would be camp instead.

But I am not the emperor. You are an adult and you have a lot of adult matters to solve. Your ex is not going to help. I suggest you get the appropriate professional help -- legal help for the legal matters, accounting help for the accounting matters, real estate help for the real estate.

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