What do you want?

What do you want?

Be fair but firm with squatting father and sibling

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 05/15/2014

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Dear Patti,
I’ve been happily married to my truly wonderful husband, Chris, for four years. Eighteen months ago my father lost his job and then, three months later, my mother suddenly moved out and left him without telling anyone; they’d been married 31 years. No one heard from her for over six months. Both my dad and my 16-year-old sister were not only devastated emotionally, but also financially.  
Chris and I invited them to temporarily move in with us, but a year later they’re still here. My father tries to find work, but so far has only gotten short-term jobs. He’s depressed, talks constantly about my mother and keeps waiting for her to return (which she’s not going to do). My sister is very dependent on me emotionally and I can’t imagine her sharing a small apartment with our grief-stricken dad. Even if Chris agreed to let her stay, how could I push my father out alone?

They’re not hard to live with, but Chris didn’t sign up for this way of life and I’m worried he’s feeling secretly resentful. We want to start a family, but we couldn’t all keep living together in our small house. I’m afraid Chris won’t say anything and will slowly grow apart from me and might even want to leave if they remain here. I can’t bear the thought of hurting my marriage, nor can I bear to evict my family in their time of need.

— Britney

Dear Britney,
Let’s take a look at each of your family relationships separately. 

First of all, I’m not surprised you’re afraid Chris could hold it all in and leave you since that’s exactly what your mother did. It’s critical to find out if this is your projection or the truth. Let him know you can work through anything together if you open up to each other. Insist that he tells you what he honestly feels. Is he living in a situation he really dislikes? Would he be OK with the situation if there was a reasonable exit date he could rely on? Are there any enforceable rules that would be helpful to him such as more assistance with chores or noise limits after 10 p.m.? Let him know that the way he would hurt you the most is by holding feelings in which could distance him from you. It’s important that Chris honestly explains exactly what bothers him and what he’s OK with, and you need to do the same.

Regarding your father, explain to him that you ultimately want to live alone with Chris and start a family and that this has nothing to do with your love or dedication to him and your sister. Discuss with him the need to create an active plan to achieve this goal. Find out what he wants to do and how you can be supportive. Is he open to professional counseling? If you believe he’s putting everything on hold until your mother returns, confront him about your concerns that he’s wasting the present by waiting instead of moving forward with his life. Try to support him to launch a new life without enabling avoidant behavior. 

As for your sister, it’s understandable she turns to you and needs you after being abandoned by your mother. Remind her that you’ll always be her big sister and never abandon her but that the current living arrangement was always meant to be temporary. As with your father, communicate that your desire to live alone with your husband is perfectly normal and has nothing to do with your love and commitment to her. Find out what she’ll need after she moves out; i.e., sleeping over once a week, assistance getting a part-time job or applying to college.

And then there’s you. Are you dealing with your own feelings of grief and abandonment about your mother? Do you miss her? Is resentment brewing now that you’ve had to become, at times, a surrogate wife and mother? I’m concerned that while you worry about everybody else, I’m reading very little about your own feelings and desires. What do you want? I understand you may be extra-sensitive to not hurting your father and sister after having been abruptly discarded, but it’s equally important you take good care of yourself as well.  

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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