It’s late, of course, almost midnight. Our two live-in adult sons are arguing, way past the point of name calling and then slouching off to bed. They keep getting louder, lizard-braining their way to a fistfight. Youngest, whose drug of choice is alcohol, accuses Middle (drug of choice meth) of thievery and poor taste in music. Middle says Youngest is a lush who’s probably schizophrenic too.
My husband and I exchange tired glances. What should we do? I have ideas. My spouse of forty-four years does too.
Trouble is, we rarely agree.
Have you ever read a glossy magazine article that promises to cure a parenting problem? You read the piece, only to find that for the method to work, you and your partner must be on the same page. Translation: fuhgeddaboudit. Agreement is futile. We disagree on how to deal with our sons with SUD.
I want to meet my sons where they are and listen. To say, “It sounds like you’re both having a rough time. Can we take a short break?”
Hubby rolls his eyes. “You and your psychology.” His fists clench and unclench. After years of the Marine Corps, years of dealing with his own and his kids’ substance use disorders, I understand how much he wants to hit back. To hurt as much as he’s hurt.
And I must admit that when the epithets and the threats get serious, kindness doesn’t stand a chance. Listening’s impossible when everyone is screaming. De-escalation never gains a foothold when we can’t present a unified front.
And our sons know it. They play us against each other, getting in personal digs whenever we say a word. Our sons know how to push buttons and they don’t hesitate. “A house divided cannot stand,” the saying goes. We’re all desperate and stubborn.
Youngest keeps shouting. I lay a gentle hand on his arm and promise to listen. My husband stands back and crosses his arms, muttering, “Psychological BS.”
I say, “So we should just let them punch it out? What does that solve?”
We finally agree to go separate ways until we all calm down. Later, my husband and I hug each other long and hard. We cry together. And then we sit down and revisit ideas for working together.
Our first stop: a video series, a segment that explains the subtle differences between a boundary and a rule. We learn that boundary-setting is harder when the boundary is more of a rule. We hear that a rule uses “you” language (you can’t or you should) with our children, A boundary uses “I” language—”I can’t live in such chaos.” For the first time in a long while, I see light in my husband’s eyes. The simple distinction opens my own heart to hope again.
There’s a difference between boundaries and rules.
We renew our commitment to work together. To talk with each other and our kids instead of talking at others. For me, to practice a more hands-off approach. For him, to practice treating his sons with respect.
No Agreement, No Answers
How many families are like ours—where one partner clings to the old-school slogans like “let ‘em hit bottom,” “kick ‘em out” or “cut ‘em off?” Meanwhile, the other partner often confuses tolerating abuse with loving kindness. The more we refuse to negotiate, the farther apart our positions become. Then, hope falls into the sinkhole of chaos we’ve created.
The magazine’s right about one thing—if partners like us can’t agree on what to do, then chaos will be the likely outcome. I admit that our house is often on shaky ground. Yes, that night our hope was in the toilet. But we bent a knee to Love, and hope was renewed.
Maybe you have to be willing to see things from a different point of view. To let your heart venture into the desert. To take a step toward the other person and for love’s sake, come together.
I love my family. You love yours too. If your partner doesn’t agree with how to cope with your kids with SUD, find something—anything—that you can agree on and start there. If that doesn’t help, set some boundaries—not rules—for yourself.
Well past midnight, our house is finally quiet. I silently vow to keep learning, keep hoping, keep praying. That’s a boundary I’m ready to defend.