Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Regaining Your Ground

Dear Crucial Skills,

A while back, my wife asked if it would be okay with me if her 30-year-old son set up residence in the spare bedroom for three months until he got his own home. I thought that sounded fine. It’s now been three years and the lad is still there.

My wife doesn’t see this as a problem, but it’s driving me crazy. My wife thinks the only reason I want him out is that he’s not my son. The real reason is that I never bargained for a permanent resident in our home. We’re stressing out here. What should I do?

Accidental Landlord

Dear Accidental Landlord,

This is tough. I don’t fault you for finding yourself in an unanticipated dilemma. But in this situation, don’t miss one key learning for the future: always spend more time detailing boundaries than you think you should. When friends ask me for these kinds of favors, I beg their forgiveness and ask their indulgence as I tell them two or three stories of such situations gone badly. This opens up a non-threatening conversation about how we’ll make sure these scenarios don’t happen to us.

But that’s water under your bridge. So let’s start where you are. Here’s some advice I hope will help:

1. Be sure you are as innocent as you think. You say your wife thinks you have it in for her son and you say you don’t. It’s interesting that you refer to him as “my wife’s son” rather than “my stepson.” I understand this could be because you married her when he was far into adulthood. I am also not suggesting you should let a 30-year-old reside in your home. However, I would encourage you to check your own gut and see if you are offering him the loyalty you should given that he is kin to your kin.

2. Deal with the conversation when you’re at your best, not your worst. The crucial conversation you need to have is with your wife, not your wife’s son. And the most common mistake is to discuss what’s bugging you rather than what you really want. When you enter your family room to watch your favorite show and he’s already watching something else; or, when you arrive home and see he failed to do a few simple yard chores you’d asked him to accept—for the seventh time. If you say anything to your wife during these moments—when you are most irritated—then you will dig your own conversation grave. When your wife hears you speak out of resentment, she will have legitimate reasons to believe your agenda is one of hostility toward her son, not assertion of your legitimate desires. To avoid this, schedule a time to talk when there is no pressing complaint. If you’ve made snide comments in the past, you need to clean up that mess before you can have a quality conversation about your desires. For example, you might say:

a. “Sweetheart, I realize I’ve been petty and rude about little problems with your son. I’ve handled it poorly in the past. Particularly because it’s made it appear that I didn’t want to help him. I did. I hope you’ll remember that I readily agreed to the original request. I was happy to help because I knew it was important to you. So I’m sorry to have made it appear that I felt otherwise when problems have come up.”

b.(Pause – be sure she “gets” this point before making your request to talk. Listen to her sincerely and acknowledge anything she needs from you so she’ll know this is not a personal attack on her son).

c. “That’s why I’d like to find a few minutes when we can talk about the future. I want to help but I also have some preferences about our living arrangements and would like to find a way to accommodate both. Could we find a time to figure this out together?”

3. Clarify intent before proposing solutions. As you begin this conversation, steer clear of proposals until you are sure she understands your intentions. Go to great lengths to ensure she knows you want to help her son. You must rebuild her trust that you truly share this intention. And at the same time, don’t apologize for the fact that you also have preferences about your home arrangements.

4. Talk principles before solutions. Ask her to help you identify boundaries. Finally, don’t attempt to propose solutions by yourself. This will turn the conversation into a debate you can’t win rather than a dialogue that leads to an acceptable solution.

For example, if she asks you what you want, the worst thing you can do is propose something like, “I’m thinking it would be good if he were out within a month.” At this point she may say, “There’s no way he can get ready for a move in a month. That’s outrageous!” Now you’re stuck either rolling over or defending your proposal.

Instead, propose solutions only after you’ve jointly agreed on principles or boundaries. When she asks what you want, engage her in a conversation about high-level principles.

For example:
Her: “Okay, what do you want?”
You: “Well, first I’d like to see what we both agree on. What are the limits of your willingness to continue the current arrangement? Are you okay with it continuing indefinitely? Are there any boundaries you want to set?”

If her answer is, “No—there are no boundaries,” consider two things:

1. Is she saying this defensively, because you haven’t made it safe? If so, back up and assure her you want to help her son while also maintaining your own lifestyle. Then ask if you can discuss ways to accomplish both.

2. Or, is her philosophy that parents should do everything their kids want? If this is the case, then you need to express respect for her view and ask her to find a compromise. For example: “I think it’s wonderful that your loyalty to your children is so deep. I respected that so much that I wanted to allow him to stay with us for a number of months. I still feel that way. It was very inconvenient to me when he moved in, but I wanted to support your desire to be there for your son. At the same time, you made a commitment to me for a three-month term. We have far exceeded that. I hope you see that I allowed him to stay as much for you as I did for him. At this point, I’m asking you to accommodate my desire to find a conclusion to this. How can we draw some boundaries—and stick with them—that give him a smooth transition and at the same time give us back the privacy I think we both value?

If her answer is, “Yes,” then discuss those boundaries and agree on a set of principles.

The line you’re trying to walk is to show support while asserting your desires. The primary way you’ll go wrong is if you make a sucker’s choice and do only one of these.

It’s a tricky conversation, but definitely one you need to have. I suspect it may be in your stepson’s interests to move on with his life as much as it is yours.

Best wishes,

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