I need your help on how to best handle a situation I’m in (or witnessing) with my boyfriend and his mom. I’m a 23-year-old straight woman dating a wonderful 24-year-old straight man. We’ve been together about two years now. We have a wonderful, loving, and active relationship and I can see a future with him. But it gets tough sometimes because of his relationship with his mom. He’s from Washington and moved out to Colorado—where I’m from and met him—and she moved out here too when he started here college several years ago.
About his wonderful mom... in a nutshell: she was an aggressively outdoorsy and active woman for her whole life and was diagnosed with pretty severe MS about ten years ago. My boyfriend’s dad was basically like, “Nope, I didn’t sign up for this,” and completely abandoned ship, leaving his 14-year old son to essentially be his mom’s only support system. Since then she had a partner/male long term friend who came out to Colorado with her five or so years ago but he died very suddenly a year ago. Since then my boyfriend has taken on a really complex role of being her parent-best-friend-husband-neighbor-son-and-everything-in-between. It’s extremely hard to watch the toll it takes on him. I really like his mom and I understand that a normal day of errands that might be simple for me or you is a completely different undertaking for her. But I can’t help but think that she takes advantage of her son.
He is 24, and makes less than 45K a year working full time and doesn’t ever do anything for himself but does so much for her. The way he will drop everything for her is amazing and I love and respect him so much for who he is and his compassion. But he’s spending 15K a year paying for her groceries, car, insurance, tickets, dog treatments, bikes, utilities, rent, etc., on top of supporting himself. That doesn’t seem okay or sustainable. She also lives about an hour away from us so it’s always kind of an undertaking to go out there. I know she receives monthly alimony and social security disability and lives a simple cabin-in-the-woods life so I don’t understand where her money goes and how she can allow her son to support her financially, physically, emotionally, and mentally as much as he does. He has two older siblings who don’t seem to chip in at all, even though they must know of the situation.
He’s an amazing person, and would never and has never complained about this situation but it’s starting to affect me too. We’ve lived together for about a year now, and it’s been a super tough year for them both since her partner died and with her MS that doesn’t really ever improve, so I try to be nothing but supportive and help him out with chores for her on the weekends and whatnot. But it’s difficult. Mostly because I love him and want to build a future with him someday, but in reality I know that I will never be a priority, and that he cannot move or be anywhere apart from his mom, which is a tough realization. We also talk about wanting to be in a nicer house someday or go on a longer trip, but it’s really hard if not impossible for him to save money because of his mom’s dependence on him. I don’t really know what to do and I know that this dependence realistically won’t really change, but it’s extremely difficult for him and for me to watch him get run down. We have great weeks together, but if his mom is upset about something or having a hard day, it absolutely affects his emotional status, OUR SEX LIFE, my emotional status, etc. I’ve been trying to carefully urge him to talk to a counselor—I’m a big supporter, and have had a therapist for a while—but he’s not interested/doesn’t really ever spend money on himself.
Sorry that was so long, but I think it’s difficult to explain my concern or ask for advice on how to best be there for him/my concern for our future together without some history, because I don’t want to DTMFA or anything like that because I really truly love him and us together and yotta yotta. It just seems almost like he enables this dependence but at the same time I know that he can’t just stop providing for her or stop being there for her because this has been going on basically since he was 14. I feel like I’m in the middle of a very sad and tricky situation and I respect them both so much and I don’t know what to do. I also can’t relate but I know this isn’t healthy, normal, or sustainable and I genuinely don’t know how to support him besides how I already do.
Thanks, Dan. I look forward to hearing your advice!
The Caregiver's Girlfriend
My first impulse after reading your letter—and I'm in no way proud of this—was to google "MS and life expectancy."
In multiple sclerosis (MS), the immune system attacks and destroys the fatty myelin coating that surrounds and insulates nerve cells in a process known as demyelination. MS is a lifelong condition, and common symptoms include fatigue, muscle spasms, walking difficulties, or numbness and tingling of the face, body, arms and legs. These symptoms can worsen with time, affecting daily activities and reducing a person’s quality of life... Life expectancy for people with MS has increased considerably in the last 20 to 25 years. On average, however, a person with MS can expect to live seven fewer years than someone without this disease.
That was a totally fucked up thing for me to google. But I'm Irish Catholic, TCG, and we are a grim, fatalistic, and inclined to see divine mercy into the most fucked up shit possible. But I had to google that for you because, in all honesty, the awkward question that immediately came to mind after reading your letter was, "So if nothing changes, if her boyfriend can't extricate himself from the parent-best-friend-husband-neighbor-son-and-everything-in-between role he's been playing since his mom was diagnosed with MS and his dad abandoned his wife and kids... how much longer will this go on?" And the answer is decades, TCG. Which means this isn't a problem that's gonna solve itself. And your boyfriend's pretty young and if his mom is in her late forties or early fifties, well, then she's going to be dependent on him for everything—for everything he allows her to depend on him for—until he's in his late forties or early fifties.
So while his mother's prognosis is good—and let's hear it for medical science extending the life expectancies of people living with MS—the same can't be said for your relationship's prognosis. Unless your boyfriend is willing to set boundaries with his mother (doubtful at this stage) and make demands on his AWOL siblings (equally doubtful), nothing is going to change. And that means you won't be able to build a life with your boyfriend... unless you're willing to build one that revolves around caring for and supporting his mother.
Zooming out for a second: You know a lot about your boyfriend's finances—how much he makes, how much he spends on mom's groceries, car, insurance, tickets, dog treatments, bikes, utilities, rent, etc.—but you never mention how he feels about any of this. If he's spoken to you at length about the money he spends on his mother, TCG, and about the stress of being her sole caretaker, and hasn't mentioned how he feels... well, that could signal a certain learned helplessness on his part, i.e. he doesn't talk about his feelings because he doesn't feel entitled to have feelings or he doesn't think his feelings matter. If that's the case, TCG, he needs a shrink with an open schedule more than he needs a girlfriend with an ultimatum. (More zooming: You say you "can’t help but think" your boyfriend's mom "takes advantage" of him. I can't help but think it would be nice to know what he thinks.)
Sometimes you have to walk away from someone you love—but you can and you should tell your boyfriend why you're thinking about walking way. It's not because you don't love him. You do. It's not because you hate his mother. You don't. It's because he can't be all things to his mom and a partner to you. So unless big changes are made—his mom moves closer to town, his sisters start pitching in, a financial advisor goes over his mother's income, assets, and expenses—it's really hard to see how this relationship survives. He's not a motherfucker, TCG (he's the opposite), so you wouldn't be DTMFA'ing him. You'd just be leaving him.