Neil D Brown, parenting teenagers, enablement train

Get Off This Enablement Train


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 168 · Duration: 00:20:04

Get Off This Enablement Train

What do you do when your husband and his business are going downhill and you're putting up with your husband’s very disturbed adult son?

Please Note: Due to the sensitive personal content in this question, I’ve taken steps to protect the privacy of the sender and her family. But these problems are not uncommon. So if you’re listening and this sounds like someone you know, it’s only a coincidence.  I’d also like listeners to know that I often change details in questions to protect the privacy of the sender while allowing us all to benefit from their situations and questions.

Today we’re hearing from Tonette and she writes:

My husband’s adult son is married to an extremely emotionally abusive woman who flaunts her affairs and is in and out of jail. He will not admit his marital problems. (Tonette, what you’re describing goes beyond the description of marital problems, but let’s go on.) My husband is the sole proprietor of a successful business in which I also work for. Since his son graduated high school, my husband has been his only employer. His son’s behavior and emotional stability have gotten progressively worse since his marriage, but now have deteriorated to a dangerous level. He is highly intelligent and talented. He shows up to work, but productivity has dropped to 1 or 2 hours a day. He is usually late, takes extended lunches, leaves early, and spends several hours each day in the bathroom. He has explosive outbursts at the slightest, often imagined, provocation. He has alienated the other employees. No one wants to work near him much less with him. He explodes at his father when given work assignments or instructions. He constantly needs money that he claims he will work “overtime” for, but does not. His behavior is having a severe negative impact on the success of the business. He complains of physical maladies, but refuses to go to the doctor. His father has offered to pay for counseling or therapy, but gets an explosive response.

Get Off This Enablement TrainAnd...his father is beyond emotionally and physically stressed, both as his parent and employer. As a teenager, his son was hit by a car and nearly died from traumatic brain injury. While no fault of my husband’s, somehow he feels guilty, which increases the stress. My husband has begun drinking more and more every evening. Now he often doesn’t recall what we talked about or did. I have my own history with drugs and alcohol, but worked hard through 10+ years of therapy. I try to stay on the fringes, not interfering. I have suggested maybe he would benefit from therapy. He agrees, but doesn’t follow through and hasn’t asked me to set something up (I have to fight the urge though). My husband is a sweet, kind soul. But he’s overly generous and in his own words he’s a “fixer”. Not only is our business at serious risk, but now so is our marriage. I know I have no control. I am reaching my limit. I realize I could choose to do nothing, to give up. Very bad idea because I would end up regressing. Or, I can change me. I love my husband, but all I can see to change is to leave. Is there a question in all this? Of course...the impossible one. How can this situation be “fixed”? Time is growing short.

Thanks for your question, Tonette. I hardly know where to start but I’d better get started and come up with some powerfully good advice for you or a business, your husband, his son, your marriage won’t end well. It sounds like you could regress if everything falls apart. So before we talk about what to do, let's look at some basic issues.

Identifying The Family Concerns

Before we talk about the obvious (alcohol and drug abuse), let’s talk about family businesses. They have the built-in challenge of having a business relationship and a family relationship, and the two often don’t mix well. Sometimes they do and that can be great. But the basic rule of thumb in a family business is that you establish standards that every employee must follow. Family members should set an example for high standards with other employees. If someone can’t or won’t meet the standards, then they and the business need to part company.

Your husband and his adult son are violating that basic principle, and as you’ve noted, that’s bad for the business. He should not be working for his father under the current circumstance; it’s bad for business, your husband personally, and it’s enabling his son who needs to address some profound medical, emotional, behavioral, and dependency-based issues in his life. Offering to pay for some counseling is generous, but totally insufficient to address the profundity of his son’s issues.

Let’s take a look at what might be going on with his son and what his son might need. He almost died from a traumatic brain injury in adolescence. Is there some permanent cognitive impairment that affects his judgment? Staying in a relationship as injurious to him as you describe is awfully extreme so that’s a strong possibility.

Is your husband somehow aware that his son never fully recovered, or is your husband’s trauma from his son’s accident driving enmeshment that has negatively impacted his son’s independence? Both could be true. It also sounds like your adult stepson’s behavior has deteriorated and that certainly points to a strong likelihood of substance abuse. Hours in the bathroom makes me think of IBS, irritable bowel syndrome, and that could be just another element adding to the huge mess he’s in.

The bottom line here is, he needs a full evaluation and treatment for whatever is driving his destructive, self-destructive behavior. An evaluation should include a neurological assessment, a full medical assessment, and a substance abuse assessment.

Your husband is not doing him any favors by tolerating his behavior, he needs help. Giving him money and paying him for work he isn’t doing is adding to his self-destruction. Apparently, it’s adding to your husband’s destruction as well. Yes, his drinking is alcohol abuse and points to alcoholism. Your husband needs help knowing how to set healthy limits with his son and get him the help he needs, and in order to do that, he’s going to have to find his way to sobriety. He needs sober thinking and he isn’t there.

Address Concerns In Your Marriage

Next, there’s you Tonette. It sounds like you’re stuck between giving soft advice or leaving. You’re experienced enough to know that you can’t change someone else, you can only change you. Yes, very true, but let’s look at what’s going on here. We are on a dysfunction train to nowhere. Leading the train is your stepson’s wife who is unapologetically unaccountable to society or your stepson’s needs. Your stepson takes no effective action. He enables her and stays with her. This negatively impacts him and he acts out his dysfunction and becomes unaccountable to his father/employer and the business. This negatively impacts his father/employer who takes no effective action, enables him, and he uses alcohol to avoid the issue and his feelings and this impacts you. You don’t want to cross boundaries or take effective action, and that in fact enables your husband. So we have a four-car train of no one fully acknowledging a problem or taking strong healthy action to address a problem.

You can’t change someone else. You can only change yourself.Click To Tweet

My job here, Tonette, is to not be the fifth car on the dysfunction train and to see if we can turn the enablement train, with enabling meaning enabling dysfunction, into an enabling train with enabling meaning helping make functional.

Let’s get a couple of things straight here Tonette. You love your husband, right? Then if he has a problem, and if you have a problem and concern with his behavior, you are entitled and have a moral obligation as well to address it, even if it takes strong action on your part. No, you can’t change him, but you must be straight with him. That much belongs to you. You can take action that you believe to be in his and your best interest.

Getting Help For Your Family

Here's what I recommend. First of all, find the right therapist in your area, one who can speak to alcohol abuse treatment as well as couples communication, and also has knowledge of the medical community in your city. You can get referrals for such a professional from local alcohol treatment programs. Tell your husband that you’ve made an appointment to talk about everything going on and that you both need help knowing how to deal with his son and deal with each other. Let him know that you have done this out of both love and desperation and if you don’t do this together, you’ll need to do it alone and that would be very lonely, discouraging, and unhopeful for the future of the marriage.

Assuming your husband attends, and I hope he does, and I believe he will, what you want to do in your very first session, and the first session should be either 90 or 120 minutes, is lay out what’s going on and what you want to see happen, namely, that your husband embraces sobriety, at the very least for the immediate future, and that he requires his son to get a full evaluation and follow professional treatment advice.

Those are the conditions of your husband continuing to provide employment and any financial support. Of course, his son should take a medical leave from the business while undergoing an evaluation. That should be the absolute bottom line to continued support, and if he won’t comply, then no job and no financial support.

I hope the therapist you find will support such action and help your husband know how to communicate it in a compassionate loving and esteeming manner to his son. It needs to be communicated in a tone of “you need it and you’re worth it,” not “you’re screwing up.”

Tonette, you can see I’m strongly encouraging an empowered self to come out of the shadows. I’m so glad you successfully embraced 10+ years of personal work and now is a great time to put that work into action. You’re the last car on the enablement train and if you bring a strong healthy voice, and you bring it with love and compassion, things might just turn around. First, you stop enabling, then your husband stops enabling, then his son stops enabling and there you go. One person takes a strong compassionate stand and everyone gets off the enablement train. And Tonette, if your husband is just too stuck and unable to hear you or your therapist, then keep going to therapy and consider a separation so that if you’re not making things better, at least you’re off the train. Maybe a little time on his own will help your husband make a better choice.

If you use a strong healthy voice to address concerns, and you bring it with love and compassion, things might just turn around.Click To Tweet

I realize this sounds like if you do one thing, everything will go easily. It won’t. There are very entrenched dysfunctional patterns here. But you have to start somewhere. Take a stand, use your voice, speak the truth. Your situation needs it, and you need it.

This situation is far more common than you might realize. In this case, we’re talking about an alcohol-abusing father enabling a young adult son and his wife left wondering how to deal with it. But think about the situations you’ve found yourself in that needed a strong compassionate voice to address dysfunction. I find the people who bring an empowered, strong, compassionate, voice to be my heroes; political leaders, educational leaders, organizational leaders, and family leaders. No arrogance, no ego, no entitlement, just empowered and caring.

Take a minute and reflect. Who are the people you know or even know personally with these qualities? Gabriel Sterling, a Republican election official in Georgia is my role model for today. How do you feel about your strong compassionate role models? All those positions aren’t taken so let’s make it our business to add just two more, namely you and me.

Thanks for tuning in today. A special thanks to you, Tonette, for your question and our very best to you.

Well, Thanksgiving this year was me, Eileen, and Zoom. It actually worked out great. We Zoomed with our sons and with the friends we normally have Thanksgiving with and brought dinner over to our friends and a neighbor. In the end, it was truly fulfilling. If we can hang in there a while longer, it looks like we can get vaccinated and be able to have our lives back in 2021. In the meantime, mask up, socially distance, and reduce all the risks you can.

If you’d like to sharpen your teen parenting skills, or you’re a therapist working with the parents of teenagers, give my newly released Ending The Parent-Teen Control Battle course a try. Parents will find enormous benefits from the program and therapists can use the course to deepen their work with parents.

With COVID surging and the election and political discord taking place, our anxiety and emotions are running high so please, please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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