Shirley and her new husband, Mike, called me to talk about her twenty-five year old son, Ashton. Questions revealed that Ashton was an alcoholic, jobless, and living in a relationship beyond dysfunctional. Days before he had come over to the home of Shirley and Mike, and he had behaved badly to people, publicly insulted Mike, fallen down drunk, and damaged some property. Mike was tired of having to deal with this kind of behavior, which was not rare.
“Mike is demanding that Ashton apologize to him for his behavior the other night,” Shirley said, “but he’s only been out of rehab for a short time, and I think Ashton is too fragile right now to have an apology demanded of him.”
“I’m guessing that Ashton has apologized to you for behaviors like this many times, yes?”
“And yet nothing has changed.”
“He went to drug rehab.”
“Doesn’t seem to have worked very well, does it? At this point an apology would be a joke. Ashton believes an apology is just a way of getting him out of trouble, because he has a long history of apologizing, after which you rescue him, and he repeats the same behavior.”
“That’s an understatement,” Mike chimed in.
“So Mike,” I said, “can you live without the apology? It’s worthless anyway.”
“Yeah, I suppose. So what can we do?
“Ashton has been lectured, enabled, and coddled. Even went to rehab. He’s heard—and probably repeated—a LOT of words about how his behavior is unacceptable. But it didn’t work. So many useless words, which have not and will not teach him anything. It’s time for him simply to live with the consequences of his own choices.”
“Like how?” Mike said.
“You can’t make him not drink. You’ve proven that. You can’t make him behave. But you CAN stop rescuing him from his poor choices. Does he come to your house often?”
“Fairly often, yes,” Shirley said.
“Would you let a stranger get drunk in your house? Or break things? Or be rude to you or the guests?”
“Then why would you let Ashton do that? Are you TRYING to teach him to be irresponsible and disgusting?”
“Then you’ll need to change your approach. Change your training. Tell him that until he pays for the damages, he can’t come to the house at all. Tell him that he can drink wherever he wants, but he can’t drink at your house, nor can he arrive there intoxicated. And the moment he is rude to anyone at your house, he will be required to leave. That’s pretty clear.”
Shirley explained how Ashton was trying “so hard,” how he had been “triggered” by something Mike had said, and that he had agreed to pay for half the cost of the damages he caused on the infamous evening.
“Ridiculous,” I said. “You are enabling him in his destructive behaviors. Again. As usual.”
Shirley continued to argue that Ashton was doing better and that what she was doing as a mother was best for him, until I finally interrupted. “You have a son without a job, who has never had a stable relationship, who has relapsed into alcohol abuse only weeks after rehab, and who destroys property and insults people in your home—all without any indication of regret on his part. His life is not working, and yet you’re defending him and claiming to be helping him. Your claims ring rather hollow, don’t you think?”
She began to defend herself again, but I said, “You get to live your life any way you want. It doesn't affect mine. And yet I care about your happiness, which is why I'm talking to you now. And in this one conversation I’ve lost track of how many times you have corrected me, interrupted me, defended yourself, and told me I was wrong. Even more, you find reasons to support Ashton while not supporting Mike. That's not going to work well for you as a couple. You are not succeeding as a mother or a wife, and yet you’re fighting all attempts to help you.”
Shirley is well on her way to losing her marriage and to receiving a phone call from the police, asking her if she is the mother of the dead young man who wrapped his car around a tree while driving drunk.
Insisting on being right is deadly. As long as we’re defending what we think we know, we can’t learn anything new, nor can we grow.