Relationship Connection: How much financial help do I give my irresponsible ex-wife?

Question

I’ve been divorced from the mother of my daughters for a little over three years. We originally split custody 50/50 without child support. The early years following our divorce seemed to be going fine. She got a boyfriend, a low-income apartment, they had a baby, and so forth. I helped the two of them financially and with random things when needed.

Then, at some point, someone alerted child welfare services about possible drug abuse in the home. Child welfare workers tested both of us and immediately opened a case on her. I discovered that my ex-wife and her boyfriend got busted for using methamphetamine while driving a car I had let them use. She got evicted from her apartment, they both went to jail and their baby was taken by child welfare. She has been basically homeless since.

I’ve let her stay with me on a number of occasions and let her use my extra car on a number of occasions. I’ve given her money on a number of occasions. She’s been in and out of rehabs, probation officers, child welfare meetings, jail, and there are even more charges against her. This has all resulted in her barely seeing our daughters. They are with me or my mother at all times.

Where do my obligations to my ex-wife end? She’s upset at this point because I’m making boundaries. I want to get on with my life, but I want her to get back on track for our kids. I feel trapped in an ongoing circle that never ends. I recognize I’m probably enabling her but feel as though I should help.

Do I let her struggle and figure things out for herself at this point? I’m not in a financial position to take care of her with a home and bills, let alone believe she will hold a job and be able to manage money for herself. Where do I go from here?

Answer

I respect your deep commitment to provide a stable life for your daughters even though you are uncertain about how to deal with the unpredictability of your ex-wife. You seem like a good man with a big heart who doesn’t want anyone to suffer, including the very person who has profoundly disrupted your family. I want to reassure you that it’s possible for you to keep your big heart while still setting healthy limits with your ex-wife. Let’s talk about some ideas for how to accomplish this difficult balance.

It’s important to be clear on what is your responsibility and what is her responsibility. When children are involved, it can make you forget what you already know and believe about personal accountability. You might even break your own rules and go against your better judgment out of a sincere desire to help your daughters by bailing out their mother. It’s challenging to balance justice and mercy, especially when your efforts inadvertently perpetuate destructive patterns. 

Your desire to get your ex-wife’s life back on track cannot supersede her own personal responsibility to get her life back on track. Yes, of course, you want her stable. That would make your life so much easier, especially when you consider the years of mother-loss your daughters have experienced. However, your efforts cannot replace her efforts to live a life free of addiction and crime. 

So what does this specifically mean for you on a day-to-day basis? First of all, it means that you need to consider removing yourself as her point person for financial assistance. As long as your daughters are in the middle, you’ll stay trapped in an ongoing circle of demand and supply where she demands and you supply. You won’t be able to think clearly about what’s best for you, her and your daughters because the innocent plight of your daughters will always tug at your heartstrings and make it difficult to make clear decisions. 

There are other supports who can step in and help her if she wants to be financially responsible. Other people won’t be as forgiving and generous as you might be, as they’ll not be conflicted and will more effectively outline her own personal responsibility. You don’t need to feel responsible to find these other supports for her, as she needs to demonstrate a personal willingness to change her situation.

Your daughters have stability from you and your family, so be careful to not undermine this existing stability by trying to prop up your ex-wife before she’s ready to stand up on her own. Your daughters deserve to have stable parents who can take care of themselves

Your ex-wife will obviously need ongoing help to get her back on her feet. It’s just wise to not put yourself in the position of trying to rehabilitate her. When you set limits on what you give her, she’ll struggle to figure out another plan that will set her on the path toward independence and self-reliance. There are plenty of people and organizations willing to help her build an independent life if she is ready to work hard and commit herself to a new life.

It’s important to recognize that her reactive and entitled response to your initial boundaries is immediate evidence as to why you need to set limits with her. She is probably terrified of making it on her own. She knows better than anyone that she has a lot to overcome.

Living with the daily unmanageability of addiction while surveying the wreckage of a troubled life is enough to make anyone want to curl up and hide. However, she needs to know that she’s strong and can do this for herself and her children. 

You can set up a compassionate exit strategy where you transition her toward independence by progressively decreasing your financial assistance as she engages with new supports. If she chooses to sit down and protest your plan, you will be tempted to save her for your daughters. Your daughters need a strong and independent mom who can care for them.

Enabling her to stay weak and dependent on you for material assistance will only perpetuate the belief that she’s weak and incapable. Even if she has mental illness, active addiction or other challenges, she can get help and work toward personal stability.  

Depending on where you live, some mental health agencies work to pull in family and other supports to help those who are trying to rebuild their lives. If she’s asking you to help, your involvement in a team effort will help her have the proper accountability and support that you alone could never provide.

If you decide to stay involved in her life, then it’s important for you to get support for yourself. Seek out a family support group for addiction so you can learn how to respond in healthy ways out enabling behaviors that will drag everyone back to the old pattern.

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