My Ex Supports Our Alcohol-Addicted Son Financially. What to Do?

From what I've read on your blog, supporting the finances of an alcoholic is detrimental to their taking ownership of their lives. I don't give a dime to my son, but his father gives him money each week with which to live. My son has not been working for three years now and doesn't feel compelled to, as his father clearly rewards him for his poor behavior. Last week, my son told me that the doctor said he needed to stop drinking for at least six months in order to preclude further and irreversible damage to his liver. I don't know where to take this from here as there is no cooperation from his father. Should I attempt to inform my ex about my son's situation, even though he will hang up on me mid-sentence? What does one do with an uncooperative ex? —Unable to Enable
Dear Unable to Enable,

Thanks for writing. It sounds like your ex-husband and your son are caught in a very unhealthy behavior pattern, motivated (I suspect) by a host of underlying emotional conflicts within and between them. Often these arrangements are concretizations of an emotional transaction which says, on the parent’s part, “Giving you this money shows I love you, that I’m a caring and good-enough parent, and that you forgive me my sins.” The child’s acceptance of it while refusing to take care of herself/himself says something like, “You owe me for all of your past mistakes; keep paying or I’ll make you feel really awful by attacking you and/or hurting myself.” One might see this in an addictive marriage also. There’s an old adage from the recovery community that says, “People with addiction don’t have relationships; they take hostages.”

But, to answer your question, I really think the best thing to do at this point is for your son to see a counselor individually, and for all of you to consult a family therapist, someone well-versed in alcoholism. Your son’s life is at stake, and the clock is ticking. I would imagine that, if your husband is reluctant to attend, at least you and your son can have a consultation, or your son can get some professional guidance individually and let each of you know what kind of support would work for him. (Search the directory for a therapist near you.)

You may have a difficult decision to make as to what you are willing to do, or not, as far as involvement with your son’s life, depending on his willingness to get help. Some parents say, “I’m here for you no matter what”; others say, “Only call if you’re willing to be sober, and if you are I’ll do all I can.” It is a highly individualized choice, and there is no right or perfect way to proceed.

I’m not sure what you mean when you say there is “no cooperation from his father”—because dad refuses to acknowledge a drinking issue? No cooperation with you regarding your son? Something else? Is it that the dad just sends your son money and then vanishes? It’s hard for me to imagine that the dad will just ignore this crisis, especially if your son asked him for help, unless I’m missing something. I think the dad’s involvement with the son should start with what your son feels he needs at this point. It sounds like your son reached out to you when he got the news; did he seem to take the doctor seriously and want to stop? This news is not necessarily tragic, by the way; there is a chance to reverse course and begin a healing process. Many people discover liver damage only after it is too late. (My sister, alas, was one of those people.) But what your son needs right now, in terms of support, is up to him.

I know it is super painful to see our children in this position, and so hard to surrender control. Of course you want the best for him, and how frustrating that his father seems to be in some kind of denial. I hope your son does the right thing and gets help to stop the damage to his body and his psyche. Thanks for writing, and best of luck to you and your family.

Kind regards,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Nan

    August 24th, 2013 at 4:27 AM

    I do not envy your position, not in the least. It is very easy for me to to be on the outside and say that I would cut my child off financially if he was acting out in this way, but who knows? I mean at that the end of the day this is my child and I would love him, same as you do and same as your ex does and would want to do whatever I need to do to make sure that he is safe and taken care of. I suspect that part of what you may be feeling could be residual animosity toward your husband that is left over from your relationship that really has nothing to do with your son and I think that the healthiest thing for you to do honestly is to wash your hands clean of that. You don’t need that baggage weighing you down when you also have your child that you need to be worrying about. I wish you all the best because this is a very difficult situation that I think that you have found yourself in. There are never any answers when it comes to alcohol abuse and family tension, so I hope that the three of you will at some point find the ability to discover peace and happiness once again.

  • Dot

    August 24th, 2013 at 12:31 PM

    Sounds like your husband and your son have a pretty messed up relationship with one another and that is something that I think that a lot of families of addicts have to deal with.
    Just because the ex gives financial support though doesn’t mean that you have to.
    Money is not the only thing that equals love, but it might be the only way that his dad knows how to show him that he is there for him

  • Darren Haber MFT

    August 24th, 2013 at 8:23 PM

    Great comments, thanks.

  • jordan

    August 25th, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    what can help you is dialogue.both with your son and your ex.theres nothing quite like talking things out.pushing money towards an addiction an then going about like everything’s okay scream that there has been no dialogue and no conversation for quite deep reasons now.

    the ice needs to be broken,all of you need to face the reality-the reality of where your son is heading at this rate and on the present direction.things need to change and that needs discussion and dialogue.

    as soon as the wheels of conversation turn things will change I am certain.uou need to intiate seeing that neither of them would.

  • KimW

    August 26th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    I know that you hope that your son is using the money to pay rent and stuff but I would have this fear that he is using the money for alcohol.

  • liz

    August 26th, 2013 at 11:05 PM

    if your ex husband is so bent on ‘helping’ your son,ask him to keep your son with him in the house and ensure he stays sober.that is the real meaning of caring for someone who is addicted to alcohol.tell him how severe the situation is and he will hopefully understand.

  • runninfast

    August 27th, 2013 at 4:00 AM

    Do you think that it might be easier for you if you just bowed out pf the situation for a while and didn’t get involved?
    Sometimes not knowing what is going on can give you a little more peace of mind.
    Not that ignorance is always bliss
    More like out of sight, out of mind

  • Kathy

    September 1st, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    First of all, your son is NOT drinking because his father gives him money. I sense a blaming of the father. An alcoholic will find his drug amazingly easily with or without a family member trying to help them with money. I know this because I have cut my son off cold only to find that he still gets drunk with the help of other drunks.

    I like Liz’ comment, but I am not sure how one “ensures” someone else’s behavior. You end up kicking them out because you can’t keep them, so you help by treating them like humans. The shelters and soup kitchens do it, and we all laud their efforts but if a person does it for one person it’s “enabling.” I don’t buy it.

  • Mark

    March 25th, 2014 at 1:56 PM

    I like the doctors instructions. Getting your counselor to help bridge the gap between you and your spouse would probably be what is best.
    Additionally, if the kid sees two parents who really dislike each other cooperating to resolve the problem he has he could take it more seriously (if he is not taking it that way already). It will also tell him that if he wants money, he needs to comply with rules.

    He will hate you for awhile but, if you are successful in saving him, he will get over it eventually.
    It will take time but, he will meet other people in therapy, he will learn their stories, eventually he will not want to drink. Once he gets to the point of not wanting to drink anymore, he will be grateful. He will recognize how bad alcohol was for him. He will know that you help to save him from some horrifying consequences.

  • pez

    March 20th, 2016 at 5:33 PM

    I am in a similar situation as “Unable to Enable”. I see my 25 year old son, who lives alone, finally getting his life together when he hits bottom and has no money. Each time he goes for weeks without drinking and feels good about himself. And then his dad ends up giving him money. His father, who is an ex-alcoholic, knows our son is an alcoholic. But I think because he is so lonely for the affection of our son, that he will do anything to feel like the hero. I have advised him for nearly 6 years, stop giving him money. But even after he realizes how his money wasn’t used for gas or the electric or food he swears each and everytime, “that’s the last time I will ever give him anything or any money!” I have tried to explain that HE’s AN ALCOHOLIC – he lies, and manipulates you to get alcohol – he still always feels like he has been cheated. And does it over and over AND over again. I just want to smack his dad for being such an idiot. But I know it won’t do any good since he is is driven to be the hero and get any affection from our son – even by sacrificing him.

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