Author Topic: Need help with girlfriend's family situation  (Read 7847 times)

TwoWheels

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Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« on: November 12, 2013, 12:21:14 PM »
My girlfriend's family has been in a downward spiral for several years. We desperately want to help them, but they live 2 hours away and we really don't know where to start. So I suggested that we ask here, knowing that there's likely a lot of good advice to be found in the collective wisdom of the Mustachians. The gist is that her family is in a state of perpetual financial crisis, the kids are out of control, her mother lives with a dangerously high stress level, and the family dynamic is generally dysfunctional. And it has been getting steadily worse for years.

My girlfriend is 23 and has six younger siblings, ages 1, 3, 12, 12, 14, and 16. She also has an older brother who moved across the country as soon as he turned 18 and is not interested in helping his family. These 8 kids all have the same mother but there are three different fathers. The father of the four middle children was removed from the house many years ago and committed suicide last year. The father of the oldest two kids (my girlfriend and her older brother) is a deadbeat alcoholic who is not in the picture anymore (he's pretty much a shell of a human being at this point). The current baby daddy, father of the youngest two, is at least a decent guy who cares about his kids and can hold down a job. However, he's not the kind of leader and father figure the kids badly need and it's not clear whether he and the mother are going to move in together (maybe not a good idea as the two have major incompatibilities). The mother is unfailingly devoted to her kids and wants what's best for the family, but (needless to say) her judgment is not the best.

The situation with the kids is a total mess. The 14-year-old has serious mental and emotional issues. She has a penchant for turning small arguments into out-of-control verbal wars in which she'll say the most hurtful things she can possibly think of. Many of these fights have ended with the police being called to the house, and at least once she was taken away to an emergency youth shelter. She is extremely withdrawn from the family, spending hours in front of the computer every day. She has not been to school in over a year – she refuses to go and nothing (including a lot of therapy and police involvement) has been effective in forcing her to do so. The two 12-year-olds recently discovered weed (one was caught trying to grow it in the house). The kids do pretty much whatever they want – yelling has become the mother's only tool in trying to control them, and they seem to have become immune to it. When my girlfriend still lived with them, she did a lot to help keep things under control. Unfortunately her 16-year-old sister has not stepped up to fill her shoes (in fact she avoids being at home as much as she can).

The only good thing I have to say about their financial situation is that (as far as we know) they don't have any debt. Both parents have no savings, and it's clear that they just don't understand the purpose of trying. Money is for spending, and anything left over is for buying things to combat the stress of everyday life. Leftover money is immediately spent on takeout, fancy organic groceries, gasoline, and little things that just aren't necessary. Nobody eats leftovers (food is always left out till it spoils, the mother refuses to own a microwave for quasi-religious reasons, the baby daddy thinks he and his kids are too good to eat old food…) The mother has not had a full-time job in over a year. As far as I know she's not actively looking for work (at least, not with any sense of urgency). Most of the family's income is in the form of government benefits and social security payments from the father who killed himself. I think the current baby daddy makes around $50k, but with his financial habits I don’t think he contributes much money to the family.

The mother really wants something different for herself and her family, but her worldview/culture has kept the necessary radical changes out of reach. She does not seem to believe that in the long run one's situation is the product of their beliefs, habits, and actions – instead she takes stock in some form of "destiny" and the "law of attraction". She obsesses over BS health problems (fluoride in the water, microwaves, a million other things that "may be" linked with cancer) while ignoring some that actually matter (insane stress levels, kids don't brush their teeth despite eating a standard sugary American diet). She absolutely does not perceive the link between one's financial habits and one's circumstances in the long term. Hopefully she won't have any more kids (her attention and financial resources get stretched thinner and thinner with each one), but she's had bad luck with birth control and thinks getting her tubes tied would increase her risk of cancer. This stuff, it seems, is all cultural and deeply held.

Amazingly my girlfriend has broken free of all of this. She's incredibly frugal and rational. But it's tearing her apart to watch her family destroy itself. We both want to help, but obviously giving unsolicited advice is not the way to do it. They've tried family therapy but weren't happy with it. What's needed is a major change of perspective and habits, and the problem feels so much bigger than either of us that we don't know what to do. I do have a success story to share, however: two years ago we spent a weekend cleaning the first floor of their house, and my girlfriend worked hard to get her siblings to start helping out with the chores. Some of it stuck (probably because her siblings really look up to her) and today the house is generally much cleaner than it used to be. We have a feeling that if her family could just understand that there's a way out, there would be hope for change. But we don't know how to bring that about without alienating them. Any advice would be really appreciated.

nawhite

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #1 on: November 12, 2013, 12:43:04 PM »
That certainly sounds like a rough situation for everyone involved. While thinking of ideas of ways to help, I'm having trouble with ideas for the Mother. It is very difficult to change personal beliefs and usually not worth the effort trying. For the mother, the only thing I can think of is make sure she has an emergency fund. If you don't think she'd be interested in starting one, you could try selling it as a "vacation" or a "car fund" or something she really wants. When the money is eventually required for some emergency, at least she will have the money somewhere to pull from instead of you and your girlfriend.

For the kids there are some other ideas. I'd recommend talking to the kids about what they are interested and help them pursue it. At that age, for me it was Boy Scouts. I bummed rides from friends for years to go because it was fun and with friends and not at home. It could be robotics. It could be reading. It could be movie making. It could be video game making. It could be acting. It could be soccer. It could be hiking. It could be cooking. Find out what each kid's interests are and do everything you can to support them in that. Find them a cheap video camera on craigslist, drive them once a month to the library, offer to help take them to practices or cover team dues (if they really truly are interested), invite them over for dinner to help you cook. But help them find their passion.

Even just inviting them over in groups of one or 2 to hang out and interact with you two and maybe some other adults can have good effects on kids that age. When they come over, treat them like adults. Don't just take them out for a movie or to get ice cream. Talk about their lives or their interests. Ask them about news stories and their opinions about them. Challenge them about their opinions. Show them what being a responsible adult is all about.

My experience with kids that age is that when you take them out of a rough environment and work with them individually and treat them like adults, they always impress you.
« Last Edit: November 12, 2013, 12:45:00 PM by nawhite »

the fixer

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #2 on: November 12, 2013, 01:08:59 PM »
Even though it's supposed to be comedy, the best advice I can think of is this: http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s10e07-tsst

The Mom has many problems, but one that stands out to me is a lack of leadership of the family. These kids need to learn their place, but that doesn't happen by yelling at them. Yelling acknowledges their bad behavior by giving a reaction, and such reactive behavior is a sign of weakness. In effect, the kids are controlling the parent. Someone who's truly in charge does not let an underling control the situation emotionally. She needs to learn that she is being emotionally manipulated by her kids, recognize when they are attempting to do this to her, and then ignore it.

To take charge, two things need to happen: negative consequences need to be unquestionably in place for bad behavior, and positive outcomes need to be expected for good behavior. It sounds like the first of these has been in place with the police involved, but I suspect the second is missing. A leader typically implements this by giving positive feedback for good performance or improvement, as a start. For a parent it's something analogous. At its mature stage, the largest benefit of following the leader is the entire team/family improves noticeably.

If the mom can learn how to do this, it might help her feel more in charge of her life, not just of her family. That should lead to the other changes that are needed.

TrMama

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #3 on: November 12, 2013, 01:10:33 PM »
What a tough situation. Along the same lines as what was already suggested would be to get the middle children signed up with Big Brothers/Big Sisters (or something similar). It's absolutely free to the family and will match each child up with a caring adult who can help show them that the world is bigger than what their mother is presenting to them. You and your girlfriend can do the same, but with 6 siblings, you guys are seriously outnumbered.

I would also see what programs you can find for the younger two. I think they would qualify for Headstart? Or perhaps subsidized preschool or daycare. If they are developmentally behind,  they should also qualify for EI (early intervention).

Would the mother be open to having the Essure procedure done to give her permanent birth control?

If the mother and current baby daddy split, would/could he become the custodial parent of the younger two?

Louisville

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #4 on: November 12, 2013, 01:11:17 PM »
I have a crazy family as well. Worse than girlfriend's. Prison, drug abuse, too many kids, etc. I know it may not be what you want to hear, but the two of you might want to started getting your heads wrapped around the idea that older brother may have had the right idea in running away. Help the family deal with their sinking ship, but only if you can do it without going down with them. That doesn't help anyone. Help, but set hard and fast boundaries and realize that you can't live another person's life for them.
From the story you've told, I'd say that mom is a write-off - you're not going to reach her. As nawhite suggests above, focus on being present in the kid's lives. Set a quiet example, and make sure they see it. If girlfriend could get out sane, there's hope for the rest of them.

Ziggurat

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #5 on: November 12, 2013, 01:31:23 PM »
Wow, that is an incredibly stressful situation, and I feel for you and your girlfriend having to watch this.

I'm new around here, and so many others have such incredible wisdom, but here are some thoughts such as they are:

- the 14 yr old who has serious mental and emotional issues -- sounds a lot like major depression. If at all possible she should be seeing a psychiatrist and likely will need medication.

- the rest of the family might already have, or is at risk for, mental illness issues also -- the mom's unreasonable fear of so many things hints at an anxiety disorder. Depression/anxiety etc are often all mixed in. The alcoholism and suicide are most likely related to that also and these things do run in families.

- I would say you are more likely to reach the children than the adults. Similar to another reply, perhaps you can give them "vacations" at your place (especially the teenage ones) where they see a more normal dynamic and responsible financial habits. Over time you could maybe show them some of your finances, and how they are handled. If you can reach the children then THEY may be able to influence the adults when they go back to the home. If only to get a small emergency fund started. Also on the mental illness, perhaps the teens will listen -- that generation has much less of a stigma towards mental health, recognizing that it is just another disorder/illness and not the person's fault or lack of will.

- your post ends with a success story of the house-cleaning "sticking" .... is there a way to build on that? Do other things to show by example? It seems to have been a proven way to make a small improvement.

- keep the older brother in the loop, especially if slight improvements happen, perhaps he will start to help if he sees some hope in doing so.

It's clear that you and your gf are aware that you can have minimal influence in this. So, hard as it is, you will have to accept that you can only deflect the situation a little, not turn it around. But maybe the seeds can be planted in the younger ones, who may be able to turn things much further.

JessieImproved

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #6 on: November 12, 2013, 06:53:39 PM »
Help the siblings as much as you can.  My sister lived in my basement for a few years, and my brother is still downstairs.  Parents are much harder to help, but getting all the kids set will go a long way.

mm1970

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #7 on: November 12, 2013, 07:06:15 PM »
I have a crazy family as well. Worse than girlfriend's. Prison, drug abuse, too many kids, etc. I know it may not be what you want to hear, but the two of you might want to started getting your heads wrapped around the idea that older brother may have had the right idea in running away. Help the family deal with their sinking ship, but only if you can do it without going down with them. That doesn't help anyone. Help, but set hard and fast boundaries and realize that you can't live another person's life for them.
From the story you've told, I'd say that mom is a write-off - you're not going to reach her. As nawhite suggests above, focus on being present in the kid's lives. Set a quiet example, and make sure they see it. If girlfriend could get out sane, there's hope for the rest of them.

I hate to say this, but I kind of agree.  If your gf is not willing to take in some of the older children permanently, I'm not sure there is anything you can do.  People need to WANT to change, and it doesn't sound like Mom will ever be there.

It makes me very sad.  I have a good friend who has four older daughters, has adopted one through foster care, and is adopting a second through foster care.  The biological family dynamics of the youngest would make my hair curl.  Sometimes the only thing you can do is remove the children from the situation.

HappierAtHome

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #8 on: November 12, 2013, 07:30:09 PM »
For context, I grew up in a damaging family environment, and saw some of my cousins grow up (and be completely destroyed by) even worse environments. So I know how hard it is not to get caught in trying to help people who aren't ready to change. A lot of what you have described is very, very familiar to me, and your girlfriend's mother sounds like a much more pleasant version of mine.

The advice around getting the kids involved in good programs (Big Brother / Big Sister, scouts etc) is very important. Those kids will find it very hard to function in 'normal' society later on if they don't start getting exposed to it now.

I'd also second the advice on unwanted pregnancy. Even better - hand out condoms to all the kids who are even possibly old enough to be thinking about sex. It sounds like I'm joking. I'm not.

For your girlfriend's sake, I'd be looking into counselling programs for her. Just because she's turned out great, doesn't mean she won't need help with the long term mental or emotional effects of growing up in this environment. The earlier she gets counselling, the better able she will be to live the happy life she deserves. Especially as she will undoubtedly be struggling with the ongoing poor choices of her mother and, sad to say, very likely the poor choices of some of her siblings as they get older.

And for both your sake, don't let her family know that you have any money. And now is the time to start talking with her about what kind of help you won't give her family. For example, I have discussed with the BF that I will not give financial help (whether "loans" or not) to any member of my family except my Dad, and I have a budgeted amount for my Dad that I will not go over in any given year. This helps to separate the family issues from the relationship between the two of you. You have to quarantine your happiness and financial stability. Pretend you have no money (this is advice I am still working on myself, but it's good advice nonetheless that I have received on this forum from wiser heads).

dadof4

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #9 on: November 12, 2013, 07:42:57 PM »
And for both your sake, don't let her family know that you have any money. And now is the time to start talking with her about what kind of help you won't give her family. For example, I have discussed with the BF that I will not give financial help (whether "loans" or not) to any member of my family except my Dad, and I have a budgeted amount for my Dad that I will not go over in any given year. This helps to separate the family issues from the relationship between the two of you. You have to quarantine your happiness and financial stability. Pretend you have no money (this is advice I am still working on myself, but it's good advice nonetheless that I have received on this forum from wiser heads).
+1000

These situations breed financial dependence, and will take you and the GF down if you're not careful. Make money a topic that shouldn't be discussed.
I've seen it destroy most of the relationships in DW's already dysfunctional family.

The only exception is help with education, and you should view it as a gift rather than a loan.

footenote

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #10 on: November 13, 2013, 06:21:20 AM »
This is a massive amount of dysfunction to battle. I agree that "vacations" and birth control offers for the teens are probably about as much as you can (and should) do. Your GF needs and deserves therapy. Congratulations to her for fighting her way out of that family to achieve normalcy, self-respect and financial sanity.

Anatidae V

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #11 on: November 13, 2013, 06:49:10 AM »
The pill is hormonal and can mess with your mood, but this is one of the rare situations I think giving a low dose one to any of the girls who have their period is a good idea. As for condoms, introduce them at age 10. That way if they have sex at 12 or 13 as some do at least they're aware of options.

citrine

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #12 on: November 13, 2013, 07:17:09 AM »
I agree...the Mom is unreachable now...she has to WANT to change and that does not seem to be the case.  I would focus on the kids, give your time not your money, and definitely get your girlfriend to therapy :) 
I grew up in a lot of dysfunction as well and the best thing I ever did was to leave the house, go to therapy, and now I can interact with my parents with boundaries.

galliver

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #13 on: November 13, 2013, 09:48:23 AM »
I'm not from a dysfunctional family, but I wanted to share something...when I was 12/13 and my sister was 4/5, we had a rough relationship. Lots of fights. And then one day my mom told me "You're her sister, not her parent. She wants you to act like it." It didn't sink in right away, but I think it started me on the path to change in our relationship. I realized that what I wanted to be was the sister both my sisters could come to when they didn't want to go to my parents. With anything. And that meant I couldn't be controlling, I couldn't be so focused on doing things 'right,' like when I was babysitting. I had to spoil them a little bit to build that trust...so we all ate dinner on the living room floor in front of the TV when I was in charge. I kept their secrets in solidarity (the little, childish things like who made the mess in the kitchen) or encouraged/helped with cleaning up their messes or mistakes. But I gradually stopped trying to order them around or yell at them (most of the time, I'm not perfect). 

What I'm trying to say is that unless she literally takes custody of one or more of the kids, your gf is still their sister, and you should both be wary of taking too much of a parental role. Make your house their refuge, where they can get real, but gentle help with their problems, encouragement to pursue their dreams. If you dole out too much tough love, you can scare them away...

Also, regarding the 14 yo, it wasn't really clear if she is turned off of learning or school...is homeschooling/independent study an option? Sitting at a computer all day and being confrontational isn't unusual for 14 yo (my youngest sister is 17 right now, so that's not too long ago) but if she won't go to school with police interference? Maybe there's a serious reason she doesn't want to...bullying? But maybe that doesn't mean she can't learn.  Just a suggestion.

the fixer

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #14 on: November 13, 2013, 06:20:18 PM »
My local NPR station just played this interesting story today about "power poses" and how they influence how seriously other people take us. http://kuow.org/post/power-posing-how-body-language-shapes-who-you-are

I think the mom learning leadership skills like this could help her, but whether or not she can learn this stuff is another question.

mm1970

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #15 on: November 13, 2013, 07:35:46 PM »
The pill is hormonal and can mess with your mood, but this is one of the rare situations I think giving a low dose one to any of the girls who have their period is a good idea. As for condoms, introduce them at age 10. That way if they have sex at 12 or 13 as some do at least they're aware of options.

I was on the pill for decades. Only now that I'm off am I incredibly moody.

MandyM

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #16 on: November 14, 2013, 07:16:01 AM »
All I really have to say is good luck. I think the other posts about birth control are spot on.

And not to be discouraging, but even when people say they want to change it can be exceptionally difficult. I was helping a friend that was way over her head in debt. I helped her set up a budget and even went as far as completely managing her money for an entire year. I made sure all her bills were paid on time, prioritized debt payments, started an emergency fund and gave her cash each week for gas, groceries, and extras (not much extra). This was all at her request, but there were constant battles. I still don't think she is able to think in the long term - it never sank in how all the little things add up.

Basically, I think you should focus any effort on helping the kids learn survival skills, being a good role model and somehow be at peace with your limitations. 

Christiana

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #17 on: November 14, 2013, 08:49:11 AM »
The best thing you can do is to model what a saner life looks like, and share some stories that relate Mustachian truths as you get the opportunity. 

The 12-year-olds might respond to hints that they can earn your respect by productive (and legal) work. 

I wonder if one of the 14-year-old's problems is hypoglycemia.  If regular therapy hasn't worked, maybe some alternative medicine thing would--by placebo effect, if nothing else. 

I'm skeptical that birth control pills or condoms can do more than delay unplanned pregnancies for less-responsible teens, since they require consistency and responsibility to be effective in the first place.








mahina

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #18 on: November 15, 2013, 02:30:34 AM »
please don't get sucked into the careening dramas in this household. you are not their caseworker. the job of your girlfriend and yourself is to make and maintain a healthy, satisfying life together. of course that includes family, but seeing her siblings individually or in pairs, away from their home, is a great gift to them. not only do they get a breather, but they get to see what a calm, easy-going relationship looks and feels like. relaxed activities together can be opportunities for conversations that may be helpful, but don't make your time together about fixing anything. just give them a view of the option of sanity. stay away from anyone who makes you feel weird or like your head might explode--just be way too busy. keeping a healthy distance is necessary for your girlfriend and you, and will also be a life plan for her siblings. that will be up to them, though.

totoro

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #19 on: November 15, 2013, 05:40:24 AM »
Can the middle children spend some weekends with you one or two at a time?  Maybe you can make it fun for them?  If they do this on a regular basis it could make a very big difference, and it might be a very good investment of your time in a lifelong relationship with them.  Just being outside the environment for a bit would be good for them imo and would give the mom a break from raising six kids in challenging circumstances.  Maybe you could do a vision board with each kid and help them focus on steps to get to where they want to be?   

I have no idea about what to do to help the mom change patterns that are not working but maybe you could sit down with the dad of the youngest two and ask if he can do a few things for them if you think it would make a difference for them.  I would stay away from financial stuff.  I would focus on programs that might help the younger two and any concerns about basic stuff like brushing teeth.




TwoWheels

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #20 on: November 18, 2013, 10:53:56 PM »
Thanks everyone for the thoughtful replies - it's great to get so much feedback. Trying to show the kids something different is great advice; my girlfriend and I are going to make a point to invite them over more often. Also, she's going to talk to her mom about establishing an emergency fund (it would be a great start!)

One thing I should have mentioned is that her mom is too proud to accept money from family members, let alone ask for it. Nonetheless, my girlfriend and I have differing attitudes here due to our very different backgrounds. She believes that one's responsibility is always to family first, and would give everything she had to help them. I'm ok with helping in dire situations but I also can't help but view it as pouring money into a black hole (i.e., a lack of money is just a symptom of the real problem). At this point in our relationship she understands and respects my perspective on money, but I do appreciate you guys bringing it up. It prompted a discussion about what we would do if they did end up coming to us for financial assistance.

Quote from: the fixer
She needs to learn that she is being emotionally manipulated by her kids, recognize when they are attempting to do this to her, and then ignore it.

I think she already knows that but for some reason she's not able to ignore it. I'm not sure whether that's something we can help her with, but it's worth a try...

Quote from: mm1970
If your gf is not willing to take in some of the older children permanently, I'm not sure there is anything you can do.

Well, she's considering postponing her career plans and moving near them to help out for a year or two. That would probably help a lot, but only she can decide whether it's worth it to make a sacrifice like that. I have mixed feelings.

Quote from: mahina
keeping a healthy distance is necessary for your girlfriend and you, and will also be a life plan for her siblings.

This is where it gets kind of tricky. My girlfriend is tremendously attached to her family and very emotionally invested in their situation. I think growing up in an environment of continuous hardship has given her a powerul feeling of solidarity with them.

Quote from: Ziggurat
the 14 yr old who has serious mental and emotional issues -- sounds a lot like major depression. If at all possible she should be seeing a psychiatrist and likely will need medication.

She definitely needs those things, but the problem is that she absolutely refuses to receive help. She's really the biggest problem - her mom is looking into having her somehow removed from the house, but I don't think there are any definite plans yet. It seems that while there are plenty of resources/programs for children who are being abused, there's not much you can legally do if the child is the one creating the problem.

Blegh.

rockstache

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Re: Need help with girlfriend's family situation
« Reply #21 on: November 19, 2013, 08:45:51 AM »
Quote from: mahina
keeping a healthy distance is necessary for your girlfriend and you, and will also be a life plan for her siblings.

This is where it gets kind of tricky. My girlfriend is tremendously attached to her family and very emotionally invested in their situation. I think growing up in an environment of continuous hardship has given her a powerul feeling of solidarity with them.


IMHO this is the biggest issue, and one that only counseling/serious introspection is going to be able to resolve. My family situation is not nearly as destructive as your gf's, but it was and is pretty complex in it's own right, with some definite negative things that I have had to learn to separate myself from. A big part of why I had to learn to do this is because of my spouse. Without him, I may have allowed my life to get sucked into the vortex that is my family, which I was ok with. Once I married him though, I wanted better for him, and eventually wanted better for myself too.

Your gf needs to figure out that A) she can't fix her family, and B) that she needs to set quantifiable financial and emotional limits on what she is willing to give to the situation (with your input - whatever those may be). Until then, IMO your relationship doesn't have much stability, because she is essentially choosing their needs over yours. My family is still really important to me, but if their needs are going to hurt my spouse in some way that he doesn't agree to (financially or otherwise), then I draw the line.

Best of luck to you, she sounds like a very caring person, and I hope that you are able to find a compromise together.