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Question

I have an adult son with a disability. He is college educated with many abilities, but his disabilities prove limiting in the work force. He is a very hard worker but is easily overwhelmed when under pressure. His wife (second marriage) has many abilities but mild handicaps as well. Their story/situation is too complicated to share. 

We are very grateful they have each other. Their challenges are the normal day to day challenges of any marriage coupled with the challenge of having disabilities. 

My question is how to help them keep their home in order without offending. My son has reached out to me for help. I have been his go-to his entire life. 

His disability includes spatial/organizational deficits and cerebral palsy. His first wife was an over the top housekeeper. This compensated for his deficit. His new wife has the ability to keep house, but was raised in a home where her father did most of the household chores and cooking on top of long hours at his job. Her mother is employed, bright, and well-groomed, but does not cook or clean up. My daughter-in-law expressed many times that she was going to break this cycle in her own home. Much easier said than done.

Gratefully, she has a job that gets her up and out. My son drives her to work (she doesn’t have a license), works part-time, goes to school (a trade school because he hasn’t been able to find employment with a BA degree — again because of his disability) and comes home to a disaster. He does all the laundry, cleaning to the best of his ability. When he asks for help she cries and says she’s “such a terrible wife” but doesn’t help. She is pregnant now (high risk) and will be on bed rest soon.

My son has asked for advice many times and wants me to come over when his wife is at work to help him clean up and organize their rooms (they live in a family member’s basement) so they have a fresh starting point to manage from. I have avoided going over to protect my daughter-in-law’s privacy and to not embarrass her.

But, they really need help and I’m willing. I would like to help her change this pattern. She is a good cook (when she cooks) and a kind and caring childcare provider. I’ve thought of hiring someone to go in periodically to help train and keep some order, but am worried at her reaction to that, too. Now they are having a baby. What can I do?

Answer

I think you’re wise to approach this situation carefully and respectfully. It’s critical to protect their young marriage from outside interference so they can build a stable foundation. I recognize that it’s a tricky transition, as your son (and daughter-in-law) have needed additional support and accommodations that able-bodied couples might not normally require. However, I do believe it’s important to err on the side of supporting their independence.

President Spencer W. Kimball reminded newlyweds that, “Your married life should become independent of her folks and his folks. You love them more than ever; you cherish their counsel; you appreciate their association; but you live your own lives, being governed by your decisions.”[i] I can tell that you agree with his counsel, as you’ve been cautious to not insert yourself too much in their situation. I encourage you to pull back and redirect your son’s frustrations back to his own wife.

He clearly has the ability to articulate his concerns and frustrations with you, so there’s no reason he can’t share these same needs with his wife. From what you’ve written, it appears that they’re both intelligent and aware enough to work through their struggles with each other. You don’t want to be the “go-to” for your son any longer. Let him know that this dynamic worked well when he was a dependent in your home and your support has been a significant resource to help him function independently. Remind him that he can rely on himself, his wife, and God to help him solve these challenges. And, if recruiting you for support is the right direction, then both of them can approach you in a spirit of unity.

As you’re redirecting your son, there’s nothing wrong with letting him know that you are willing to help if he and his wife would like to counsel with you about their needs. Just make sure that they’re the ones asking for the help instead of you secretly arranging something behind her back.

If you feel like the couple doesn’t have the cognitive or emotional abilities to work together on this, then offer to meet with both of them to have a loving and honest conversation about their limits and struggles so you and your husband can be a support to both of them. You might even consider inviting her parents to be a part of the support system so both of them know they have plenty of options.

While I don’t believe you’re intentionally controlling your son and his marriage, your overinvolvement might send a signal to your daughter-in-law that she’s a terrible wife. Even though you’ve held back and you’re not physically taking care of their home, your emotional involvement with your son’s concerns still put you right in the middle of their marriage. You’ll want to shift this dynamic as quickly as possible. Dr. Richard Miller, a family life professor at Brigham Young University, reinforced this principle when he taught: 

“Marrying and leaving the parents’ home requires a fundamental shift in the relationship between children and parents. While parents of young children have a divine mandate to supervise and discipline their children, it is not appropriate for parents to control their adult children. Instead, the hierarchy of supervision and control dissolves so that parents and their adult children are on equal footing.”[ii]

Your son and his wife are fortunate to have you on their side. You see the good in both of them and I can tell you want them to succeed. It’s hard to watch them struggle, especially as you’ve spent his entire life working to accommodate and support him. Let them struggle and work through this together so they can decide what’s going to be the best solution for their marriage.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity” and creates online relationship courses available on his website www.geoffsteurer.com. He hosts the Illuminate Podcast and has created the Loving Marriage educational vlog on YouTube with his wife. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc05gV4t9A0B8-TDT1EfWhQ?view_as=subscriber
Website: www.geoffsteurer.com 
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT
Instagram: @geoffsteurer


[i] “Oneness in Marriage,” Ensign, Oct. 2002, 45.

[ii] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2006/01/for-newlyweds-and-their-parents?lang=eng