Time to make some b-b-boundaries
July 2, 2012 8:30 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend and I are helping out a homeless couple and a homeless single girl-- how do I set boundaries and time limits without seeming pushy? When is enough enough? How do I truly help them? Lots and lots of details inside.

I’m in a bit of a sticky situation. I live with my boyfriend in a small 2 bedroom apartment—one room is ours and the other is an art room—a room that is helping make money by selling art (hence we need the space from a business standpoint). We’re both helpful people to anyone who needs help—we both believe that what “goes around comes around” and if we’re doing good things, those good things are coming back. So we do as much good as we can—perhaps him a little more than I.

But I wonder—when is enough?

Recently, my boyfriend brought a co-worker home from work. She had started working there a few days prior. She had called him in the middle of the night and told him she needed a ride. It turns out the guy she had been living with ditched her in the middle of the country and told her to not come back to his apartment. My boyfriend told her she could stay with us. She’s been super gracious/helpful and I’ve enjoyed her company… only now… she needs to get her stuff back from this guy’s apartment. We don’t have a lot of space. Also, her ex-boyfriend is calling her and telling her she needs to come get her 3-year-old son because he “doesn’t want to deal with him anymore”.

On top of it all, he had promised his friend weeks ago that him and his girlfriend could stay here for 2 weeks because they got kicked out of her parent’s house. We lived with him in the past and those “2 weeks” turned into a month—to nutshell a long story.

I tried having a conversation about setting boundaries with all of this going on last night and it went something like “Give him 2 weeks because I already promised that and give her 3 weeks to get an apartment”. He also told me that if I have a problem before that, I need to speak up and confront them about it because he’s perfectly fine with it.

So a few questions—first off, how do I handle confronting these people staying with us when I have an issue? I’m introverted so for me, it’s a lot to take in (not to mention I’m really bad with confrontation), even if we’re really helping these people out. Secondly, how do I set boundaries and help his co-worker out without being mean or making her feel like she’s putting us out? We don’t know her very well. I’m afraid this is going to turn into something long term because he doesn’t care to help out and I’m guilt tripped into accepting it. What now? Do I help them find apartments/manage money so that they don’t end up staying here longer or should I just kick them out after the allotted time and not care? I know he would accept it almost indefinitely. The co-worker has offered to help with rent. His friend however has not (and judging from the past living experience probably won’t).
posted by camylanded to Human Relations (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It sounds like his friend can handle being kicked out, and the coworker with the son might need a little compassion/help to get on her feet. Can you say to his friend "sorry, we don't have room for you because coworker is staying here for a few weeks?"

I think the friend situation sounds like they are just being lazy when it comes to supporting themselves, so I wouldn't feel too bad about not helping them out. But the coworker sounds like a genuine "in need" situation. So ya, I would start by telling the friend "sorry, no room for you here right now."
posted by katypickle at 8:38 AM on July 2, 2012 [10 favorites]

Setting time limits is completely appropriate; just communicate them now. Your boyfriend should get on board with you to present a united front, regardless of whether he has a problem with them staying long-term. The process isn't "you need to speak up and confront them about it," it's "you tell him and together you talk to them." It's your shared apartment, so it's your shared problem, so you work together. He doesn't get to make you play the role of the "bad guy" because you have perfectly normal boundaries about your home.

So to answer your questions:
1) Get your boyfriend to pull his own weight (especially since he's invited the situation into your apartment, it's not yours to deal with alone)
2) Set boundaries, communicate them clearly with your partner, ask how you can help them get on their feet. Kick them out when the time is up, not because you don't care but because it's not sustainable for you emotionally or financially, help them find resources if they ask, don't feel guilty for having reasonable and clearly-expressed needs.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 8:44 AM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

You pay rent in the apartment, correct? If so, you get as much a say as to who stays there and who doesn't. It sounds like your boyfriend is bringing home strays and not really running it past you.

It's awesome that you pitched in in a crisis, but after a couple of weeks, it's not a crisis anymore.

Your boyfriend extended the offer to these folks, and it's really his place to exert the boundaries. You don't need to let his mouth write a check that your ass has to cash, that's not fair.

For co-worker, she needs to find her own place, immediately. Let her know that you were happy to help out but adding her shit and her kid in the mix is where you draw the line. She can rent a storage unit, she can stay in a motel for a minute, or, better yet, she can take some of the money she's been saving up and rent an apartment for her and her son. Don't accept rent from her, she can put that money towards her own place. She needs to be arranging that, not you. Give a firm deadline and stick to it.

As for being mean, and not wanting her to feel that she's putting you out, you need to find a spine. This is your home, you don't know her from a bar of soap. OF COURSE she's putting you out. She's not a guest, she's a refugee. Why do you care what she thinks?

As for the couple kicked out fo the parents house. Again, give a firm deadline and stick to it.

I think you have an issue with your boyfriend. He's happy living stacked up like cord wood and he doesn't seem to care that you don't. That's kind of a deal breaker.

Why do you think it's okay for him to disregard your feelings on this subject? Why does he get his way, but you're the one with the problem.

It would be one thing if he could see your side of it, and be willing to work with you and your 'houseguests' but he doesn't seem to want to do that.

Perhaps its time for you to get your own place?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:45 AM on July 2, 2012 [9 favorites]

Do I understand that right, you currently live in a "small 2 bedroom appartment", of which one room is used for business, with FIVE people?! And you are the only person who has a problem with that? I can't imagine everyone else is really happy with that situation. Best thing to do - help them investigate other options and set a clear deadline. The co-worker, despite being "most in need" from the sound of it, is still more or less a stranger, so you shouldn't feel it's your duty to have her stay indefinately. And there are other options and ways to help people than basically turning your private and business space into a hotel.
posted by MinusCelsius at 8:46 AM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

if i'm reading this correctly, the coworker was kicked out of her own home while her 3 year old remained behind? if that's the case she needs to go to the police immediately. the law does not allow for people to be kicked out of their own homes in such a manner.

as for the other couple--no. they had their chance already. it sounds like they think they've already secured housing for their impending homelessness--your place.

otherwise, i'd just get out of there myself. my ex wife had these same tendencies of helping people out. it didn't end well for the marriage. if the partner isn't going to help you preserve your space then they don't understand your needs.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 8:46 AM on July 2, 2012 [12 favorites]

He also told me that if I have a problem before that, I need to speak up and confront them about it because he’s perfectly fine with it.

What? Set some boundaries with your boyfriend first. These are his guests, so he needs to confront them if you have concerns. Why? Because it's your living space too, and you are generously agreeing to host these people as a favor to him. It's not at all cool for him to abdicate his responsibility here and dismiss your concerns.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:46 AM on July 2, 2012 [21 favorites]

I tried having a conversation about setting boundaries with all of this going on last night and it went something like “Give him 2 weeks because I already promised that and give her 3 weeks to get an apartment”. He also told me that if I have a problem before that, I need to speak up and confront them about it because he’s perfectly fine with it.

If he promised the friends two weeks, he's right about that. Hold everyone to that. If it looks like they are not leaving, though, I don't think you need to be the one to confront them if all communication has been through him up to this point. You shouldn't have to be the bad guy all of a sudden.

Agree with Ruthless Bunny about the co-worker.
posted by BibiRose at 8:48 AM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is crazy. She hasn't made any move to get her son from her boyfriend's apartment on her own? She needs to be at a shelter because they have people who are trained to help her.

You're a nice person. You aren't Superman.
posted by discopolo at 8:49 AM on July 2, 2012 [23 favorites]

Well, EVERYONE here needs help with establishing boundaries. You need help establishing them with your boyfriend, and your boyfriend needs help in establishing them with your new boarders.

It's not wrong to tell someone with enough warning that they can't stay there forever and have to find alternative arrangements by such and such a date.

But did he promise these arrangements without consulting with you first? If so, that's beyond the pale. I couldn't live in a situation with such chaos and unpredictiblity. I value my privacy sometimes. It's okay for you to not be okay with that.
posted by inturnaround at 8:51 AM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you really want to be letting these people stay with you? This is a bit different -- a lot different, really -- from what would fall under the normal auspices of "I'm really helpful" for most people; this is running a small-time shelter. You don't know these people particularly well and both situations sound pretty dodgy. She's abandoned her three-year-old? To the care of a person who doesn't want to care for him? This is a situation where social workers are needed a lot more than a spare futon is.

You don't sound overwhelmingly comfortable with any of this, and I don't think anybody except your boyfriend would blame you. Set boundaries with the boyfriend about taking in strays...

The desire to help is thoroughly laudable, but it doesn't help anybody to let people with problems beyond your ability to help freeload. Part of being helpful is setting up your life so that you are able to provide meaningful help to good people in genuine need. Right now, if a close friend or family member was in trouble, you'd be too busy with these idiots your boyfriend collects to be able to offer much meaningful assistance; both the stress and the drains on your resources would mean you wouldn't be able to do much. Your boyfriend might be a well-intentioned guy but it sounds like he has a lot of maturing to do in this area.

How to Be a Help instead of a Nuisance: Practical Approaches to Giving Support, Service, and Encouragement to Others (on Amazon) does not directly approach couchsurfing acquaintances and it is a bit too heavy on meditative woo for my taste, but it is a good start for people who want to be, well, as the title says. Consider, too, that your boyfriend is not helping you to an extent that I think anything he says about generally wanting to be "helpful" is probably about an entirely different agenda. Which may be benign, but. If he is not helpful to somebody who is supposed to be a priority to him, how much good do you think he is really capable of doing?
posted by kmennie at 8:52 AM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

She left a toddler with an unrelated ex-boyfriend? Sorry, but that is a recipe for abuse. You need to be in contact with social workers at this point.
posted by melissam at 8:52 AM on July 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify:

Co-worker's son is with his dad (her ex-boyfriend)-- not with the guy who just kicked her out. The only thing that this guy who just kicked her out is her son's toys and bed and her clothing and whatever else.


We did talk about this. I agreed to letting her stay because she's been homeless off and on for a while now and no one is helping her out. I understand that-- that sucks and I hope someone would help me out if I were homeless.

I also agreed (weeks ago) to his friend staying. Just trying to figure out where to go from here.

I agree though, I need boundaries with my boyfriend and we should be united about this.
posted by camylanded at 8:56 AM on July 2, 2012

You've heard the saying that charity is not justice, right? You are providing charity, which is good, but what these people need is justice, which is better. They need their own space in which they can begin to flourish, as you need your own. With this in mind, start conversations with them about what they would want to do in a home of their own- how would they decorate, what are their priorities for a neighborhood, what kind of activities they would want in their own space. You might contact counselors at shelters that specialize in helping people in their situations, and helping them start to find new homes that live up to their dreams.
posted by pickypicky at 9:14 AM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

At what point do you say no? If a sibling and family came to you needing housing would you put them up too? You only have so many resources to give out. And you (personally, not "you" collectively including your boyfriend) are at the bottom of the list of people deserving your own resources.

You have assessed the various people needing help and decided that the co-worker is a bigger priority than the friends. They can longer come, they need to now find other housing. After the co-worker leaves (hopefully hookedup with genuine community services) you need to agree with your partner that there will not be any house guests (or promises extended for future housing) for six months. That time and space will allow you to recalibrate your boundaries; right now, reeling from one person's crisis to another person's crisis does not allow you the luxury to act in your own life, only react.
posted by saucysault at 9:37 AM on July 2, 2012

Do I help them find apartments/manage money so that they don’t end up staying here longer or should I just kick them out after the allotted time and not care?
I think, perhaps, a middle ground. You can make suggestions/have conversations/get them some contacts, and your boyfriend should too, but you are not responsible for fixing their life problems. If the allotted time comes and they still aren't out, you're going to have to re-address this with your boyfriend. It sounds like he either has more faith or less of a problem with this than you do, but you live there too, and your feelings should count.

Also, your coworker's son should not under any circumstances come to stay with you. He needs to stay with his father. Period. She should go retrieve child's belongings and take them to her ex but that's a situation you don't need to be involved in at all.
posted by sm1tten at 9:40 AM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

My best friend once told me this: "I don't mind helping people out if they are actively getting their shit together; what I object to is helping people who can't get their shit together since that is just a black hole that will suck away everything you have."

I really admire both you and your BF's efforts to help people - you both seem like great humanitarians. It sounds like the only issue here is distinguishing whether these people are bad decision-makers or just down on their luck.

In your shoes, I would set a hard deadline by which they have to move out. In exchange however, your boyfriend needs to have your back 100% and support you when it comes to enforcing the deadline and kicking your houseguests out. Going forward, you need to set rules for your boyfriend - inviting people to crash in your shared space for extended periods of time without getting your OK should be totally unacceptable. Unfortunately, it'll be highly problematic to get them out now so you might as well deal with it for a few weeks.

This is only a suggestion, but if you want to make this a real learning experience for your BF, maybe you might stop having sex with him while you have guests over. If he asks, just tell him you're uncomfortable doing anything sexual because of the lack of privacy. That ought to incentivize him to deal with his mess as swiftly as possible.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 9:46 AM on July 2, 2012

I'm not sure how much help this will be, but I'm pointing out some things that I've seen in similar cases and reasons that I would be cautious as to how to proceed:

• I do believe that it is great that you and your partner want to help other pple, but have you looked into other resources? A shelter? The rules that you need to qualify to stay there? My mother used to live in an apartment complex that had incidents like this (or worse). --She always helped these people, but she did so by getting them clothing or something for overnight if needed and drove them to a women's shelter. Now my mother knew the rules of the shelter over the years--but I would really look into this.If this friend has been homeless on and off for a while and has left her son somewhere, it suggests deeper problems...problems that may necessitate everything from psychological help to assistance from social workers. There are usually these resources in most communities for a reason. If you want to post your approximate location (or anonymize your post and provide a location), maybe someone can suggest resources in your community?

• Arguments between partners that reach the point of someone being thrown out or not allowed back. Although nothing that you have state indicates this (and this is not always the case), I've seen similar situations that were later shown to have everything from drugs, weapons, and/or threats vs. family and friends (some pple share this before you visit, some will tell you years later). Again, there is nothing that you have stated that indicates this, but if someone suddenly needs another place to stay....it may be a possibility.

I'm not quite sure why the onus is on you to put the limits here and open your place to potentially 4 other pple, with backgrounds that may suggest they need far more than a place to stay. I'd wonder about your safety and well being if your partner decides to go this route with a response of "you need to set the boundaries."
posted by Wolfster at 10:04 AM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Having that many people in one apartment may be violating your lease. You may want to read it over to make sure you don't get evicted over this.
posted by Slinga at 10:46 AM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

-This absolutely sounds like a lease violation!

- Please think seriously about leaving this lifestyle, and your current boyfriend, behind. There is A LOT of help you can provide folks that does not include helping people's problems to flourish and/or putting yourself at risk.

You have bigger problems than these current houseguests. This sort of dramaz isn't at all necessary for being a "good person," and there is definitely a point where this sort of thing just isn't fun anymore. I think you are at this point.

I hope you grow out of this, and into more mature and respectful situations. Staying with this guy is just going to get you more of the same, without improvement.

I think what I am trying to say here is: RUN.
posted by jbenben at 11:53 AM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

He also told me that if I have a problem before that, I need to speak up and confront them about it because he’s perfectly fine with it.


Translation: your boyfriend is happy to look like Lord Bountiful but make you do all the sacrificing and hard work. I would make setting boundaries with him your priority here, as if you give him one inch he is going to take advantage of you again, and again, and again. Your boundaries with guys like this need to be made of concrete.

He brought these people home without asking or telling you first, therefore he needs to set time limits and stay firm on how much he (emphasis on HE) can give them.

I would suggest that if you really love this guy and see yourself committed to him for life and having his children and all that stuff, that counseling would be a good idea. You don't want to be in a relationship where you're constantly being taken advantage of. If you're not madly in love with this guy and you don't see him as The One, you might want to reconsider the relationship. Are his good qualities worth it? In any case, you need to set iron boundaries with him.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:45 PM on July 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

110% agree that your boyfriend's behavior is not ok. His first responsibility is to you and your home. And telling you that, basically "you're on your own" is actually deeply un-generous of him and makes me suspect that this, for him, is more about looking like a good guy than being a good guy.

As for the other folks, one of the best things I've ever heard is that you should never do more for someone than they're willing to do for themselves. Do you feel like the people in this case are doing more to improve their own situations?

I have a lot of sympathy for the mom and would probably have a hard time kicking her out (as long as she's doing everything she can to get herself out of that situation), especially given that it sounds like her kid is in a bad, neglectful situation.* But the friends who are getting kicked out of their parents' place? They've already exhausted family members' generosity and I think it's totally ok to say, at that point, "sorry, we just don't have the room right now."

* Although I do wonder if you have the resources to give her the kind of help she needs right now. You say she's been homeless a bunch, which is not necessarily her fault, but I'm guessing she makes about the same amount as your BF, since they're coworkers, and he can afford half of a 2BR apartment. It sounds like her life is pretty chaotic and drama-filled, which, again, is not necessarily her fault, but not something you can solve, either. I agree with pickypicky that she needs something like justice, which in this case, means (probably psychological) help for the larger issues she's facing. The first step would be to get her in touch with a caseworker. I understand it can be scary to bring in social workers when children are involved, but depending on the state, most DSS departments are geared towards keeping kids with their parents whenever possible. She might actually want to start with agencies geared towards battered women, because being dropped abandoned in middle of nowhere is pretty harsh and makes me wonder if there was abuse going on.
posted by lunasol at 1:17 PM on July 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

I tend to side less against the boyfriend than some others, but whatever boundaries you and him agreed or agree on, he should be the one to enforce them.

Since you both agreed and promised that the friend could stay for two weeks, I don't think it would be decent to kick them out before that, but again, he has to make sure those two weeks don't turn into a longer stay. The co-worker seems to be in a desperate situation, aware that she causes an inconvenience but with nowhere else to go. I hope you and the boyfriend can agree on ways to help her enough that things don't turn more terrible for her. You're good for putting up with it in spite of being uncomfortable, and your uncomfortableness should be more of a headache for him than it appears to be.

jbenben: there is definitely a point where this sort of thing just isn't fun anymore. I think you are at this point ... I hope you grow out of this, and into more mature and respectful situations.

I disagree with this though. It's a mature thing to help people in their emergencies also when it isn't fun anymore, not something one should grow out of.
posted by springload at 4:23 PM on July 2, 2012

Yeah, I'm not in the DTMFA camp that some folks are (charitably, they may have had experiences that I haven't that have led them to be more cautious here), but your bf engaged in some passive douchebaggery about boundary setting, and needs to be reminded that as your partner, your needs are more important than those of any houseguest.

I mean, good on you for being awesome and helping people who need it. But it's reasonable to have limits and it's reasonable to insist that your boyfriend respect them and back you up.
posted by klangklangston at 4:47 PM on July 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your landlord is probably not going to be happy if s/he finds out about this. Most apartment leases have rules about how long random people can stay in your apartment without having signed a lease. That fact may be helpful to you in persuading your boyfriend to free the strays.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:37 PM on July 2, 2012

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