From the August 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

August 1, 2003

Coming Home

There's no place like home, which may be why so many of us end up going back. Here are ways to cope with homecoming

There aren't many phrases in the English language that are as soothing as "coming home." It says safety, shelter, comfort. It's the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Coming home to yourself means finding your true nature.

Unfortunately, homecomings are often fraught with challenge and conflict, sometimes made all the more painful by our high expectations. Here are a few situations of this kind, and ideas on how to manage them creatively.

After graduating from college, our son moved back in with us. I thought I'd be thrilled to have him at home, since I missed him like crazy when he was halfway across the country. However, my husband and I feel he's beginning to intrude upon our life together. As he continues his slow job search, we're debating how long to allow him to live with us and whether to charge him rent. I pride myself on being a take-charge advisor, but I'm at a loss on this. Isn't it ironic that parents are sad when their kids leave home, but conflicted when they return? Ironic, yes, but also natural, so don't waste any time feeling guilty.

I'd suggest that the two of you sit down with your son and talk honestly about your complex feelings. Does he feel embarrassed by having had to return home, or is he perfectly fine with being taken care of again? Tell him how glad you are to be seeing him more often, but also tell him how you have just begun to get used to living by yourselves.

Next, I would spell out the expectations you have for him. This should include what chores he is responsible for while living at home, how long you are willing to allow this living arrangement, and at what point you will start charging him rent.

Even if you choose to waive the rent to help him save money, it would be a good idea to decide on a mutually agreeable time limit for his stay. You don't want to encourage him to collapse, veg out, or regress to being a kid happily sheltered under your nurturing wing. Your son needs to develop the ability to fly on his own, and gently but persistently nudging him out of the nest will be the healthiest move for him and for you.

A military officer who has just returned from the war in Iraq consulted me yesterday to review his financial situation. I sensed that there was a lot of tension with his wife. He says she's constantly nagging him to do more work around the house, and often goes out with her girlfriends. I'd like to work with him, but I wonder if he's headed for a divorce. What's your take on this? I'd begin by meeting him where he is now. If you try to skirt his marital strain to talk about money matters, he'll probably zone out and not hear a word you say.

Reassure him that this kind of stressful reentry to a relationship is very common. In fact, it's much more the norm than the exception. Remind him that his spouse had to do a lot of emotional work to adjust to his being gone. Once she did, it's natural that she would hold onto her newfound sense of autonomy. Now that he's home, she has to struggle with making space to welcome him back wholeheartedly into her life. If there was tension between them before he left, his absence may well have widened the rift.

You can also empathize with what I imagine is his post-war exhaustion. Needing to replenish body and soul after whatever he went through overseas, he might find it hard to do enough work around the house to please his wife. I would encourage him to consider the possibility of couples counseling, at least for a limited time, so that both he and his wife can have a safe place to air their feelings and negotiate how they will live together in harmony.

Once you have given him compassionate feedback and concrete suggestions about where to turn for help, you may then be able to steer his attention back to the financial arena and make recommendations that he can listen to and act upon.

My 80-year-old mother-in-law moved in with us a couple of months ago, and it's really starting to get on my nerves. My kids like having Grandma around, and my wife seems fine with this arrangement (although she's become rather short-tempered with me lately). But I don't feel at home in my own house anymore. What can I do? Few things are more difficult than trying to maintain harmony in your life amid the tremendous stress of an elderly parent moving in, with all their limitations, foibles, and eccentricities.

I suspect that your wife is less happy with this situation than you think, and that's why her irritability is leaking out at you. It would be a good idea for you both to schedule "dates" together out of the house, even if you have to pay for help with your mother-in-law, so you can rekindle your relationship away from these multigenerational pressures.

If your dates turn out to be bitching sessions that leave you both feeling defensive and hurt, it's time to seek therapeutic help. You might start by finding out if your company or spiritual community offers counseling services.

Remember, asking for help doesn't mean there's anything "wrong" with either of you. Almost all couples experience this type of disconnection when a parent moves in for an indeterminate length of time. A trained pastor or therapist can help inspire the creative brainstorming that is often needed to close the distance between the two spouses.

My wife wants to move back home to Texas, where she has many relatives. When we lived there before, her family's closeness felt stifling to me, and I was relieved when we moved away five years ago so I could take a job with a large planning firm. How can I resolve this stalemate with her? The ideal solution would be to find a place where both of you can be happy. But when couples are struggling with different priorities around work, home, and family, it is often impossible to come up with a win-win solution. After considering all the options, one of you may have to give ground so that sacrifices and tradeoffs are shared equally in your relationship.

In this case, it sounds as if you've been contented and productive since the move away from Texas. Has your wife's happiness been seriously compromised during this time? If she has felt miserable being far from her family and her hometown, it may be time for you to bite the bullet and move back (or at least nearer to it than you are now).

This won't be easy. But if you share the reason for your misgivings with her, she may be able to help you work out ways to maintain the space you need amid her family's overwhelming closeness. I wish you luck managing this dance of differing priorities.

I just moved back to the town where my ex-wife and two teenage children still live. The upside is that I can see my son and daughter more often. I enjoy spoiling them a little to make up for all the time I missed. But my ex complains that I'm spending too much money on them and undermining her attempts to set limits. What should I do? Step aside a moment and take your own emotional temperature about moving back to this town. Does it feel like you've progressed, or regressed? Is this move comforting, or saddening? If you have any negative feelings about returning, it may mean that you need to find new people to socialize with or new activities you can take up to revitalize your life. This is particularly true if your interests seem to revolve mainly around your children.

Under the circumstances, it's certainly understandable if you are indulging your daughter and son by buying them expensive gifts and disregarding their mother's rules. However, it's confusing for children to have one parent set limits while the other is engaged in breaking them. It gives the kids an opportunity to play each parent off against the other, and to manipulate you to spend more and more on them.

So I would suggest that you moderate this overgiving, even though it's an expression of your love (and perhaps your regret for the breakup). Instead, show them how much you care by planning quality time with them.

There's another priceless gift you can give your kids: a harmonious relationship between you and their mother. Have you had a relaxed talk with her about what they need and expect? Listen carefully to her views, and see if you can move closer to what she would prefer. A "good divorce" between two parents who want what's best for the children often yields young adults who have the internal reserves to thrive on their own.

Coming home can take many forms, some of them laden with emotional baggage and built-in conflict. The best way to deal with this challenge is to analyze the feelings that arise in a charged situation, figure out how to capitalize on the positive aspects of homecoming, and create enough novelty in activities or social connection to reduce any feelings of regression or claustrophobia.

Thomas Wolfe famously said, "You can never go home again." Well, you can, and sometimes you have to. Just remember not to assume that returning will be either a blessing or a curse. Instead, take the time to explore it--whether in yourself and with your clients--with curiosity and sensitivity. In this way, you can help assure that coming home will bear the best possible results for all concerned.

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