When Shalinda Garris's childhood friend Kenneth fell on hard times and found himself living in a men's shelter, she invited him to move into the small New York apartment she shares with her fiancé, Thomas Thibodeaux, and her teenage daughter until he got back on his feet. The last thing the 30-year-old advertising executive expected was that she might be jeopardizing her impending marriage. But after five long months, Kenneth is still sleeping on the engaged couple's living-room floor, and her fiancé has had it.
Thomas, 33, wants Kenneth to move out. But Shalinda doesn't feel as if she can ask her friend to leave because he's always been there for her over the course of their 21-year friendship, supporting her through an unplanned teenage pregnancy and a physically abusive relationship.
Thomas and Shalinda, who were getting along very well before Kenneth's arrival, now frequently argue over whether or not they should ask Kenneth to pack up his things and leave. Everyone has a breaking point. And Shalinda wonders if this will be Thomas's.
"When Kenneth moved into a shelter last year, he'd tell me stories about the crazy people who lived there, and how scared he was sleeping in a room full of strangers. We've been best friends since we were children. I couldn't bear seeing him live like that, and I invited him to stay with us.
"He earns next to nothing at his security job, so I told him he wouldn't have to pay any bills. I wanted him to save his money for the purpose of finding an apartment. I didn't expect him to spend all day lying around the house not looking for another job and blowing his money on cigarettes and beer. I thought it was understood that this would be a temporary solution.
"Thomas and I argue every night about when Kenneth is going to leave. Up to this point, we had our disagreements but never arguments like this. Now Thomas comes home pissed off just because Kenneth is here. He thinks I'm taking Kenneth's side, and he's right. I feel responsible for Kenneth because we've been friends for so long. He has always been there for me. I can't bring myself to kick him out-I know he needs me. I don't want to be the one to send Kenneth back to the shelter."
"I respect Kenneth and Shalinda's friendship, but he's overstayed his welcome in our home. I have friends that I've known since kindergarten. During a time of need I might offer one of them a place to stay. But unlike Shalinda, I'd give them a time limit.
"Kenneth doesn't contribute monetarily in any way-we cover rent, food and all the other bills. He's home all day but never thinks to wash the dishes or even take out the trash. Kenneth started out on our air mattress, but it doesn't even fill up anymore because he's used it too much. He seems to survive on cigarettes, beer and TV.
"I work seven days a week at my management company. When I come home, I want to relax with the family, but it's nearly impossible with Kenneth around. I can't avoid him or the unbearable odor of his smelly feet. His presence has even started to affect our sex life because we're afraid he might hear us in the other room. I'm tired of walking on eggshells.
"Shalinda doesn't like confrontation. She ignores problems and hopes they'll go away. She worries that he'll end up back in the shelter, but he can take care of himself. I think he'll end up in someone else's living room until they kick him out, too."
AN EXPERT'S OPINION
By Dr. Grace Cornish-Livingstone
There are boundaries in every relationship that shouldn't be crossed-putting the needs of a friend over your partner is one. By sending Thomas a message that Kenneth's pain is more important than their future as a couple, Shalinda is driving her fiancé away. Here's how they can mend their relationship and Shalinda can keep her friendship intact:
Recognize the real problem. The current setup is not a good foundation for Shalinda and Thomas to build their life together. She must acknowledge the pain she's causing, stop making excuses, and choose to do something about it.
Help the right way. Shalinda is doing Kenneth a disservice by allowing him to hide from the real world in her apartment. Together, the couple should confront him with a time frame in which he needs to find another place to stay. Shalinda can further help by researching support programs for Kenneth, like Volunteers of America and Project Renewal, or by finding rooms for rent instead of apartments.
Revive the relationship. Kenneth's presence has driven a wedge between the couple. They should take a long weekend away to recapture the romance. During this time they can talk about their future and get their plans for marriage back on track.
Set boundaries. In the future, Thomas and Shalinda need to make steadfast rules when it comes to major decisions that will affect their family life. By agreeing on issues in advance, they'll be more united later.
Dr. Grace Cornish-Livingstone is a social psychologist and author of 10 Bad Choices That Ruin Black Women's Lives and You Deserve a Healthy Love, Sis! (Three Rivers Press).
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