Financial conflicts between college student and ex-spouse

I was divorced about 14 years ago and I have one child, age 19. When it was time to start looking at colleges, his father, who has held an executive position for many years, announced that he had “no money” for college. He flatly refused to help. Our son was admitted to a university abroad with a tuition scholarship. He was planning to fund his living expenses with my help and a loan, split 50/50. 

Then, his father announced that he was coming to visit. Our son confronted him with the fact that international travel is quite expensive and if he has the money to do that, then he could help with college costs. After some drama, his father agreed to pay half of our son’s costs of living, which is quite low compared to what it would be in the U.S.

The problem is, they get in arguments about this every month where Dad foot-drags, complains, makes angry (and sometimes strange) accusations, and sends the wrong amount. Our son’s stress level spikes every month when his monthly payments are due and I am starting to worry about his mental health.

Also, this pattern is long-standing with his father. He did the same thing with child support. My son is asking me for help managing this conflict but I do not know what to tell him. I ended up getting a court order for child support and having payments managed by the county.

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Ugh, I am sorry for both you and your son. I would be honest with your son (if you have been shielding him thus far) and let him know you had to get a court order for basic child support, so obviously you have no influence over his father to convince him to... be a responsible father. Maybe help your son develop a basic budget that doesn't rely on his father's contribution, so if his dad comes through with anything, it's like a bonus for extras (which I know, it shouldn't be).

Clearly, your ex likes to pick fights. This is common narcissistic behavior. You may want to read about narcissists. 

I see several ways to deal with this, none ideal. One, just refuse to fight with him. When he makes an excuse, just say ok, I'll manage. It may be that he will send the money whether your son begs or not. Or, he may require the begging to send the money. Two, accept that the fight is part of the deal, and try to not get emotionally involved while arguing. Difficult, I know. Try to limit time and place. And try meditating. It helps.  And then three. Apparently he wants to see his son. This is his only bargaining chip. He can use this to his advantage. This must be a rule he can put in place that he can enforce without argument. But the idea is that either the ex sends the agreed upon amount of money on time without argument or he sees less of his son. The exact terms depend on how often your ex likes to visit.

Narcissists love to use their power to get their family riled up. So breathe and stay calm. Don't allow him to control your emotions. He will never quit trying. But you both will feel better if he is not successful in his efforts. 

It's hard to know how to be helpful but starting with empathy and then naming some uncomfortable truths or lessons might be. It was very hurtful for your son when his father refused to pay for college initially. I imagine--though you didn't imply this--that your son's father was absent in some other important ways in his life. Allowing your son the space to sit with this re-injury without jumping over his own feelings and going straight to getting your help might be useful for him, if hard. 

What he stands to learn: People, including parents, have a right to make their own decisions about how they spend their time and money--unless, of course, the law compiles them otherwise. Your son is now 18. He is now responsible for his own expenses--a knowledge that can be hard to grapple with at 18, but one that is necessary to understand in the adulting process.

Some parents can offer to share the financial burden of college or other training. Others either cannot afford to do so or don't choose to do so. When we try to compel others to do something they don't want to do, there is often a hidden cost. They may end up resenting us, sabotaging what they agreed to by not fully showing up, or even changing their minds altogether. When your son used the argument that traveling in Europe meant that his father had enough money to help him pay for college, he ran the risk we all run in such moments when we try to address old wounds like this. We risk re-injury. We are rarely on solid ground when we try to compel others, and this is an important life lesson. 

Your original plan did not include support from your son's father. It was really a healthy and wise plan, and it makes sense to implement that it as soon as possible.

Rather than stepping in and trying to rescue your son or throw your weight around, it is now time for your son to contend with his own relationship with his dad. How can you support him? Validate how hard the situation is and set your own reasonable and loving boundaries: "It really does suck that your Dad foot drags and keeps reneging on his agreement in one way or another. I know it's both hurtful and causes a lot of uncertainty for you. I would feel the same way. Here's what I can do: I'm willing to go back to Plan A with you--to help you get a loan for the other half of your college expenses. What I'm not available for is getting involved with your Dad over financial issues like this. That won't work for me--it's not a battle I can take on. I am happy to sit with you and help while you get the loan application process going. Why don't we make a date to start that after finals....?"

Be prepared for your son to get angry with YOU for holding a limit like this. He may need to be mad at you for a while. Have faith that your son is capable of learning valuable lessons here. Your ability to sit with your son's discomfort and your own will be good modeling. If he was willing to push his dad this hard, he may be willing to push you hard as well. Keep your feet on the ground and your heart open. The truth is that nobody owes us anything in life after we're 18 years old. Anything we get is a gift. And the sooner we learn this lesson and start the slow process of owning our own lives, the more at peace we will be. Try not to protect your son from the lesson he needs to learn. Just be at his side.


What a crappy situation. This isn’t a true solution, but it would at least limit the drama to do it quarterly or once a semester. Monthly sounds like a hassle even if dad wasn’t being such an ass. 

There is nothing you can do other than provide wise council and emotional support--like you would for all difficult issues your son faces. Specifically to this, it's best if you stay out and let the two work it out. You ought not to fix it or broker something better. Here's what I learned from a very wise therapist. . . the sooner your son learns exactly who his dad is, the sooner your son will recover from this and move into adulthood with a realistic idea of his dad instead of fantasy idea of his dad. Here's what work best for my son--he stopped depending on dad and walked away. Figured out how to pay for college on his own by attending less expensive schools and working as a tutor. Completely changed the power dynamic and reduced the stress of trying to depend on an undependable person. Consequently, any funds provided were helpful, but not needed.

This brings up memories.  My dad was not quite as bad but was similar. Money was a form of control.  When I started college he sent me money but made it contingent on certain behaviors.  Without getting into the weeds, I told him to keep his money.  We were estranged for 5 years.  It took him having a heart attack, among other life crises, to wake up and be a human being. Yes, your son can walk away, but don't think it doesn't leave scars. Poor kid.