BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My 42-year-old daughter has never been married but has had relationships with men and women. She’s now involved with a married man who’s left his wife and is supposedly getting a divorce and doesn’t want children.

He seems nice enough, but my daughter has told her father and he’s told me that her boyfriend won’t discuss the divorce with her. My daughter is having a good time but knows that the relationship is going nowhere. I can’t believe she’s content with so little when she claims she wants to be married and to have children.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why she’s with this guy. I’ve told my husband that I don’t want to entertain them together. I don’t approve of the relationship, and I don’t think it’s good for my daughter. I feel she is not thinking clearly and is not valuing herself. My husband says “It’s her life.” And, of course, it is. But my fear is that she’ll end up with nothing—no relationship, no children, no home. I’m worried and angry.

I’d love your advice or suggestions.

Anonymous
Olympia, Washington


Dear Anonymous,

One of the hardest aspects of being a parent is recognizing that your children are their own people, and that no matter how differently you see things—or how much you want to protect them—they get to make life choices of their own. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t share your perspective in a respectful way, but to do that, you’ll first have to get curious about your daughter’s desires, separate from what you believe they should be.

You say a lot about your daughter’s state of mind—that she wants marriage and children; that she’s having a good time in this relationship; that she “knows the relationship is going nowhere.” It’s not clear to me, though, whether she’s shared these thoughts directly with you or—like the information about her boyfriend not discussing his divorce with her—they’re coming to you secondhand (or are simply your assumptions).

Right now, your proposed strategy for communicating your concern and love for your daughter is through punitive action (boycotting her boyfriend). Sometimes when parents feel powerless, they resort to what’s essentially a hostage-taking situation. Until you do as I wish, I will withhold something important to you. But these tactics rarely work, nor are they “good for” your daughter.

You may not like this situation, but you love your daughter, and punishing her isn’t a way to show your love. Instead, it shows a need to exert control, to erase her personhood from the equation. You can’t love someone by erasing her personhood. And the more you erase her by insisting that she see her relationship the way you do, the less receptive she’ll be—not just to your thoughts, but also to you more generally. If you’re worried about your daughter losing a particular future because of this relationship, consider that you may lose a future with your daughter because of the way you handle this situation.

So let’s consider another way of addressing this issue between you and your daughter—because that’s really what your letter is about. You say that you can’t understand why she’s with this guy, but have you tried—in a sincere way—to understand? There’s a difference between an anxious “What are you doing with this guy?,” which will put her in the position of defending herself, and a genuine conversation that comes from an open-minded place of wanting to learn more about her inner world.

What she tells you may be hard to hear. Perhaps in an ideal world, she would love to have children, but she may feel that that is not a likely path for her right now. Even if she were to break up with her boyfriend tomorrow, she’d have to meet someone new very quickly, a prospect that’s full of uncertainty. She might not connect strongly with anyone for a long while (the dating pool is more limited at midlife, given how many people are married by then), or she could go through a series of short relationships that don’t work out—all while her fertility timeline shortens. If she eventually meets and falls in love with a younger woman, that may buy her time—and, of course, she can try to adopt children if she ends up with a same-age or older partner. But if she wants to parent with a partner whom she has yet to meet and then get to know well enough to spend her life with, she might be doing the math in her head and coming to the conclusion that having an infant at, say, 50 years old doesn’t appeal to her—especially when she’s currently with a man she loves. Consider, too, that in many people’s minds (including, perhaps, your daughter’s) there are a lot of ways life can work out that fall between having “nothing” and being married with children.

People make all kinds of very personal compromises to be with a person they love—they move to cities that aren’t their favorite; they inherit stepchildren they may struggle with or in-laws who drive them crazy; they live with the fact that their partner travels for work a great deal and often has to miss birthdays or holidays. And sometimes a person makes peace with not having kids if she falls in love with someone who doesn’t want them.

Now, that’s a different scenario from staying with a partner who truly isn’t right for her because she fears not meeting anyone else. Healthy relationships require open communication, and you have reason to wonder about her boyfriend’s refusal to discuss his divorce with your daughter. I say “wonder” because you don’t have enough context to fully understand this one piece of secondhand information. For example, he may be hiding something from her or avoiding commitment, but it’s also possible that he won’t discuss the divorce because of the way your daughter interacts with him about it. Maybe she doesn’t understand what he’s going through emotionally (his grief or sadness or anger) as he ends his marriage and he feels criticized rather than supported when he brings up the divorce. Maybe she demands that he say or do certain things when communicating with his wife, thus overstepping her role in the dissolution of their marriage. Maybe she insists on telling him what he should be getting in their divorce settlement or demonizes his wife whenever the topic of the divorce comes up. In other words, she may have trouble hearing him agenda-free, the way you may struggle to hear your daughter agenda-free—and that may be why he doesn’t talk to her about it.

You won’t really know what’s going on in this relationship until you’re ready to listen, without interjecting “Yes, I know, but what about…” You might want to start by asking her to tell you about what she likes about her partner, and some of the fun they have together. Let her know that you relate to how much better life seems when you go to sleep at night next to someone you love—and that she must really value having that in her life right now. Ask her about the good things in the relationship and delight in her joy, because her joy is as real as your concern. If you make room between the two of you for a more balanced view of the relationship, both of you may be better able to tolerate the nuances of your relationships that feel so threatening to each of you right now (for you, her happiness with her boyfriend; for her, your worries about him).

Sometimes when people are given the opportunity to talk openly in a safe and trusting context, they hear themselves more clearly, and they feel that an emotional burden they have been carrying alone has lifted. Once she realizes that you’re really there to understand and listen, you might at some point—perhaps in this conversation, or likely in another—say something like “I wonder what it’s like for you, not knowing what’s going on with the divorce. How are you feeling about that?” She may justify what her boyfriend is doing with whatever line of reasoning he gave her, or she may acknowledge that she finds this dynamic challenging or anxiety-provoking. Again: Just listen. The more you listen, the more inclined she’ll be to share with you—and more important, the more she’ll be able to hear herself.

I have no way of knowing from your letter whether this is a doomed relationship, but if it is, consider this: Most people who leave dead-end relationships do so not because somebody told them to—a parent, a close friend, a therapist—but because they were given the conditions in which to see their situation in all its complexity. The most powerful truths—the ones people take the most seriously—are those they come to, little by little, on their own. With some helpful facilitation, your daughter will make the decision that feels right for her.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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