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I recently divorced after 30 years of marriage. I stayed ten years after the marriage no longer existed (we lived as housemates only) until the day my youngest child left the house permanently, because I didn’t want to put my children through what I knew would be (and was) a horrifying divorce.
Now, my youngest daughter is involved in a serious relationship with a man who is much like her father (he has a significant narcissistic injury), and it is so painful for me to watch. I protected both of my children from the worst of their father’s behavior by going along to get along whenever possible.
I see my daughter trying to manage her boyfriend, make excuses for him and take care of him in the same way I managed her father. She and her boyfriend just moved in together and I believe are planning to get engaged soon. I have encouraged her to get some therapy for all she has been through, but she doesn’t want to.
So I need some advice about whether to, and how to, share my observations with my daughter. I know it will likely have no impact on her choice to marry him, and I would also tell her I will fully support and embrace her and her marriage, as I have her relationship with him, should she marry him. She and I have a good relationship and I don’t want to alienate her. I want to do the right thing, and I don’t know if the right thing is to just love her and let her make her own mistakes, or share my thoughts and my own learning with her, even when it is about her father. I fully support her relationship with her father, and have told her almost nothing about our marriage or why I left him, although he has told her horrible things about me that are not true.
I would be grateful for any advice you could offer.
Don’t Make the Same Mistake
What a tough call. You want to support your daughter. You recognize that she’s an adult and has to make her own decisions, for good or ill. But you can see that she may be making a big mistake, one you recognize all too well. There are good arguments for both sides here — remaining silent versus offering counsel. So there’s no “right” decision; there’s just the one you make and the fallout.
If you read this column even occasionally, you know my bias is toward saying something, because muzzling our true feelings is almost always a recipe for disaster.
Before I speak to how you might broach this with your daughter, it’s worth acknowledging the unfortunate irony here. Which is that you’ve already communicated a good deal to your daughter about relationships, simply through your actions. You chose to stay in an unhappy union with a “narcissistically injured” man for at least a decade more than you should have. I don’t point this out to be cruel, but simply because it explains why you feel so obligated to save your daughter from what you see could be a similar fate.
I understand the reasons you stayed with your husband. And I understand that you don’t want to criticize your ex, by way of offering guidance to your daughter. But if you want to be completely honest with your daughter, what you’d really be saying to her is, “Don’t make the same mistake I did.” And that’s going to be tough for her to hear, both in relation to your esteem for her boyfriend, and your ex.
The best way to initiate a conversations is to focus on what you’ve learned from your own experiences, rather than framing her boyfriend, or your ex, as “the problem.” I’d try a tack more like this: “I know you and your boyfriend are getting more seriously involved, and as I see this I feel a responsibility to tell you a bit more about my experience in marriage. I’m concerned that I may have modeled behavior that was unhealthy…”
This means you have to speak more candidly about your marital experience. But the emphasis should be on your own behaviors and insights, the ways in which you failed to listen to your gut, stuck around too long, and screened your kids from your husband’s more disturbing behaviors.
Finally, I would not approach this conversation with the hope or expectation that your daughter will break up with her boyfriend, or get into therapy, or anything else. I think you need to tell her about your experiences simply because you love her and because she deserves the benefit of your experiences, however she chooses to take them.
Author's note: This is one of those questions that is so delicate. I’m not sure I haven’t mucked it up. Something tells me that the readers of this column will let me know. Send along your own feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. Also: Please send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven't, via email. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.
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