Dear Captain Awkward,
I know this is a really long post but I hope you read it through. I really need your advice regarding a situation with my daughter. A little background….about 2 years ago, my son at age 20 had an emotional breakdown and thought he was gay. The next 6 months were spent with him finally admitting it and with us dealing with the shock, disappointment, loss of our idea of what we’d envisioned for him and acceptance of the situation. My son is now in a relationship with someone who is smart, ambitious, caring and comes from a good family.
About 3 months after my son finally admitted he was gay, my daughter, who was 22, called me up and told me she was in a relationship with another girl. Needless to say, this was another shock and I couldn’t understand how this was possible for her. She had always been boy crazy, had fallen in love and been devastated when those relationships broke up. She said she wasn’t lesbian but was sexually fluid. The peace I felt with my son was because I came to believe that you don’t choose your sexuality, it’s something you’re born with and it made no sense to me that she would choose this. She seemed surprised at how upset I was and thought I would be fine with it since I was so open minded and yet she knew what I had gone through to deal with my son. I know that our acceptance of our son was hindered by her relationship – I don’t know if you can understand what a parent goes through when their child admits he/she is gay but when it’s both children…..
I was very vocal with my daughter about her relationship which probably wasn’t wise but I wasn’t thinking clearly in this situation. I told her I couldn’t accept it because I felt it was wrong for her. I felt she’d been manipulated by her partner(let’s call her B). B had been in a committed relationship when my daughter befriended them. According to my daughter, B’s partner had been caring and loving and would do anything for B but when her partner’s schedule became too busy, B couldn’t handle it and broke up the relationship. Since she had nowhere else to go, my daughter, feeling bad for B, agreed to let her sleep on the couch in our apartment at college(both my son and daughter shared a condo we own). This went on for a couple of months until graduation since apparently B’s parents are totally unsupportive and abusive and her mom is an alcoholic who checks in and out of rehab. B told my daughter later that she’d broken up because she’d fallen in love with my daughter. My daughter had just come out of a failed relationship and I feel certain that the only reason she got into the new relationship was that she was vulnerable and B took advantage of her when she needed a friend.
For the next 6 months, I basically didn’t talk to my daughter about the relationship although I was still supportive of her in other ways. She was moving across the country to attend law school and we went there to help her look for an apartment, helped her financially and generally tried to make things good for her. We suggested she find a roommate since we thought she would get lonely living by herself but she was adamant that she wanted to live by herself. Unknown to us, she and B(who’d taken a teaching job in the area) moved in together. My daughter would call and be upset and depressed. She kept saying she didn’t have any friends. She sounded so miserable and I told her she should go see a therapist to help her with understanding why she felt so depressed and down. I was worried about her mental state. I’ve always felt that she’s a strong, capable person who is a great friend. She’s smart, funny, caring, loving and ambitious and yet she sounded the opposite on the phone.
She began seeing the therapist and yet nothing changed. Until she called me one day, sobbing and saying she didn’t want to live anymore. She had been having problems with B who had gone out partying with her friends until 4 am for the past couple of weekends. My daughter’s final law school exams were in 2 days and she hadn’t studied. Couldn’t get out of bed, was crying all the time. She was afraid they were breaking up and she didn’t think she could live without her. B decided she wasn’t having fun with my daughter and since she hated her life and her work, she deserved to party with her friends and was going out of town that weekend. She stopped responding to texts and phone calls and my daughter would be texting constantly. My daughter finally told her that if B left , she couldn’t come back and that’s because I was going to be there. I flew across the country to be with my daughter and that’s when I found out that they had been living together. I stayed with her throughout the next couple of weeks, supporting her through her exams, packing her up for the summer and moving her out of the apartment. When I asked my daughter what she criticized B about, I found out that B was broke financially – had thousands of dollars in unpaid parking tickets on top of other debt, had a weed problem, had serious anger issues and would break things and yell when angry. She’d apparently left my daughter a number of times and only came back when my daughter apologized and coaxed her back. She blames everyone else for her problems including her parents who she says are totally unsupportive.
My daughter says the reason she’s having problems with her relationship is because she needs our approval and the fact that we don’t approve is what’s causing her to be critical of B. I don’t think that’s true. I’m sure a small part has to do with wanting our approval but I believe that there are too many other issues that are destructive. Nothing I’ve learned about B has made me feel that a relationship with her would be good for my daughter.
Here’s what I see….since they’re living in different cities, they don’t see each other. There are times when my daughter realizes that they need to break up and when she does, B says she’s going to kill herself and my daughter ends up calling a helpline or getting in touch with B’s mother. This has happened a couple of times. When my daughter stops communicating with B, she’s much happier. Her attitude improves slowly but I can hear the difference in her voice. But then B will send an apologetic email that says how much she loves my daughter and will change and seek therapy etc and be nice and kind and my daughter will start again – debating whether to break up or not and be miserable and can’t get out of bed.
This past weekend, my daughter finally broke it off for good, and there was such a positive change in her outlook. She was happier and felt more hope for her future – it lasted 2 days before B texted and emailed to say her parents were planning to institutionalize her in a terrible place and wouldn’t come to visit her. She was apparently screaming and crying because of the breakup and her parents didn’t know what to do. Of course my daughter became depressed and worried again. We finally blocked her text and phone(with her knowledge) and that’s when the mother sent my daughter an abusive email. Its finally ended up that B is now seeing a therapist instead of going to the institution and is emailing my daughter showing real progress in her attitude. She has asked my daughter to continue the relationship and she would work on her problems because she thinks they’re meant to be with each other. My daughter is now depressed again, crying, can’t get out of bed etc because she thinks she’d be making a mistake by breaking up especially since she’s seen B working positively with the therapist. She’s afraid that no one will love her like B and she’s afraid she won’t love anyone else like she loves B. She says she doesn’t enjoy anyone else’s company and doesn’t have fun with anyone else. She’s gained weight and doesn’t feel good about herself. She’s also afraid that if they break up, B will move forward and live a happy life and be a great partner to someone else while she’ll still be miserable, sad and depressed and will regret breaking up.
I’ve always told my daughter that she needs to learn to be with herself. She’s gone from one relationship to another and has never learned to like her own company. She’s lonely ALL the time and is not confident in her ability to deal with things. I’ve told her not to get into any relationships for at least a year and to seriously start liking herself but she’s seeing all her friends are in relationships and getting engaged and married and she’s afraid she’s going to be lonely and sad.
I’m stressed and don’t know what to do. I suggested she see a psychiatrist and a therapist but since she’s only in her city for the next few weeks, she may have to wait until she gets back to school. I hope you post this so that I can get the benefit of your advice as well as the experience of the commenters.
At my wit’s end
Dear At Wit’s End,
I’m not going to out your identity but I’m going to make an assumption based on your email address that your family’s religious tradition and the way that you were raised contributed heavily to your difficulties in accepting your son’s (and now your daughter’s) sexuality. Is that fair to say? You’re overcoming a lot of upbringing, faith, and culture around this.
I am so glad that you were able to let your love for your son help you support him in coming out and welcome his partner into your lives, and I’m so glad that your love for your daughter has allowed you to help her through the terrible experience of being involved with someone who is not good for her. I want to build a world where LGBTQ kids don’t have to painfully “come out” to their parents and worry about whether they will be accepted or rejected. I want to live in the world where that information doesn’t smash parents’ hopes and dreams for their children, because it is just one of many possible ways you can be and not seen as shameful, deviant, or “other.” Your love for your children is so obvious, so I’d like to ask you right now, as one human on the earth to another, to take a tiny step further toward building that world with me. It will be a world where your children (and their children) will be much happier and much safer.
Because: Your daughter’s trouble with B. is not because she is gay (or bi, or “fluid”), or however she defines herself. It’s because she is with a partner who is not good for her. We have plenty of examples from recent weeks of heterosexual relationships devolving into threats and manipulation when one partner tries to leave. I know it’s very easy for you to think “This problem all started when my daughter said she was gay” but if you’re going to be able to help her through this crisis it would help if you could that argument completely to rest. Here is one possible script for that:
“Daughter, I know I said some harsh things about your sexuality when you announced your relationship with B. It seemed to me that the two things were the same – you being in a gay relationship, and you being so unhappy – but I know from watching your brother and his partner that they are not the same. All I want for you is to be happy with someone who loves you and treats you like you deserve to be treated, and I’m sorry if I was judgmental in a way that drove you away from me. Parents are imperfect and we love you imperfectly, but I want you to know how much I do love you and believe in you.”
You can’t control everything that will happen with B., but you can control this: Heal the rift between you and your daughter. Become a united front again. She trusted you to be okay with her relationship after she saw the way you were able to open your heart to her brother and his partner, so it must have been an enormous hurt when you didn’t treat her the same way. Bring your son and his partner into the circle and get their support and love for your daughter as well.
You are taking very smart steps to help your daughter get away from this relationship by helping her cut off communication and trying to get her into some kind of mental health support structure. Maybe having her talk to someone new (in the city she’s staying in now) even if it’s for a brief time will help offer her some additional perspective.
B. sounds like a vulnerable person with a lot of problems who genuinely does deserve compassion, and I am glad she is getting help. I wish your daughter could see that sometimes “working on problems” is not enough, and that you can’t love people into becoming who you need them to be (even if you try really hard), and it’s not fair to make someone your entire world and reason for living (as B. is claiming/threatening to do). I wish she could see that loving someone doesn’t always mean that you can form a happy, functional relationship with them. I wish she knew that you could just end things that aren’t making you happy and that you don’t have to have a perfect, airtight reason. I wish she understood that we can care about people but we can’t do their (caring, living, healing) for them.
Even if your daughter had written to me herself, sadly we can’t make people break up with partners who are bad for them. Honestly, all the smart things I said in the paragraph above I learned the hard way by doing it wrong and staying invested in people who were not right for me way past the time I should have until things got so bad or I grew to the point that I was ready to detach.
So, there are a few concrete things you could do to help your daughter:
- Make peace.
- Remind her that you love her.
- Spend time with her – the whole family, if possible – not in a ‘You are a broken person who needs our help’ sense, but in a ‘Let’s all eat together and go to the movies and be happy and easy in each other’s company’ way.
- Encourage her to get back in touch with old friends (also in a fun, easy, positive way, not a U R BROKEN way)
- See if you can block B’s mom’s emails & texts as well.
- Offer to help your daughter get some kind of therapy right now if she needs it – instead of worrying about B’s mental health issues (which she can’t do anything about), she can focus on getting her own depression under control and building strength and resilience before going back to school.
- If “B” comes up in conversation, say something neutral like “You already know what I think. But I trust you, and I just want you to take care of you for a while.“
- Focus on self-care in general. Eating well. Getting some exercise and sunshine. Doing things she enjoys. In addition, if you have the money, don’t be afraid to be a little bit consumerist about it. Go get pedicures and/or massages together. Get great haircuts. Go to the art museum, or a concert, or a play, or a boat ride. Go to a nice lunch. Go see Brave together (warning: May make you cry, in a good way).
One more practical suggestion:
Accept that this thing with B. is not over yet and needs to run its course for a little while yet. So maybe switch your narrative from “You need to break off all contact with that woman right now!” (this is not an incorrect point of view, by the way, just not something your daughter can really hear or handle). Sometimes it’s very hard to contemplate cutting off contact with someone (especially someone who is obviously hurting, like B.) FOREVER. That feels final. It feels like the death of hope that things could get better. It feels like betrayal of a friend and a lover. Your daughter is deep in Golden Retriever of Love territory and everything hurts. Understand that we grieve even for relationships that are wrong for us, and the grief is real and painful.
Sometimes it’s more productive to talk about things in terms of small, finite amounts of time. “Those two days you didn’t talk to B. you seemed so happy and relaxed. It was like the sun came out for you again. I know you love B., and you want to help her and be there for her, but what if you gave yourself a month away from worrying about her to just take care of yourself? You can check in with her a month from now and see if things really are improving, and you’ll be in much better shape to help her or make decisions if you’re feeling better overall.”
Because that’s the problem, isn’t it? In trying to take care of B. and this relationship, she forgot how to take care of herself. Remind her how in every small, supportive, loving way you can.
But first, make peace with your daughter. Be brave. Be vulnerable. Make the world a little bit safer for her and for all the other kids who worry about disappointing their parents because of who and how they love.
Excuse me, I’m going to go call my mom and tell her I love her now.