Dear Dr. Meg,
My daughter is 19 and a freshman in college. She was raised in our home, and she participated in the church youth group, among other faith-related activities. She’s a beautiful, intelligent young woman who never really dated in high school, not for lack of offers, but because she didn’t feel the right guys were interested. She was pretty much a homebody. Now that she’s at college, she has started seeing another freshman in her dorm. They are in the same program and seem to spend all of their time together. My daughter tells her friends that the boy is “bipolar” and that explains why he is sometimes not very nice to her. Also, when they are at home on breaks from school, he stops texting her. His hometown is about two hours away from where we live. The young man will not meet me or my husband, even though we have asked our daughter repeatedly and have offered for him to come visit and even take a short vacation with us. I think it’s very likely that they are having sex, although she has told me they aren’t. My husband and I are at a loss as to how to handle this. We talk to her about our vision for her to have a loving relationship including God and faith, but she just looks at us and makes no changes in her relationship with the boy. We are worried about her safety and well-being. Can you give us some advice about what to do and say?
Here’s what bothers me most about your daughter’s situation: the fact that she says her boyfriend is mean to her. Add to this, her belief (correct or incorrect) that he is bipolar and this guy spells trouble. So, the question for you, her loving mother is this: how do you help a daughter get out of a bad relationship?
I have some thoughts for you because, unfortunately, your daughter isn’t alone. Often, conscientious, bright young women are attracted to men with broken wings. This gentleman knows that your daughter is kind and compassionate and is playing on that. The problem is, she can’t see it. Here’s what I would do.
Telling her that he’s bad for her won’t work. The more you criticize him, the more she will defend him and tell you that you don’t understand. She believes that he needs her in order for him to be happy. The best way to help someone in this situation is to come by her side and gently ask questions and let her respond. When she comes up with the answer that he’s not good for her, then she’ll let go. But- the trick is, she has to feel that she is coming to the realization on her own. I would ask her questions like this:
“Honey- what do the two of you do together that you enjoy?”
“Is he fun to be around?”
“I’m glad that you seem happy. What about him makes you feel this way?”
“(Her name), you know that I am always here for you and that I believe in your decisions. I will support you no matter what, so if you ever need encouragement or advice about this relationship or another, I’m here to listen.”
“I’m sorry that (his name) won’t come to the house. I’d love to meet him. Why wouldn’t he want to meet us?”
“Being in love is wonderful. I want to help you in any way that I can to have healthy, strong relationships when you are in love so please know that I’m here.”
“I know that when two people love each other, they make one another better people, that’s what your dad did for me and I did for him. Do you think you make (his name) a better person?” At this point, she will say yes because the dynamic of an abuser and a victim is that the victim believes that the abuser needs her to be better. But then, you add, “And how does he make you a better person?”
When you ask these questions, listen carefully and don’t respond. Don’t even make faces showing that you disapprove of him. Your job is to let her know that you are on her side, that you think dating is a good thing (just not with him) and that you are glad that she has decided to begin dating. The point is twofold- to let her know that you love her and believe in her adult abilities to make good choices regarding who she dates and also to keep her from feelings defensive of him. If she feels that you aren’t simply waiting to put the hammer down on him, she will open up and confide in you. But- if she feels that she needs to “prove to you” that he’s really a good guy, she will close up.
By asking the right questions and not giving her the answers, you are inviting her to think more deeply about their relationship. Let’s assume that you really liked this guy and you said with genuine enthusiasm, “I’m so glad that he makes you happy! What does he do that makes you this happy?” she would have to stop and think. She might think, ‘what does he do that’s good for me?’
Then, she realizes on her own that he’s a bad egg. Also- if your husband is willing, have him weigh in on this with your daughter. He can follow the same approach and when the two of you show genuine interest, it will be hard for her to not engage either of you.
The other thing that is important to do is to reach out to some of her close girlfriends if you know them. Ask them for coffee and tell them your concerns and ask their opinions. They, too, will probably be feeling the way that you do and then ask them to help her see this guy’s bad side over time. Girls who are close to their friends often listen to their advice if they consistently and lovingly give it.
Finally, pray for her. God loves her more than you do and if this guys really bad for her, God will grieve too. Ask Him to intervene. Ask that He help you find the words to say. Your daughter is only 19 and her story isn’t written. Don’t panic. With help, shell get out from under this fellow.