The Relationship Problem You Just Can't "Fix"

Welcome to Unprofessional Advice: a new column to help you handle problems of all kinds. Got a relationship query? Workplace drama? Is your roommate a narcotics kingpin? With zero professional experience and a complete lack of credentials, I will take on your issues with compassion and humor (and I'll keep it anonymous, obvs). Got a question? Email me: unprofessionaladvice@refinery29.com.
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Dear Kelsey,

My daughter, who is 15-and-a-half, has been seeing a 17-year-old boy on and off for nine months. They are currently on — or, as they call it, "having a thing with each other." Problem is that this boy has really hurt my daughter in the past. He came over a lot in the first two months, but then it dwindled down. Now, he sees my daughter maybe twice a week. He professes that he loves her and even though she gets upset with him, she repeatedly takes him back. I feel as though he's holding onto her until he finds his dream girl. He's not afraid to lie. He always has an excuse. I want to believe that he loves her but, if so, why doesn't he have any time for her?

My daughter has been very moody since she got back together with him recently, and she refuses to talk to me about it. When I tell anyone about the situation, they immediately say he's using her. I just don't know what to think. I've thought of talking to his mother in confidence to see if he really is that busy, but I'm afraid the mother would tell her son and then it would get back to my daughter.

What can I do?

Sincerely,
Concerned Mom
Dear Concerned Mom,

The entire mission statement of this column includes the fact that I have no real credentials to speak of (except basic human empathy and a lot of opinions). That's exceptionally true when it comes to your letter. I'm not a parent. I've never grappled with the unfathomable honor and anguish of raising a teenage girl. First, I just want to offer you my sincerest kudos and congratulations. You're clearly a loving, thoughtful parent who's trying like hell to do this job right. Take a moment and take a bow, lady.

Okay, here comes the opinion part.

Upon first glance at your letter, I was right there with you. I thought: This guy sounds like a flake! Kick him to the curb, Mom! Then I took a step back and put myself in your daughters' shoes. I've never been a mom, but I have been a 15-and-a-half-year-old girl. And if my parent — or any adult — started micromanaging my personal life, I guarantee it wouldn't have gone well. That's the deal when you're a teenager. Grown-ups try to help, and you resist. They reach out and you back away as fast as you can. Most of the time, you back yourself right into a muddy pothole, landing splat on your 15-and-a-half-year-old butt. And, that's the point.

Both your daughter and her boyfriend are engaged in what sounds like an extremely typical high school relationship. Is it a super healthy and functional relationship? Probably not. I can't think of a single high school relationship that was, except maybe Barbie and Ken. Wait, no, they broke up too!

This is your daughter's time for learning messy lessons about relationships. She's figuring out how to navigate the tricky waters of romantic relationships, friendships — even her new dynamic with you, as a child who's not quite a child anymore. These are things we all have to learn, but can't really be taught. So, now you're stuck on the side of the pool, watching your kid flail around in the water. I can't imagine how tough that must be. But try to remember: she's still in the shallow end.

Step one: Step back.

Now, I know it's just a quick somersault to the deep end, so you're right to be keeping an eagle eye on your daughter. If you had even the faintest inkling that she was in a dangerous or abusive situation, I'd say shut that shit down by any means necessary. But, at least from what you've told me, it sounds like this not-so-healthy relationship could evolve into a healthy experience in the long-term. And you can help ensure that. Here's how:

Step one: Step back. Don't order your daughter to dump her boyfriend and try not to bad-mouth him too overtly. Please, oh please, do not secretly tattle on this boy to his mom. I totally understand your instincts, but this is a recipe for resentment and secrets. The last thing you want to do is create more drama (they're teenagers! They thrive on drama!) and foster a situation where your daughter feels like she has to hide things from you. You have to think about the long game, here.

Step two: Be present. Your daughter needs to feel that you're not here to meddle, but she also has to know you're her safe harbor. Check in, ask questions, and do your best to make her feel like she can give you an honest answer. That might mean curtailing your knee-jerk impulse to intervene and fix the problem for her. I think, on some level, you know how much better off she'll be if she works through it herself. It'll be a lot easier for her to do that if she knows her mom is there for her — and that her mom trusts her, too.

It's a balancing act, I know, this being there but not too there. But if you can master it, you'll be able to show your daughter what real love looks like. Experiences like this teach you what you will and won't put up with. They teach you to call upon your self-respect and self-reliance. They also teach you that it's okay to reach out for help and advice from the people who love you. Give her the chance to reach.
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