By Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

Hi, Carolyn:

My wife and I and our three daughters, all in young adulthood, have always been very close. Middle daughter "Maggie," 22, graduated from college last spring and took a job with a big firm, which placed her halfway across the country. On her own for the first time, new city, no pre-existing friendships, long work hours, impersonal supervisors. So our outgoing, guileless, inexperienced Maggie has gotten in deep with a 28-year-old co-worker. He's shown her every indulgence but one: He hasn't mentioned her to the young woman he's been living with for eight years.

Maggie says in tears that she has no life and that this guy is good to her and eventually he'll leave his girlfriend. But she obviously feels like hell. We've reminded her about the family rule -- that if you feel good about yourself when you're with a guy, then it's a good indicator, but if you feel worse about yourself when you're with a guy then it's a terrible indicator. She doesn't want to hear anything more about it. It's creating tensions we've never seen before among the sisters. Is there anything we can do other than hope everything turns out okay?

Concerned Old Man

Sometimes that's all you can do, but I don't think you're there yet.

Maggie is a grown woman, she knows what she's doing is wrong (even before you invoked your family rule, which is excellent), and so there's really no excuse for what she's doing.

But there is an explanation. She's human, and lonely, and quite possibly depressed, and the drowning feeling that alignment creates can make even the biggest jerk look like a lifeline.

You, as her close family, are in a position to throw her a better one.

Lay off the issue of the guy, all of you -- she knows it's wrong, she knows -- and work on the problem that created this problem.

For example: You can let her know she doesn't need to stay in a job/company/town/region that offers her "no life."

Sure, toughing it out can build confidence -- but so can retrieving control of your life by choosing to pack up and go. The decision is hers, but the idea doesn't have to be.

You can also just change the type of conversation you have with her, and in doing so try to draw her out on other aspects of her life -- what she's doing, who else she sees, who of her old friends she's talked to -- in case something jogs something else that moves her to try something new. Or suggest counseling, if you, too, have a hunch she's depressed.

Or: You can just listen to her. It's common to think that if you just talk people out of their bad relationships, they'll get healthy, but really it's the reverse -- when they start to feel healthy, they'll get out of their bad relationships themselves.

No matter what approach you choose, it may all still dovetail into "hope everything turns out okay," but if you do it while maintaining a steady, supportive presence in her life, that will be healthier, for her, than if you're banished for pushing too hard.

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