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Carolyn Hax: Parents aren’t sure how to respond to daughter’s rocky marriage


Dear Carolyn:

My daughter, coming off several bad relationships, met a man and within a month was engaged. My husband and I had real reservations once we met him. He seemed immature, impulsive and self-centered. He came from a very dysfunctional family and had made some life decisions that showed bad judgment. We thought she was just so glad to be truly wanted she didn’t think it through, but he had some good qualities, especially supporting her going to grad school. We smiled, supported her right to make her own decision and gave them a nice wedding.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Within a year or two, our worries were much stronger and linked to definite behaviors (never violence), and we did speak to her and, in a few cases, him. She nicely asked us not to criticize her husband, and we backed off. They live far away, but our relationship is close, and we make every effort to be warm and responsive to him.

Fast-forward three years: Daughter is now 30, and there are real cracks in this marriage. She’s calling crying and says she cannot see a future with him. She specifically asks us to be honest about our real opinions. All her friends think he’s a jerk and can’t figure out why she’s still there. She’s said she’s afraid no one else will ever want her and this is the best she can do. She wants a divorce but is still a student and asked us to lend her money for a lawyer. She’s confused.

We tell her she should speak to a therapist to figure out what she really wants and a marriage counselor to lay it out with the two of them together. What we really want is to tell her to Run Now! Fast!! But she is an adult and really needs to do this on her own and not because her parents say so.

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Or not? What’s our place here? Should we have been more forceful earlier? What about now?

Parents of a Not-So-Grown-Up? Daughter

There are beds grown children make that they must lie in for their own good, but a marriage that set your alarm bells clanging, from the very beginning and increasingly so over time, is not one of them. You were hands-off when you needed to be, and that gives you more leeway now.

I’m not suggesting you travel the many miles to go scoop her off her doorstep — unless it is indeed an abuse situation, in which case that’s actually not unreasonable — but it sounds as if you’re in a position to be able to pay for a lawyer and a therapist.* So, do it: Those are tools she can use to get herself out of this mess and the larger, “several bad relationships” mess that led up to it — thereby enabling her in the “make possible” sense and not in the “render dependent and relegate to living indefinitely in your basement” sense.

*Note that I didn’t include a marriage counselor on the list of services I’m suggesting you buy for her. Depending on the nature of her husband’s “problem behaviors,” couples’ counseling could be a great idea or a terrible one. It’s better to encourage therapy solo and let her and her therapist decide whether bringing him in makes sense.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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