Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My partner "Suzie" and I have been together for over two years, and we're mutually happy and relatively carefree. Lately, however, I've started to worry that Suzie is growing frustrated and apathetic. She has her bachelor's and is overqualified for her current position, but doesn't know what to do next. One day, she wants to be an artist. The next day, a nurse. It's all over the map. My anxiety is worsened by the fact that she moved to a new city to be with me, so I (however unhealthy it may be) feel it's my fault if she doesn't succeed.
I try to be a supportive girlfriend — encourage her to take opportunities, offer to edit applications, cheer her up after rejections, etc. — but I don't want to annoy her. She's fiercely independent.
How do I let her be herself but also push her, while letting go of the anxiety that it is somehow my responsibility?
Carolyn says: This highlights the advantage of not being personally involved when assessing a situation: I see Suzie's struggle as a good thing. Or, at least, a necessary process toward a good thing.
It is hard to find the right path in life. The people who find it quickly tend to be: really lucky; really passionate about or uniquely skilled in a specific field that pays well; or generally content and not too worried about life's specifics.
The rest of us must sift through what can seem like unlimited choices, ones we can't just try on for a month at a time. We either have to commit to years of education in it, or land one of the rare entry-level jobs that open up in it, or find some other way to feed ourselves while we get an unpaid internship in it, or or or.
That Suzie is taking on this challenge will ultimately be to her benefit, because the alternative is for her to settle for where she is — which only works if she doesn't see it as settling. Her trying on and discarding different ideas is actually useful, despite the inevitable frustration. If you don't know what you want to do, then find out what you don't want to do.
Seeing this process as a positive one, I hope, will help you let go of your anxiety. It's not your responsibility, burden or fault. She'd be struggling with this wherever she lived. Right? Yes, her anxiety splashes onto you, but that's being affected by it, not responsible for it. A very different thing.
There is also no need for you to "push" her, because that's not your job, either. Your job is to sympathize; to point out (judiciously!) that her struggle will ultimately reward her; to tell her you're confident she'll get through this with a much better idea of what suits her. One of the things she tries on will eventually fit ... or she'll find she's happier on a winding path, or she'll settle into unhappiness — which you'll have to reckon with, but she will fully own.
Another thing you can do? Be the happy distraction. Reminding her of what she does enjoy will even help her calibrate and recalibrate her judgment throughout this spell of self-doubt.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.