Dear Carolyn: My daughter and her boyfriend moved into my house a few months ago because they were having financial difficulties and I wanted her to be able to finish her degree, which she did in May. I started noticing how little she wanted to communicate with me, but I thought she was just busy and stressed.
Her boyfriend has anger issues that I have seen exposed at various times.
This past week we drove out of town to go to the funeral of a family friend, just the two of us, and she talked the whole time. She was open and friendly just like the girl I knew growing up. When we returned home, she grew silent again and a little rude, and once again just stayed in her room with Boyfriend much like before.
Now I'm considering that he is controlling of her, and I'm wondering how to handle this. Do I give her my thoughts? Where are the lines drawn between interference in her life and my concerns?
Carolyn says: The line falls between what you observe and what you conclude.
What you observe is yours, and powerful.
What you conclude is speculation, and the space between what you know and what you think you know is where all the hard feelings collect, and where defensiveness can take root. Voice your concern that he's controlling, for example, or even that you just suspect or fear he might be, and you invite your daughter to feel (A) dense or naive or embarrassed or ashamed for missing it herself; (B) resentful that you think she's too dense or naive to have noticed this herself, or too inept to choose a good boyfriend; (C) protective of this person she obviously cares about, problematic though he may be.
And, you may actually be wrong. That he's controlling seems to make sense, but isn't the only possible explanation.
If instead you stick only to what you see, then you can't be wrong and don't leave room for anyone to argue with you. "I noticed something the other day. You have been quiet lately. In the car on our trip, though, you were really talkative — like you used to be (I had a really nice time, by the way ... ). Anyway, when we got home, you withdrew into your cocoon with [Boyfriend] and got quiet again. I'm mentioning it because it's something people tend not to see about themselves."
Again — don't draw conclusions. Note that this wording doesn't assign any blame: Not, "He changes you" or "You change for him" — just, "Your behavior changes." Say what you see.
If she pushes back, then articulate your intent: "I'm not saying who or what or why — just that I notice a difference. If you're in a good emotional place, then that's what matters."
Because it is, for one. And, conveniently, it's also the hardest thing to fake if it's not true. She can trust her own taste in men, she can explain her mood changes, she can defend his anger issues, she can rationalize whatever stress she is under right now — but the sensation of someone weighing her down is hard to deny forever, if that indeed is what's going on. Please be patient enough to allow her to connect her dots to yours.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.