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Supporting a partner veering off course

Carolyn Hax
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Hi Carolyn:

My partner completed an undergraduate degree but struggled to find a career in that industry. Under pressure from family, they followed and struggled through a career path they hated for two years before deciding to go back to college to complete another undergraduate in something they thought they would prefer as a career path.

Their mental health meant this was a difficult adjustment, and while I’m supporting them through it, they are still questioning if even now this is their right career path.

How can I keep helping them when they don’t know what they want to do?

— E.

Foremost, you need to define “help” so that it’s a manageable size for one person who is not directly involved.

This is your partner’s struggle, and it’s bigger than just a career. By my count, there’s a mental health issue, a bad fit with the first career choice, an overinvolved family, your partner’s own susceptibility to pressure from said family (and possibly external pressure in general), an intemperance in decision-making that’s now responsible for two unsatisfying tuition-based two-or-four-year educations, and possibly a second bad career fit.

That’s a lot. So it’s understandable you want to help, much more so than you would if your partner were just having a bad week. But the role of even the most loving, involved bystander is to understand that you can’t jump in and fix it — and short of emergency intervention, you’re ultimately just as limited in your options in the face of a full breakdown as you are with the bad week. You can love, encourage, listen, play devil’s advocate, offer ideas, do a few extra chores, even underwrite the whole thing financially, if you’re able and willing (“support” can have two meanings here, and you don’t specify which), but you can’t be the one who:

• seeks the mental health care;

• does the hard emotional work;

• gains the self-knowledge;

• chooses the career;

• gets the training or education;

• sets and holds the boundaries with family.

If your partner is not ready to do these, then you need to decide how to maintain your own well-being as your partner figures out how to get to that point.

A good therapist can help you here, if the true north of understanding your limits is not enough to guide you through it.

In the offering-ideas department: May I suggest that you suggest the following strategy to your partner? Put the second degree on hold; find tolerable work that pays enough bills; and shift full emphasis to mental health. Not just for treatment, but toward peace of mind.

Life choices made under pressure — external especially, but internal, too — tend to breed regrets. And schools generally accommodate returns from leave, because it helps the graduation rate, so this can just be a temporary break to refocus.

If it instead becomes a cutting of losses, then that’s not ideal, but it’s a steep improvement on steering another two or four years in the wrong direction.

The “right” career, meanwhile, doesn’t always announce itself when we want it to (or ever — there are no guarantees). So a lot of us just work and think and … live. And breathe, until our minds can open enough to see where that kind of life takes us.

I hope for both of your sakes your partner’s ready to get that fresh air.

•••

Dear Carolyn:

We have a neighbor who tells us things that happen at other people’s homes. She doesn’t seem to care that it isn’t her info to share with others. And she also makes herself comfortable at the house where she gets the most info.

Is my uncomfortable feeling warranted or am I being too sensitive?

— Uncomfortable

Of course it’s warranted. You get to decide what information you’d rather not have or share.

It doesn’t just end there, however. If you find her gossip disrespectful of others’ privacy, then you need to say so. “I’m not comfortable with this conversation,” or, “This is their private business.”

Or, more pointedly, if you have the stomach for it: “Is this how you talk about us when we’re not here?”

It’s a rhetorical question, because you know the answer already. This is exactly how she talks about you when you’re not there.

The point of saying this is not to get her to stop — she won’t — but instead to let her know you have no illusions about her ethics and values.

You need the fortitude because someone who uses people this plainly for her own amusement also poses a retaliation risk. Challenging her could draw her attention to you as a target.

However, we do tend to fear being gossiped about disproportionately to its harm. “Have at it, Lady” would make a fine mantra here.

Plus, which is worse — standing up to her at the risk of drawing negative attention, or ducking while others get the brunt of it who aren’t there to stand up for themselves?

Email Carolyn at [email protected], follow her on Facebook or chat with her online at noon each Friday at washingtonpost.com.

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