These are difficult times for the young but chasing down life partners always pushes them away, says Mariella Frostrup
The dilemma I have a daughter at university who, since she was 17, has gone from one bad relationship to another, making her feel depressed and worthless, and impacting on her work. It’s a recurring cycle. She becomes deeply committed to a relationship only to be slowly cast aside or dumped, further denting her already low self-esteem. When she is on form (and single) she is fun-loving and outgoing, always kind. She is smart and attractive. I am not clear what is going wrong or how to advise her.
Her last boyfriend spent several months chasing her; eventually she agreed but, after a few happy months, he slowly “reeled her out”, saying that he could not commit. Now in lonely lockdown she feels ever more abandoned and is wondering what is wrong with her or what she is doing wrong. On our long phone conversations I advise her to focus on her degree and get immersed in the work as a cure. I reassure her that things will work out in the end and that these things are normal and nothing to do with her personally. I am worried that this will affect her degree. I know life is a learning process, but I would like her to learn some strategies.
Mariella replies Who’d be a mother? Seriously, I totally empathise with your concerns, but perhaps you’ve lost sight of your own youthful romantic excursions? Maybe you sailed through embryonic dating adventures and bumped into Mr Right long before you’d wasted too many nights on a bevy of Mr Wrongs?
Most of us aren’t that lucky and university, or whatever we find ourselves doing at that age, tends to become a background for the turmoil of our vulnerable hearts. Your girl is going through the perfectly normal romantic pangs of an insecure young woman. It’s not her dating choices she needs to look at but her need for approbation that’s making self-esteem something external to be validated by others, rather than something she owns inside. She is looking for security in boys who are barely past puberty and scaring them off with her neediness. I feel confident with my diagnosis, because I was that girl and spent until my 30s chasing men who were prime candidates for confirming my low self-worth.
Naturally we’d rather your girl was finding her feet than losing her heart, so building up her confidence is the priority here. You’re already doing the right thing by advising her to focus elsewhere, but she needs to find further resilience, not just bury herself in academia.
A few months is a lifetime when you are in your teens and early 20s and I suspect the love affairs of her friends are equally transient. How she’s coping is the issue.
I wonder if a course in mindfulness, easily available online or on campus, might help? There’s a lot to be said for standing back and gaining a better perspective on your choices and that’s not something that comes easily in youth. It might help her to put her romantic troubles in context and open her eyes to the bigger picture.
It’s important to recognise that she’s not being “dumped” or “cast aside” as you describe. Those are unhelpful pejorative terms that disempower her and relegate her to a passive place in her own love life. Learning to take responsibility is the first step to taking charge of our emotions, rather than being ruled by them. It took me a couple of decades to understand that I was entirely complicit in who I chose to date and the way in which those relationships panned out, even if I constantly felt like the victim. We may not be aware of it at the time, but we are continually making choices that have a butterfly effect in our lives and our experience of others.
You can’t solve your girl’s problems, only try to soften and mitigate them. You never stop wanting to protect your kids, but there comes a time when your efforts to fine tune their personalities are redundant. Then, uncomfortably, you are forced to take a back seat. These are difficult days for the young, with Covid lockdowns curtailing dating opportunities and physical proximity, so it’s a good time to sit back and take stock.
Chasing down partners for life, as you’ve observed and one hopes your daughter is fast learning, only pushes them further away. At college there’s little else to do but seek out potential partners and then wallow in the drama of losing them. Never again will we have so much time to gorge on our emotions and digest every iota of perceived insult and humiliation. Thank goodness for that because it’s a myopic energy-sapping pursuit that can’t be sustained out in the big wide world. Encourage your daughter to take up a hobby that helps her better manage her day-to-day emotions, and to start the new year with a course in mindfulness.
Remember there’s no such thing as a bad affair as long as you learn from it and carry that wisdom into the next. Finding ourselves alone time after time is not the issue – it’s the lessons learned along the way that are of value.