DEAR CAROLYN: I am 20 and my boyfriend is 21; we're both college juniors. We have been together three years. He is cute, kind, smart, funny and wants to marry. My only hesitation is his family. They pick on him constantly.
He depends on his family for transportation and income. He doesn't want to say anything that would make them cut off his tuition or allowance, or not pick him up when he needs a ride, etc. He has no savings or job (health issues) and no way to get his driver's license because his family won't let him practice in their vehicles.
I am annoyed that his family treats him like this. I want him to say something, but I understand that he depends on them. He just stares at the floor when they start criticizing him. When I stand up for him, his mother gives me icy stares. What should I do?
DEAR C.: Study hard, work hard, play hard but not recklessly, look out for yourself and your future, stand by your loved ones, graduate, work through employment frustrations until you find a stable and promising vocation, and keep doing whatever else you've been doing to launch an independent and productive future.
Give him room to do the same.
That's a favor all couples owe each other, but it's essential for someone with an unsupportive family, health and money issues, and just one year left in the protective custody of an institution of college. These next few years have the power to decide whether he gets stuck in the muck of his family or pulls himself out.
His needs put you both dangerously close to the muck, and if you're not careful, his burdens could swallow you both. Everyone is susceptible to this, but young people are in particular, for the simple reasons that idealism peaks in youth, and helping someone feels right and good, whereas standing back while someone struggles feels lousy. Yet the lines are so very fine: between dominating people and just shoring them up as they find their way, and between shoring them up and letting them suffer while you eat popcorn.
A goal to keep in mind: Don't occupy a space in his life that couldn't easily be filled in your absence. Model independence by giving advice only when asked, encouraging counseling (while he can use college resources), and saving heroic intervention for emergencies. When in doubt, treat him as an equal.
Even though I've completely avoided your what-do-I-do-about-his-mother question, I've actually answered it: She's a problem for you only to the extent she remains a problem for him. You can't know that now, but you will. Summon the courage to wait.