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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007; 12:00 PM

Carolyn takes your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

Appearing every Wednesday and Friday in The Washington Post Style section and in Sunday Source, Tell Me About It offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there -- really recently. Carolyn Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

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Anonymous: I just realized that my sister exhibits many classic signs of an abusive personality. (Explosive anger, you have to walk on eggshells around her, she uses her anger to make people comply with her wishes, if you try to talk about any of her behaviors she tries to deflect the attention back on you, if that fails she becomes verbally abusive, she accuses others of abusing and mistreating her ad nauseum, the world has done her wrong, everyone is against her, and my personal favorite: accusations that I don't love her unconditionally.)

I always just thought of her as unusually combative, but recent events have provided a flash of insight. And now that I see it, I can't -unsee- it, you know?

Carolyn Hax: That's a good thing. Now you have a chance at dealing with her productively. Do your homework and find out first how not to get sucked in, and maybe eventually how to help.

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East Bay, Calif.: Regarding today's column... what if the judgmental person in question is your spouse? Who expects you to do everything their way, when they think you should do it, and even if they haven't thought of it yet? I get tired of the criticism and picking picking picking about little things, and I'm worried about the effect that it has and will have on our preschooler. Help!!

Carolyn Hax: It's soul-eroding. And, it slowly degrades whatever love you originally felt for this person who is now your primary critic instead of your most ardent fan. You already know this. I think you also can piece together the effect it'll have on your kid, since you know the effect nitpicking has on your sense of home.

That's the bad news. The good news is your spouse may have been that preschooler a few decades ago, and may on some level want to break that cycle badly enough to be willing to do the hard work, beginning with admitting to toxicity. It's a long shot, but it happens. It's a long enough shot, though, that I think you might benefit from counseling on your own to help you find a way to approach your spouse with this idea.

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Baltimore, Md.: hi Carolyn,

submitting this early to get off my chest. I am 4 mos. pregnant. My husband and I tried for years to get pregnant and eventually had to consult with a specialist. My mother-in-law doesn't know this. We thought she'd be thrilled that we're expecting (her only other grandchild is 19 and we've been married 10 years). But she hasn't said a thing to us about the pregnancy. She calls nearly every day to talk about her dog and her family and never asks how I am feeling or how the baby plans are going. (She lives many hrs away and has only been able to visit us a handful of times).

I'm not sure if or how I should confront her about this. It's causing a lot of resentment here!

Carolyn Hax: Isn't this something for a son to discuss with his mother?

If it isn't, and for whatever reason you're the one who has to take this one (the "has to" being debatable, but I'll get to that in a second), then before you go in with guns blazing, consider that she might have her bizarro reasons for not celebrating. E.g., she saw you as the ones who'd be able to take care of her if she grew infirm, and is scared; or, she lost a pregnancy late and is spooked by celebrating too soon; or, she doesn't think you wanted a baby and is under some misconception you won't be a good mom; or, she spent her whole life thinking her son was "the selfish one" and had hoped he'd never have kids ... I could go on all day. The stuff people hold in their heads as absolute gospel --to the point where it guides their behavior down some pretty strange alleys--can be beyond comprehension. So before you get all fired up by your truth here, try to find out what hers is.

Or, don't. Often, when you stop and think about a situation like this, the answer is already right out in the open. Ten years in, I imagine you know your MIL pretty well. Add that to her son's knowledge, and can the two of you come up with a simple reason for her to be acting like this?

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New York, N.Y.: My mom is really overweight and I am concerned for her health. However, everytime I try to suggest a diet to her or gently tell her that she should come running with me, she blows up and tells me to leave her alone. She refuses to listen and I'm not sure what to do. I know weight is a sensitive issue, but I am afraid that my mother will have serious health problems if she doesn't drop a few pounds. Is there any way to help my mom without hurting her feelings?

Carolyn Hax: Leave her alone. She knows, and she's making her choice, which, yes, may hurt you, but it's her choice to make.

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Washington, D.C.: What if you are the judgmental person in your marriage? My husband is a wonderful person, but he can be really flaky (bad at following up on things, forgetful, slow to motivate). I feel like I have to nag to get him to do things, and then I get frustrated when I have to keep checking up to make sure they're done. Then, I get very mad at myself for acting and sounding like a great big shrew. Thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: Work with his temperament, talents and limits, not against them. If he forgets things you tell him, write them down. If he's aural not visual, tell and don't write. If there are certain chores he does better than others, give him those. If he has needs/hobbies/preferences/quirks that you can co-opt in your favor, co-opt them. Put him in charge of anything that effects the supply of his favorite things.

If you can afford to hire someone to take some burdens off you, hire someone--better to throw money at the problem than stockpile resentment.

And if you have any signs this is a brain-wiring issue vs. a his-mommy-pampered-him issue, then consider researching strategies proven to help people wired his way. There's an entire industry springing up to help focus the forgetful, procrastinating, disorganized, etc. among us.

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For Anonymous: Anonymous should read up on personality disorders for dealing with her sister. My sister has ruined her marriage and has two wonderful children who now spend their time yelling. If she had gotten help, she may have been able to stop the loss of a really nice husband who loved her deeply. Now she's just bitter and alienating. There are methods for dealing with certain personality disorders which are prevelant in "functioning" adults who don't require institutionalization or antipsychotics, though medication is useful for treating "mainstream" disorders.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I'd recommend it for anyone who struggles on a regular basis with someone extremely difficult.

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C'Ville, Va.: Self Help Books vs. Therapy - I just finished reading a self help book and doing the exercises from it and I feel like a new, happier person. What's your take on self help books versus seeing a therapist? Self help books are a lot cheaper!!

Carolyn Hax: If it's a good self-help book, if it's aimed at what's bothering you, and if you're of a mind to challenge your basic view of things, then it's a cheap route to a new, happier person. But, then, I could also say that about a really profound novel or trip or life event. The right message at the right time is a powerful thing. When that isn't happening, though, there's (good, reputable) therapy.

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Anonymous: Hi, I hope you had a nice break. I want to help my friend. She is pregnant with her fifth, and is at the point in the pregnancy where she has to acknowlege it. She didn't want to tell anyone because of all the stupid, insensitive comments people make. She has had to deal with enough comments for having four (my you have your hands full, have you figured out how it happens?, etc.) The few people she has told have already said some awful things. She is having a tough time dealing with this. I would never comment on anyone's family size, small or large. Why do people think it's okay to say these things, especially in front of her children?

Carolyn Hax: Maybe I've OD'd on my happy pills, but, "My you have your hands full" hardly sounds judgmental. (My credentials for saying this: I heard it myself at least a half-dozen times in two hours last weekend.) It's just a bunch of people finding new ways to show sympathy, or "good for you," or "better you than me," or even just to say "wow."

I'm sorry the few people she has told have said awful things, especially considering that the first-told probably consist of her nearest and dearest. But a person who's about to have a fifth kid really needs to do the deep breathing exercises that lead to personal acceptance. If it's right for her, then she needs to work on her "Thanks but I didn't ask you" smile. If it isn't right for her, then she needs to start working on a plan to make peace with it. You might be able to help her there, even if only on the practical end of it--scheduling people to help, take her other kids places, stuff like that.

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Anonymous: It's really funny someone wrote in to say check out personality disorders. My therapist recently told me that she didn't think there was much "wrong" with me. She suggested most of my "problems" come from having a wife with a personality disorder. I've lived with it for so long, I had started to believe the abusive remarks and was looking for ways to change, but you can't change enough to please somebody with BPD, which means it's done between us unless she gets serious help. I'm thankful the courts don't automatically award custody to mothers anymore. They deserve a LOT better.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, and I'm sorry for what you've been through. It's not just BPD, either--the list of under-diagnosed ailments that bubble up as rocky marriages is long. See next, too:

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Chicago, Ill.: Re Sister/Walking on Eggshells:

Please research Borderline Personality Disorder. The behaviors you describe sound exactly like BPS, which is fairly common and underdiagnosed. I had a childhood friend who most likely had this, and after 20 years of dreading upseting her without knowing why, I could not take it anymore.

She had trouble maintaining most relationships-friendships, family, work, romantic, etc. BPD sufferers see everything in black & white--people are either perfectly wonderful or absolutely awful; frequent rages; fear of abandonment/constant need for reassurance. They are also charming, intelligent and fun, but eventually drain the life out of you. Anyway, understanding the disorder will help you deal (or not deal) with your sister.

Carolyn Hax: As long as the disorder fits the person. I think for the armchair psychiatrist, errors are the norm, so keep your research broad, your mind open and your results on the general-impression side.

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For Baltimore: First congratulations to Baltimore on her pregnancy! I offer a positive lens through which to view her MIL's silence on the pregnancy. Maybe her MIL wants to make sure Baltimore knows she (MIL) cares about her (Baltimore), and not just about the pregnancy. A friend of mine's mother was like this. And from personal experience, having EVERY conversation with one's MIL focus on your pregnancy has its downsides as well. Middle ground is obviously best her, as always.

Carolyn Hax: Good point, thanks.

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Seattle, Wash.: My father-in-law died recently after a long illness. He left everything (and it was a lot) to his much-beloved fifth wife, based on her promise to leave it all to his kids in HER will. We really want to think she made this promise with the best of intentions... but she is a lawyer, and nobody's fool. Do you think there is any way on earth that a lawyer can make that kind of promise with a straight face? Have you ever heard of a case where a promise like this was actually kept?

Carolyn Hax: So a lawyer isn't capable of honoring a promise? And someone who does make that promise genuinely is a fool?

As it happens, I do know of a case where a promise like this was actually kept, says Pollyanna. But even if I didn't, I think I'd want to have enough faith in humanity to believe it possible, if maybe not likely. Can't get through this world on caffeine alone.

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George Mason, Fairfax, Va.: Carolyn,

I'm a sophomore in college, and, in order to save money and graduate without debt, I've been living at home instead of on campus, which is about a 45 minute drive. There are some not-so-great things about living at home, but on the whole I don't mind except for the fact that I feel socially isolated. The days I go to school I go from early morning until 10pm, and the days I don't go to school I work all day. I don't have time to join any clubs, and I feel like the people who live on campus tend to form friendships with the people they see all the time. Any advice for me, so I don't feel so socially isolated next semester?

Carolyn Hax: Have you considered moving on campus for your junior and senior years? (Don't tell Michelle Singletary I said this.) You'd still graduate way ahead financially than most people who can't afford to pay for college outright--especially if you arranged for a work-study type job.

If that's not possible, then I would suggest you spend your "work all day" days on-campus, with, again, some kind of work-study arrangement if possible.

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Big Family Remarks: I guess that "have you figured out how that happens" could be kind of offensive, but I suspect it was only meant as a (bad) joke - on the other hand, my Mom said my Dad's first response, on each of her pregnancies, was "how did that happen"? So maybe it's a genuine inquiry.

But, as to the hands full remark, was thinking about this the other day - one of my best friends has four boys, and I frequently marvel at what it must take. I'm not judging her adversely, far from it, I'm just in awe - but, we were talking the other day, and I said something like that, I don't know how you do it, and she said you just do - and I got to thinking, yes, we all just do, live with our choices and non-choices (because it's not all a matter of choice) - I live with being single and childless, for example, when I didn't think that's what it would be like.

So, what I'm saying, some of what she's reading as judgment could just be simple observation, or simple wonder - there are some people who will criticize her decision, on ZPG grounds, whatever, but I suspect most people are just mentally putting themselves in her shoes and thinking, I couldn't do it.

But who knows whether they could or not? All that matters is, she's doing what she wants to do - we have to let go of the idea that it has to match up with everyone else's view of the perfect life, and just live the hell out of our own. Because a lot of those remarks, that questioning, is just all of us, trying to figure who we are, where we fit - and I think we can all fall prey to measuring ourselves against some kind of arbitrary standard, that comes from who knows where.

All of which is to say: Let it go.

Carolyn Hax: Just enjoying the fresh air, thanks.

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Speaking of BPD: My cousin in North Carolina has BPD and her 16-year-old daughter is bearing the rather ugly brunt of it right now, while my cousin is in the process of a divorce. Do you know of any resources (books, fiction or non?) I can offer the daughter, even if only to help her understand why her mother acts this way? I feel helpless to do much from a distance.

Carolyn Hax: Throwing this out there, since I don't know offhand but it sounds like something peanutty.

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Whoa!: For that poster whose "problems" stem solely from being married to someone with BPD: it might do you some good to explore why you (a) married and (b) stuck with someone ostensibly emotionally abusive. I want to shake the therapist who told you that your problems stem from your wife's illness! (and I'm both in therapy myself and in training to become one someday) -You- take responsibility for -your- life and decisions. Blaming your problems on your wife won't help a damn thing.

Sorry, but that just really ticked me off. It's not that I don't have sympathy for folks close to those with personality or other entrenched disorders, but come on. Most of these people are in a LOT of pain, far beyond the comprehension of someone without such a disorder. A little empathy, please.

Carolyn Hax: Good point, though people at the receiving end of someone's personality disorder often have their empathy ground to dust in the process. So we third-partiers can do that lifting for them.

I agree fully on the husband's taking responsibility for his decisions. Thanks for catching that.

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Five Kids: Just because people comment on the obvious fact that she has more than the average number of kids doesn't mean they are being judgmental. She may be misinterpreting things that are intended to be nothing more than casual chit-chat. It's normal for people to comment on the unusual. Find a really tall person and ask him how often he's been asked what the weather is like up there. Or a redhead and ask how many comments she's heard in her life about fiery-tempered redheads. She has four kids and is going to have another. It IS somewhat unusual. It's normal for people to notice. And, once they've noticed, it's normal to comment. Maybe if you can get her to look at comments more in the "what's the weather like up there" vein, she can handle a "gee, I've never heard that one before" response without getting hurt feelings.

Carolyn Hax: In other words, downgrade the "hurt" to an "I'm rolling my eyes now." Thanks.

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To: Seattle, Wash.: Seattle should consult with an attorney. Some states allow beneficiaries of such promises to make a will to sue that person's estate if the promise isn't kept. Hopefully it wouldn't get to that point, though.

Carolyn Hax: Have faith plus backup. Works for me.

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At the Corner of 31 and Indecision.: Where do you start when you think you are not where you need to be?

I have a good job, that pays well. I own a condo. I have no debt, (except my mortgage.)

My job is boring. Some days it soul-sucking, some days, it's just okay. I have a lot of vacation and a great boss.

Basically, I have a lot of things people would kill for, but they just aren't working for me.

Lately, I've been wondering if this is it? I'm single, and that's fine, and it's actually on the low list of things I worry about. Personal happiness and life fulfillment, however, are at the top.

So I am wondering - where would you start if you think you needed a change? In my heart, I want to move to another city, and find another job. I know that moving doesn't solve everything, but I keep wondering what I am doing spinning my wheels here...

Carolyn Hax: Me too. What are you doing spinning your wheels here? If you've got a clear (or even a fuzzy) next step in mind, then start stepping that way. You're right to anticipate that moving won't solve everything, and, who knows, could make you miss what you have now--but even then, is that the worst thing?

Something else you can try is devoting your off-work hours to something larger and more fulfilling. There are many ways to make a soul-gratifying life, and soul-gratifying work is only one of them. Sometimes dull work with a great boss is just the financial engine you need to drive some other ... goal, mission, calling?

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Arlington, Va.:"Carolyn Hax: Have you considered moving on campus for your junior and senior years? (Don't tell Michelle Singletary I said this.) You'd still graduate way ahead financially than most people who can't afford to pay for college outright--especially if you arranged for a work-study type job."

I am soooo telling Michelle! She rallies against this every week!!! Shame, Carolyn, shame!!!

Carolyn Hax: Come on, somebody has to stand up for the education you get between classes when you live on campus. If I'm it, then I guess I'll have to stand up for it every week.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: For the girl who lives off-campus and wants to graduate without debt:

I'd like to put in my 2 cents that manageable debt in exchange for a real college experience is totally worth it. Interest rates are low for educational loans, paying on time will help her establish good credit, and the payback terms are usually very flexible.

Graduating debt-free is a noble goal but I wonder if someone hasn't thumped it into her that all debt is bad. When really, sometimes its worth it.

Carolyn Hax: Ka-ching!

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BPD...: Good books:

- "Stop Walking on Eggshells", by Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger

- "I Hate You, Don't Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality", by Jerold J. Kreisman and Hal Straus

- "Surviving a Borderline Parent" by Kimberlee Roth, Freda B. Friedman, and Randi Kreger

And please don't judge people by their diagnosis. I have BPD and I work my butt off with 2x week therapy + meds. My therapist says I've come a long way and my progress is impressive... but I've still been thrown out of psychiatrists' offices on the basis of my diagnosis alone.

Carolyn Hax: I've actually heard that, that some professionals refuse Borderline patients. Thanks for the suggestions (which as always I can't vouch for, since I haven't read them myself).

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For the kid with a BPD mom...:"Lost in the Mirror," by Richard Moskovitz (non-fiction).

I frequently recommend it to my patients' families.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks (same disclaimer).

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Boston, Mass. -- responding to critiqued spouse: OK, I can appreciate your answer a lot -- as the critical one. It helps me a huge amount to realize I grew up in a critical family and to see how much better it is for me to "let go" of all those tendencies to criticize my spouse - which eats away on both sides of the relationship. BUT, what do you do if it's not small things? Like bad financial decisions, or not helping out when help is obviously needed, or you just think he's being lazy and prefers to let you take care of everything or -- eewww -- lies on a new couch with his sweaty stinky bod. Yuck. How can you not say -- hey, that's just not the way to do things? Without eroding the good part of the relationship?

Carolyn Hax: I think you stay away from, "That's not the way to do things," and go instead with, "Would you please help me with this?"

If it's more than a onetime thing, then airing your feelings is -not- criticizing. But only if you really do air your feelings, vs. accuse--"I feel resentful about all the work I do around the house"--and only if you say it with a mind open to the possibility that he's carrying as much domestic weight as you are, and you simply aren't seeing it. There has to be room for him to present his view. That's a key element of being critical, the I'm-all-right-you're-all-wrong mind-set. If you've got a black-and-white vision of things, then that's a cue to take another pass at learning to let things go.

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A world of disorders: Carolyn, maybe it's me but does everything have to be called a "disorder" or "syndrome" now? "Borderline personality disorder"?? I'm not meaning to be insensitive, but isn't this just a way the pharma/medical industry is trying to further dissect us into normal/abnormal? And what qualifies as a disorder? Does it have to be chemical to get a name? Again, not being flippant, but I've wondered what will qualify as a legitimate "disorder" and what drug will fix it?

Carolyn Hax: There have been huge leaps in understanding of how the brain functions. That doesn't mean that responsibility is "out" and disorders are "in," it's just that more research has brought more understanding and that understanding has sharpened diagnoses, to the point where many things that were just written off as quirky or mean are being identified as actual illnesses with causes, symptoms and treatments. Just read a bit on addiction alone, to get a sense of the progress.

Certainly this understanding is a work in progress, and is at once being over- and under-applied. But to dismiss it as a ploy by the pharma-industrial complex to push drugs on people or to dissect us into camps is to (inadvertently) romanticize suffering. Obviously, some suffering is inevitable in any life, but ask anyone who has gone through life with a vast, vague sense of frustration what it feels like to have a syndrome named and treated.

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Washington, D.C.: So, what can you do if you're the person being nit-picked? Lately my partner has been picking on me and questioning me to death for every little thing and I don't understand why. Like not making conversation, not kissing up to former standards, not valuing the relationship enough. It's always so out of the blue that I don't even know how to respond, so then he just gets more and more frustrated with me. I don't know how defend myself against accusations of not kissing well anymore.

Carolyn Hax:"Is there something you'd like to say to me?" Bigger things often get said in smaller, less scary pieces.

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Online Only: I know this sounds silly considering some of the other questions you handle, but I'm now in my early 20s and my friends are curious as to why I don't drink. I don't have any religious or moral objections, but for the past four years I have been receiving treatment for depression. A simple "No thank you" doesn't suffice for my friends and some have told me they think I look down on them for drinking and as a result I get excluded a lot whenever they get together. Am I being overly cautious with not drinking at all or what? I don't really like telling people about the depression because it often gets me treated differently.

Carolyn Hax:"I don't like it"; "I'm on medication"; "I'm allergic"; "I prefer drugs"; "It used to make me projectile vomit, but I'm willing to try again if you're buying." I feel your nosy-question pain, but surely you can think of something?

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Carolyn Hax: Before you can remind me--yes, I do always argue against the canned comeback. But this one seems like one you don't even have to prepare ahead of time. Just free-associate.

Oh, I forgot--"I'm pregnant." Works best for guys. "Club soda makes me fizzy all over." Also best for guys.

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He Said - She Said: Hi Carolyn-

Over the last few chats you have mentioned the He Said - She Said type columns where both people are represented. Have you published any of these? Frankly, I'm dying to read them!

Thanks in advance

Carolyn Hax: Me too! More questions, more questions. Thanks--it's been a while since I asked.

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DumpyVille, US: Carolyn --

My ex just e-mailed to tell me he's engaged to the girl he left me for, a few days ago the new guy left to pursue somebody he's been "head over heels for" for the past year, and next week I have to wear a frosty pink bridesmaid dress at the wedding of my cousin who is seven years younger than me. Any words to keep the sanity?

Many thanks.

Carolyn Hax: That this is what turns people into funny, empathetic, likable friends and mates. It also supports the frosty pink bridesmaid dress industry, which needs our support in these difficult times. Hang in there. And send photos!

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For George Mason: Post on Craigslist for a group house that has a couch in the basement/attic/living room where you could crash twice a week. Put $100 towards the group rent and nobody would care. Or, even cheaper, find a friend on campus who would let you sleep on her couch once a week so you could go out and do fun things. This isn't that rare for commuter students to do!

Carolyn Hax: Thanks! I've got a pile of posts supporting the move on-campus, but this is a great compromise for those who can't swing it.

And it's also a great way to end today, on time, as a Fourth of Julyish gesture to the patient and talented Liz. Bye everyone, thank you, and type to you next week.

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