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Carolyn Hax Live: Potential Parent vs. "Vessel," Friends with Benefits, and Cupcake-Hating Boyfriends

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008; 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 day in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. 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.

A transcript follows.

Write to Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

Carolyn's Recent Columns

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Wellfleet, Mass.: I am a 40 year-old male and am currently dating casually. I am highly motivated to get married and start a family. My question is this: How do I ask potential mates if they are able to have children, without being offensive? I have recently been on dates with women both in their late thirties and cervical cancer survivors. They both seemed reserved or non-responsive to my subtle hints at the BIG QUESTION. And WHEN do I ask? After one month of dating or sooner? I am no spring chicken myself!

Carolyn Hax: So, you're looking for a vessel? I would state that up front.

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Carolyn Hax: Where are my manners. Hi, everybody.
If anyone out there knows anyone who plays on the Belmont U. men's basketball team, please pass along my thanks for a great game.

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Today's column: I'm sure I'm not the only one who pointed this out, but... I think the fact that the daughters are 18 is significant. The writer doesn't say whether this has always been her friend's position, or only since her daughter became a legal adult. Sure, parents don't have to allow these situations under their own roof - my parents didn't. But my parents also realized that was the point where I was going to have to start taking responsibility for my own actions, and being an adult. So they had to start trying to treat me like one, despite the many mistakes I might have made (and did, in fact, make).

Carolyn Hax: I tried to make that point myself in the fewest words possible, by pointing out these girls were in fact the age of majority. It really, in my opinion, shuts down anyone who would criticize a permissive parent. Disagree, fine; make other choices for your kids, absolutely. But the laws says (again, in most jurisdictions) these are adult women, and so their parents have every right to treat them as such. Thanks for the opening to expand when I don't have a word count to worry about.

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Could there be more: Hi Carolyn,

A few months ago a male friend and I were introduced though a mutual acquaintance. The relationship quickly involved into a 'friends with benefits' situation (at his request, though I am certainly enjoying myself as well). We have great conversation, the sex is great, and I am pretty sure the attraction is mutual. I'm beginning to wonder why the conversation of dating hasn't come up - we're both late 20s, single, and get along well.

I want to think it could be he isn't aware of my interest in dating, but am hesitant because if this is all he's looking for, I don't want to make things awkward. Any suggestions on the best way to broach the subject? Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Note to self: install padding on keyboard.
Someone who requests a "friends with benefits" situation wants to have sex on demand without the hassle of committing to you. What you agreed to was what you got. If you wanted more, the right answer to the original invitation was, "You're kidding, right?"
And if you were okay with it then but you are no longer okay with it now, then the right answer now is, "I was okay with this then but I'm not okay with it now."
If your worst fear is of making things awkward, then you virtually guarantee that you will refrain from protesting anything and thus continue to offer yourself up for being used.
I propose the following as a worst fear: being in a relationship in which you're complicit in being used. If you don't like the terms of the relationship, say so, and if he dumps you because he doesn't like your terms, then realize that is in fact the second-best outcome.

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Seattle, Wash.: I'm four months pregnant and dread telling my parents. I'm not sure exactly why (yes, I'm married and quite old enough). We haven't told the in-laws yet, either. With my husband's family we're worried that they're not going to care (grandparents raised him, dad's only been a part of his life the last few years, mom & grandpa are deceased). My mom can be a bit overbearing and kind of took over the wedding a bit, but I keep telling myself that she can't really take over my childbirth, right? My parents are coming to visit in 3 weeks, so it's not like I can hide this much longer, I'm all belly, so it's kind of obvious at this point.

Carolyn Hax: If your answer to an incoming missile is to hope the damage won't be too too terrible, then I think your first step in dealing with this should be to look at your way of dealing with things. Where you're denying I would suggest accepting, where you're hoping I would suggest preparing, where you're stalling I would suggest moving forward.
The former in each of these comparisons is passive; your coping strategy, apparently, in the face of an overbearing mother has been to surrender up front in hopes of avoiding confrontation. Which does work great for that purpose--you will have fewer battles, if you have any at all.
However, as a life strategy, it has some serious flaws. The price you pay for this peace is (as you've witnessed plenty yourself) that every event/a birth/a life will take shape in your mother's image. If she doesn't define it herself with her presence, you will still see the outline created by her deliberate exclusion. Hers is the last word regardless.
(more)

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Carolyn Hax: Since you're about to be raising a child of your own in a matter of months, now seems like an awfully good time to figure out who you are, what you want your life to look like, and how to stand up for these two things when you're under pressure from the outside.
Part of that is self-acceptance. It can be on an almost ridiculously mundane level, like, what you like to eat for breakfast and when, and on a profound level, like, I don't want to grant large roles in my emotional life to people who can't or won't just accept me for who I am. (Sorry to get all Stuart Smalley on you.)
Another part of that is other-acceptance. It's to know who your mother is well enough, and to accept this well enough, to stop wishing she'll respond in some other way than you have come to expect. What you've seen all your life is probably what you'll get. Just knowing that--knowing that the fact of living life on your own terms will bring out a predictable reaction in her--can make it easier to deflect the flak when it comes.

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sex without commitment: What is so wrong with this?

Carolyn Hax: Note to self: reinforce table under padded keyboard.
Nothing is wrong with it if that's what you consciously want and choose.
Everything is wrong with it if you agree to it when you are secretly hoping for something else but don't have the nerve to assert yourself for fear of scaring off the person who is using you.

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Washington, D.C.: He may be looking for a "vessel" but plenty of women are looking for sperm. And I say this as a mid 30s woman. I am getting a lot less picky and I too would rather have that conversation up front, maybe not the first date but in one month I think it should be clear if people wants kids in general, maybe not with each other just that its a wish the other person shares. Let's just get real here. Time counts at some point and having children is a deal breaker for most people.

Carolyn Hax: I hope you see how (pardon the pun) dehumanizing this all is. You're putting a higher value on having -biological- children than on the character, work ethic, sense of humor, roots, culture, stories, lumps, bumps and scars of the person you're getting to know. Somebody loves these men (or, in the case of Vessel Guy, women). Someone when to the trouble to raise them, feed them, clothe them, kiss their boo-boos, instill values in them. I doubt you'd want your longed-for baby to be regarded so lightly when s/he's of age to start a family. Respect the person you're dating, whether you're interested or not, or don't date.

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Job Hazards: Frankly, as a faithful reader of your discussions and columns, I think everything in your office should be made out of Nerf material.

Carolyn Hax: There is a soft, spongy lightbulb over my head. Thanks!

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Carolyn Hax: Sorry, guys, I just finished and then changed my mind on an answer. I'll try to be quick to make up some ground.

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Fairfax, Va.: In previous chats/columns I swear you've said that people dating in their 30's & over are of course entitled to bring up the baby conversation pretty early on. Is the distinction here that today's poster so clearly was looking for a vessel, vs. someone who is interested in dating & wants to clear up the subject? I'm having trouble drawing the line here.

Carolyn Hax: Here's the line: It's fine to ask if someone wants children--in other words, the experience of raising children, be it through birth, adoption, fostering, step-parenting, and whatever other legal method I may have overlooked. Often people will live according to their second choice, because they're willing to sacrifice their first choice to be with the people they love. But it's still a matter of character--you're choosing mates based on who they are and what they value, which is as it should be.
When it becomes, "I'm not interested in you unless you can bear children with my genetic material," then it gets into the aforesaid dehumanization territory. Then it's not, what are your values, it's, does your uterus work?
I hope that makes the line pop a little better for you.

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Frustrated Baker: I love baking. My boyfriend has some sort of cake aversion, although he likes sweet stuff in general.

I bake whenever I get a chance for an appreciative audience, mostly for potlucks, where the tasties are devoured by people who sometimes literally queue around me when I walk through the door with a batch of cupcakes. But BF is not so subtle about saying, "BLECH!" and spitting out things that he tries, just to be nice, but thinks are too sweet.

I am very careful about making recipes with balanced flavors; I often REDUCE the amount of sugar in a recipe. I myself am not a sugar hound, and I know that on the terms of sweetness, these things are nowhere near overbearing.

I say, DON'T WASTE A PERFECTLY GOOD CUPCAKE that you know you won't like. And if you do elect to taste it, don't make noises of disgust, but rather, choke it down, or discreetly set it aside, if necessary. I don't spit out his -or anyone else's- recipe failures.

So, my question is, how can he possibly think it's OK to stand in a room full of people who are all eating, and yell "BLECH" about the dish I brought, which everyone else likes just fine, but be silent about the real potluck stinkers?

Am I missing something, or is he just being incredibly rude? This seems like a no-brainer to me, but he acts like he is unwilling/unable to restrain himself from commentary, and won't understand why I am angry with him after these types of gatherings.

Carolyn Hax: Top ten things that recommend him as a person:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
You have an hour.

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Re: Washington, D.C.: You know, it's really easy for those people who got lucky and found the ideal mate and started a family to tell the rest of us that we shouldn't settle for someone less than ideal if we want kids and a family. It's horribly insensitive, mainly because those lucky people will never had to face that possibility when they hit the end of their child-bearing years.

Bridget Jones had an excellent term for people like that.

Carolyn Hax: If you have something to say, please just say it.
And, for what it's worth, many people who do appreciate their mates and are raising families have themselves stared long and hard at the prospect not only of having a very different life, but also at having this different life chosen for them.
And, while we're gazing bitterly over the fence, some people also have had this kind of life only to see it get swept away by betrayal, illness, freak accident, whatever.
And some have gotten exactly what they wanted only to learn firsthand the meaning of, "Be careful what you wish for."
And, finally, some people have gotten nothing they wished for and been overcome by gratitude for it, for whatever reason.
So let's not slap the "easy" label on people. Accomplishes nothing.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding XO from Wednesday:

"Two husbands of two friends who have birthdays this week called me. "Any suggestions on what to get my wife for her birthday?"

I was unhelpful. No suggestions. Should I have told them the obvious? Pick up after your kids. Do it for your wife's birthday and forever after. This will tell her that you love her. Then also tell her she's beautiful. Am I a coward for not speaking up? "

This has got to be one of the MOST sexist things I've ever heard. What makes you think the husbands aren't already pulling their share of the kid raising and domestic duties? As a man I was incredibly offended by this remark. As a woman you should be offended too. This comment makes the assumption that the woman in the relationship is ordinarily subservient to the man. This is 2008 not 1950... There's no more "Leave it to Beaver."

These men were simply soliciting their wives' friend for ideas which are greeted with unhelpfulness (what a good friend).

Carolyn Hax: I would have been offended if someone in, say, my position had recommended that--I know nothing of these marriages. So I would have been assuming based solely on sex.
But this was from a friend, one close enough to these women for the husbands to be calling to tap his/her knowledge of the wives' hopes, dreams and shoe sizes. I don't think it was a leap to treat this person as privy to at least the wives' views of the marriage. In other words, s/he would have been in a fine position to know these women really just wanted their husband's cooperation and affection.

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Washington, D.C.: Let me clarify my post on being up front about children. It is a deal breaker for me. So no matter how fabulous and wonderful you are as a man, if you don't want children then I can't envision a future with you. Carolyn, I think you are telling women, however subtly, that they should keep dating a man who fundamentally does not want the same thing in the hopes that once in love, she can change him or he will come around. This is right up there with people who tell those who don't want children "oh, you will change your mind when meet the right person" -- people want what they want if they know themselves well enough. I would hope a man would just break up with me early on if he knew for certain that he did not want kids. You are lucky, you have kids so you aren't dealing with the clock ticking.

Carolyn Hax: No no no, you are misreading my advice. I am saying there is a dramatic difference between assessing a mate on his/her desire to have a family, vs. assessing on his/her physical ability to procreate. The former is about values, and flat-out necessary; the latter is about meat, and flat-out offensive.
I'm out of ideas for stating this distinction more clearly.

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Important Ethics Question: So I'm in a baby pool at work (it's my pregnancy - I'm at 37 weeks). And I learned at my doctor's appt this morning that I will need to have a c-section, and she scheduled it. I have to choose my baby pool square this afternoon. Is it ethical for me to withhold this info from my coworkers? Most of them have chosen and have chosen earlier than my c-section date. I WANT TO WIN.

Carolyn Hax: If there is justice in the world, you will choose your square, and then go into labor next week and have to have an unscheduled C-section.
In case this was a serious question: You're out of the pool, the betting window is closed as of right now, and the square closest to the actual birth date wins.

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Re: Cupcakes: I like that differences over dessert foods could be the downfall of a relationship.

Carolyn Hax: I know. Especially since the Cupcake Test is one only about two people have failed in the history of mankind.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Carolyn!

I am 5 months pregnant with my first child, and my emotionally manipulative, huge stress-inducing mother in law wants to come to visit "as soon as the baby is born". The good thing is my husband and I have complete control over when she comes and how long she stays, since she cannot afford her own plane ticket. We are good at establishing boundaries with her, like, No, you cannot stay at our house; we're putting you in a hotel. My question is: at what point, after having a baby, do you feel back-to-normal enough to handle any visitors, much less one that just makes you want to scream? I'm foreseeing some hormone and sleep deprived induced tears and rages in my future, but at the same time, am not one to keep someone from their grandchild.

My dad and sister also want to come up to visit, and that's great, because I know that they will help me, not just blather on and on about the wonders of rolling your own organic cigarettes and how "unfair" it is being on welfare, while eyeing my wallet.

Carolyn Hax: You can really only play it by ear. So many variables affect how you feel--your health, the baby's health, your and the baby's temperament. Just to give you an idea--if you have a C-section, you could need days of recovery. Of you could be fine, while your baby needs time in the NICU, so you'll be back and forth between home and the hospital. Or you'll prepare for your first week to be the hardest, but the baby will sleep sleep sleep ... and then at week two get colicky (or whatever the going term is, I think "colic" is old-school) and cry for the next 6 to 8 weeks.
Have your baby. Find your footing. Then you can arrange the visit.

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Reston, Va.: Dear Carolyn,

A few years ago I had a falling out with a long time friend and stopped all contact (for the betterment of my own mental health). My fiance agreed to do the same. Over the years, the former friend has contacted both of us. My fiance feels obligated to respond to the former friend and usually does so in a friendly way. This hurts me very much because I cannot forget the hurt and pain this person caused me. I've tried to explain this to him, but he thinks that I am being unreasonable and should just "get over it." After dealing with my extreme reactions, he eventually agreed to not talk to this person (this was about one year ago). I recently found out from a third party that he has stayed in contact with the former friend. I feel like he has lied to me for a year. I can't imagine trusting him ever again and I can't imagine marrying someone I don't trust. I don't know what to do...

Carolyn Hax: It certainly sounds as if your method, as a couple, for dealing with differences of opinion is going to bring you down eventually if it doesn't now. Two people are going to disagree on some things--but if you can't coexist peacefully with these differences without insisting on and/or lying about compliance, then this is bound to come up again on an issue of even greater consequence. Good that you see the seriousness of it now.
If you don't love him any more or will always be doubting his word, then this is done.
If you do love him and it's conceivable that you can trust him again, depending on the outcome of the all-out conversation you've been needing all along, then start that conversation. "Agreeing when you don't agree, and then lying to me about it to keep me happy, is untenable. If you don't think it's right to sever your relationship with this person, then I need you to tell me that and let me choose how to respond."

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Boston, Mass.: Speaking of cupcakes...I brought a guy who works in another department who I have a crush on a cupcake (had brought in for coworkers and there were extras). Is there any reason I shouldn't just ask him out? Friend says if he were interested he would have made some type of move.

Carolyn Hax: Irrelevant factoid: When I first looked at your question, my eyes caught the phrase, "I have a crush on a cupcake."
Here a reason not to ask him out: He might say no. If that doesn't strike you as a good enough reason not to ask him out, then ask him out.

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Clear as crystal: Your advice to the friends with benefits person, the woman whose friends' husbands sought gift advice, and the ovary-seeking man were all perfectly clear and specific to those examples, not EVERY man and EVERY woman. I'm getting exhausted by all the "gotcha people" who participate in the chat just hoping to catch you in some sort of generalization.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Before I respond, I'll check to see if it's a lone opinion or one of many.

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For Seattle, Wash: Instead of dreading the situation, anticipate and be prepared. We all know our mother's arguments or approaches. For example, if it about the actual birth then you need to state what your plans are. If she gets angry, then absorb the anger and say something like "we are making the best decision possible and are bound to disappoint people. We, however, look forward to you being our baby's grandmother." If she issues a threat, such as not having any thing to do with you or the baby. It is the same response: Husband and I have developed a vision of how this birth will happen, we look forward to having you (fill in the blank)and want you to be the baby's grandmother. If she cries, it is the same response. If it was my mother, I would add in the part of "she had her chance to be a mom and please let me have my chance to define my role as a mother." This always works for me.

The key to what I am writing is to think through what her arguments or behavior will be and to practice the response until it becomes second nature. It wouldn't hurt to say a few "I love you and need you, but I need you to let me tell you how you can best help me."

Carolyn Hax: Sounds like you've had a lot of practice. Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm trying to get back into the dating scene awhile after my wife passed away at 55 due to end-stage alcoholism, so I'm a bit wary. Given that the majority of the Post's Dating Labs end in 'failure', at a cost of $125, I'm wondering if it would be appropriate to lay the following ground rule when arranging the first date:

Any time during the date, especially at conclusion, either party should be honest and up front in relaying initial feeling; if any or both parties agree no chemistry, then split the check; otherwise, the initiator of the date picks up the tab. Fair?

Carolyn Hax: I'm not sure if a fair/unfair scale applies. The way you've laid it out, it sounds like commerce.
Don't date to "succeed" by finding a mate; date for companionship as an end unto itself. If you've had a pleasant time, then ask the person out again. If you haven't had a pleasant time, then don't ask again. As for "ground rules," the person who initiates the date pays for a date (until of course you become an established couple, when you two find a balance of your own, on your own, that makes sense).
If money is an issue, mitigate it by choosing inexpensive outings for your first dates, like meeting for coffee. Save the white-tablecloth outings for when you know you're with someone who can at least carry $62.50's worth of conversation.

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Frustrated Baker, again: OK, so I get your point with the "top ten", and I really have to say that I appreciate you entertaining my question because it is really not of the magnitude of some of the other issues people give you.

1. He's funny.

2. He's good with kids, and fosters dogs.

3. He's smart and has a job he likes, that I respect, and that he does very well.

4. He wears mis-matched socks on purpose.

5. He shares my fringe-y social mores.

6. He makes up funny songs and sings them to me.

7. He tolerates me practicing the instrument I'm learning without complaining about the noise (I'm really terrible).

8. Is generally receptive to my efforts to make him more civilized (i.e.: less dirt/dog hair on the floor, does laundry more frequently, now sleeps in a bed instead of a sleeping bag)

9. Helps me fix my house and my car.

10. Good sex.

He is a good person overall, and I don't believe that disliking cupcakes is a dealbreaker in and of itself; I just wish he wouldn't be rude about it. If it was someone else's food, he would not behave that way.

Long-term, the big issue is that I have been unable to convince him that it IS rude, and it DOES make me very upset, and I worry how that will translate into other, bigger problems.

Generally he is a sweet guy, so I can't imagine he's out to taunt me deliberately, but I also can't believe he could be so clueless when I am saying to him, "you are hurting my feelings and wasting food, and you must stop."

Carolyn Hax: Quiz grade, A. Nice work.
Here's what he is, deliberately, according to your own eyes and ears: Deliberately, verging on showily, against-the-grain. If you're going to choose to walk through life with a capital-C Character, then prepare either never to win the great cupcake battle, or to win it only to see three similar battles come up. You either go Zen with a guy like this, or go nuts.
BTW, this is a question of equal magnitude. What do we do here but parse quality of life, through knowledge of self and others?

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On cupcake guy: He keeps trying her cupcakes, even though experience tells him he's probably not going to like the latest batch, either. The man believes in hope. That's gotta count for SOMETHING.

Carolyn Hax: This would be funny, if it didn't involve the senseless destruction of perfectly good cupcakes.

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18 year old daughters: I liked your response to the questioner in today's column, but I would add a further elucidation: The best thing you can do for your daughter at this age (or any age) is to be sure of your own values and stick by them. That doesn't mean that you have to be strict for the sake of being strict, and you should certainly be open to conversations with her about what the rules of the house are and how they may be reconsidered or amended, but I am standing and clapping for the idea that she is making the "my house, my rules" stand.

My husband and I are in the middle of a difficult situation with our 18-year old (his daughter from his first marriage), and the way that we have all gotten through this is that her mom (his ex), he and I are all on the same page and sending a consistent message.

Is it easy? No. Is it painful? Sometimes, yes.

She should tell her friend to go pee up a rope. And if her daughter tries to throw her friend's "cool mom" into her face, she should just say, "Well, sadly for you, you don't have a cool mom. You have me. Sucks to be you."

I won't bore you with the details of our little mini-drama, but if it weren't for the solidarity we have with each other and with her mom, this would all be a lot tougher. So for what it's worth, today's questioner has the support of a stranger in Charlottesville, VA!

Carolyn Hax: I'm posting this not only because you round out the answer with some other things I would have liked to include and that I didn't think to include, but also because you used one of my mom's favorite expressions. Ah, mom. Thanks for that.

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Follow up to Reston, Va.: In general, what is your opinion about asking a significant other to join you in cutting off all contact with a person?

Carolyn Hax: I just touched on it so here's the fuller version: Yellow Flag 1 went up when I saw that she essentially forbade him to stay in touch with the friend, and Yellow Flag 2 went up when his way of dealing with that was to "yes" her without meaning it. (They have to replay the down, in case you're keeping score.)
She needs to grow up enough either to accept dissent, when the issue isn't larger than the relationship itself, or to end the relationship when the dissent involves values that outweigh him.
He needs to grow up enough either to respect his fiancee's position enough to sever the friendship, or to take and (this is important) articulate his differing stand on the friendship and discuss with his fiancee what she'd like to do now, given that neither is budging.
Any time someone this passionate about something is dismissed with a, "You're just being [whatever]," there's just as much trouble as when contact with someone is prohibited. Both amount to Scotch-taping a fault line.

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child abuse: come on now, all this talk of frosty gooey pillowy cupcakes is killing me....I'm seven months pregnant with gestational diabetes. I'm on the verge of committing child abuse and buying a case of trans-fatty Hostesses...

Carolyn Hax: Remember, we're talking about cupcakes so awful you have to spit them out loudly in front of people. Boy oh boy, I could really go for some carrot sticks right now. Mmm ...

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Richmond, Va.: So my boyfriend of 3 years and I have been talking about marriage for the past couple of months. We've had a solid, stable relationship throughout our time together; we make important decisions as a team; we're on the same page when it comes to handling money and thinking about children; we love and respect each other, we have a whole lot of fun together, and he's super hot. I want to be married to him, and I feel ready.

The problem? We're both 22. I don't much care whether other people think we're too young (well, I do care, but not enough to let it be a major factor in the decision). I know, however, that we each have a whole lot of living ahead of us, and there's no way I can predict what I'll be like in 20 and 40 years. How do you distinguish between a faith in your own abilities to grow as a couple and the stupidity of being too young to know any better?

Carolyn Hax: Through hindsight, unfortunately.
If it helps, that hindsight is so often, "I -knew- but for some reason I just didn't face it."
And the reason is usually that the person just wasn't ready to face it. Not mature enough, not certain enough, not self-aware enough ... which I guess come back around to "not mature enough."
Which comes back to the fact that you probably won't know for another 10 to 20 years whether you're mature enough for this now, so all you can do is ask yourself if you feel ready, make sure you aren't actively trying to rationalize anything, and make your best decision. Even if it turns out not to have been the right decision, that doesn't mean it was a bad one. Mazel tov.

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Mom's favorite expression: Which is it?

"You don't have a cool mom. You have me. Sucks to be you"?

Or "go pee up a rope"?

Because I think I have my own favorite expression now.

Carolyn Hax: B., but the unprintable version.

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Carolyn Hax: I was looking for a good parting shot, but then it occurred to me I already posted one. So, goodbye, thank you, and type to you next Friday. I might be a little late--no later than 12:15--though I will do my best to start on time.

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