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Carolyn Hax Live: Father-To-Be Times Two, plus Plagiarism, Flirting and The Silent Treatment

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008; 12:00 PM

In her daily column 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.

Carolyn was online Friday, July 25 taking 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.

A transcript follows.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's brand new discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

Carolyn's Recent Columns

Carolyn Hax Live Archives

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Washington, D.C. : Hi, Carolyn.

Long story short, there are two women pregnant by me at once. I am not currently in a relationship with either one, but I still plan to support and help raise both baby girls. I have always wanted children and am, despite the circumstances, very excited to be a father. They are due within three months of each other.

You'll probably say this is the least of my worries right now, but how do I deal with the (understandable) assumptions people make about my past behavior because of this situation? One of the mothers is my ex-fiancee and the other is a woman I dated casually for a short while after we broke the engagement. Neither pregnancy was planned, but I was diligent about protection.

In other words, I'm not a cheater, and chance had more of a hand in this than irresponsibility did. I am 33 and I know where babies come from. How do I deal with all the judgment that's pouring in from my parents, my sister, my closest friends, the mothers' families, even my boss?

Once again, I have always wanted kids and am thrilled by both pregnancies. On top of just being the best dad I can be, what else can I do to redeem myself here?

Carolyn Hax: Interesting. The claim to being "diligent about protection" may mean you need a refresher on how these things work, since the effectiveness of, say, condoms is 85 percent for "typical" use (which I assume means not absolutely perfect use), and you had two failures in three months.

That being said, even these oopses don't erase the underlying facts, which are that you impregnated two women through exactly the kind of behavior the people judging you probably either engage in now or have engaged in recently themselves: adult, consensual sex within the bounds of a monogamous relationship. So, short of pointing that out every time someone judges you, all you can really do is know, in your own heart, that you aren't as bad as you look, and be the best dad you can. I.e., your behavior over the long haul will have to mount your defense for you.

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Miami, Fla. : Carolyn,

My girlfriend is a senior in college and I am just starting an MFA program with a concentration in fiction. We both love to write, but our styles are different and hers needs a bit more polish. She is enrolled in a writing workshop, but recently procrastinated on a deadline and begged to submit one of my works in progress as her own.

I panicked and agreed, because the time constraint didn't leave me much time to think it over and because a missed workshop would have resulted in her failing the class. It wasn't a story I've submitted anywhere, so there's no danger of academic trouble on my end, but in the months since then, I have begun to feel a horrible, sick feeling about what we did.

The best way I can explain it is, my stories are like my babies, and I feel like I just involved one of my babies in a criminal act. I love my girlfriend and I didn't/don't want to let her down (so I think coming clean to her dean is out), but I can't reconcile the guilt I feel at having let her pass my work off as her own.

What can I do? Nothing?

Carolyn Hax: I'd advise strongly against doing nothing, actually. You are responsible for your actions, of course, and this very bad decision is yours to claim as your own. However, your girlfriend is due for a hard look now, too. Who is she? Who asks of someone what she asked of you?

It would be one thing if she had made her own dubious academic decision, but she recruited someone else to help her cheat. And -you're- the one agonizing now over it? Her behavior strikes me as not only irresponsible and dishonest, but selfish as well. At least look at this hard enough to figure out (without telling yourself a whopper) whether this was outrageously out-of-character for her. If it wasn't, I wouldn't entrust that character with any more of my future, if I were you.

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Friends with a not-yet-ex husband: Long story short: my husband left me to try his cards with another woman. I love him deeply and think he loves me very much as well, but just felt he couldn't be true to our marriage vows any more. This is all still very fresh (four months, I'm obviously still heartbroken and he's pretty devestated by how much he hurt me).

I have stopped trying to convince him to come back to me and I've stopped believing that he might (though I still would be willing to give it a chance). If I can do it and be healthy, I really want to be friends with him again someday.

My question is this: do I need to cut off all contact between now and "someday"? I am hoping that someday I miss my friend more than I miss my husband and can truly interact with him in a real way. But until then, should I refuse to interact with him? (It's my call; he wants to interact with me, but will abide by my decision). I try to keep contact to a bare minimum (logistics around family stuff and we don't have kids), but don't always succeed and don't want to hurt myself by giving in to how much I miss him.

Confused? I am.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sorry. The answer for this is different for everybody, though the goal is pretty much the same: You want to get past the stage of churning emotions, to the stage where you're more able to think clearly. Some people definitely benefit from taking away the source of the angst while they deal with those emotions. But some couples don't have that luxury--when there are children to raise together, for example--and many of them make do and get through the emotions even while stirring them up on a regular basis. Since there are no rules, you might as well feel it out--try having occasional contact, and if you find that it's tearing you up--or if that's what you've been trying and this is why you're here--then go for a blackout for a while.

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Math: If "the effectiveness of, say, condoms is 85 percent for "typical" use (which I assume means not absolutely perfect use)," then the chance for failure each time is about 15% which means the chance of failure for two consecutive uses is 15% squared or about 2%. This sounds low until you realize there are plenty of people out there that use condoms in which case two failures in three months can be expected to happen pretty often. Maybe the message should be "don't rely on condoms."

Carolyn Hax: No, the message really is to learn how to use them properly, and to use them every time. Here's a fun little stat, from "Contraceptive Technology": "In one year, only two of every 100 couples who use condoms consistently and correctly will experience an unintended pregnancy--two pregnancies arising from an estimated 8,300 acts of sexual intercourse, for a 0.02 percent per-condom pregnancy rate."

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Bethesda, Md.: My wife and her father are very close and on the whole I like him, but he has one aspect of his personality that drives me up the wall. He is FAR right politically (I like to think I'm center), and loves to 'talk' politics. The problem is they are more like cross-examinations than 'talks.' For example, he will say things like "Do you believe in A?" I say yes. Then, "Okay, so now do you think people should be allowed to do B?" I say yes (all of these proposals are simplistic and worded in a way that it would be next to impossible to not say yes). He then says something like "Gotcha! Now how can you disagree with C?!?"

I've tried changing the subject when these 'talks' start. He ignores it. Walking away would be very rude and uncomfortable (perhaps he's counting on this). How do I put a stop to these interrogations?

Carolyn Hax: What a doink. All you really have in your favor is humor, the more absurd the better. You're there, you're not walking away, you're not getting pissy, you're just answering from the moon. (If you can reel off the "I believe in ..." speech from "Bull Durham," on cue, every time your FIL corners you like this, then you might not have to worry about these interrogations for much longer.)

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Mr. "Diligent About Protection" -- Paternity?: He had better make sure he doesn't sign any birth certificates or paternity acknowledgments before seeking DNA confirmation.

To do otherwise would just be, well, stupid. Seems men in general forget this step and make a lot of assumptions -- and I'm afraid that goes for a surprising number of married guys who assume the children they are raising are theirs. (A few states are toying with the idea of DNA testing being a mandatory-automatic part of the hospital experience, but I've not kept up to date on that.)

Obviously, if he isn't concerned about paternity and wants to raise the kids regardless, he needn't raise the issue.

Carolyn Hax: His suggesting it could of course sour the relationships with both women, another thing to consider, especially if these turn out to be his children. Weighed against the possibility of supporting another man's child, though, that might be a risk worth taking. Thanks.

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Flirting: Your column today got me to thinking about a conversation my husband and I occassionally have about flirting. Neither of us are concerned about what the other might do, or that the other one is engaging in over-the-line flirtation. However, he believes that many men are what he calls "putting their cork in the water" with words or actions that are far less overt than your writer's "friend" who said he liked looking at her body. It's hard to give examples without context (e.g., we all know situations where if Bob said it, it was harmless, but if Joe said it, look out). He agreed that some women might be doing this too. He then joked that of course as my husband, he thinks any man flirting with me is putting his cork in the water.

So, do you think all flirtations are putting the cork in the water so to speak, or that there can in fact be harmless flirtation between two people?

Carolyn Hax: I think you answered it yourself--we all know situations where if Bob said it, it was harmless, but if Joe said it, look out. That certainly is just as apt with Cindy and Mary.

If no flirtation can be considered harmless, then we might as well stop making wine and music, too.

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Re: Miami: It's the least of their problems, but I laughed when the BF felt the need to point out that his writing style was better than his GF. Unless he's so much better that it would raise suspicion, that detail was in no way relevant to the story. But all writers (including me!) have an arrogant streak, hee.

Carolyn Hax: Funny. I read it as explaining why his unfinished work would be suitable to submit while hers wasn't, but now that you put it this way, it might be another reason (the real reason?) these two are done for. Thanks.

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Los Angeles: My parents decided to visit my sister for two weeks. The problem is, sis and her husband are going on vacation about 10 days into the parents' visit. Parents want to stay at sis' place after sis leaves. Sis doesn't want that but doesn't know how to tell them. Is there any way to tell them without causing a lifetime of hurt feelings?

Carolyn Hax: Dunno. What's her reasoning?

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N.Y., N.Y.: Are people in committed, monogamous relationships "entitled" to certain sexual favors from their partners? I understand the emotional need for intimacy, the physical need for release, etc., but it feels wrong to me to be told that I -need- to do something because that's my role as partner. How do you reconcile that your needs are different from your partner's, and your expectations of intimacy are not the same as theirs?

Carolyn Hax: You talk about it, you accept that each of you is a certain way and, realistically, only able to move a little bit in a different direction to please someone else. Then you decide if you want to remain partners, given these facts.

Translation: People in committed, monogamous relationships are entitled to honesty and transparency about their partner's sexual needs. How couples choose to reconcile any differences varies from couple to couple.

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How To Handle A Doink: My father in law is also a doink who loves nothing more than to bait me into political fights and play "gotcha." (My personal favorite is when I say one thing and he immediately starts fighting with me about something I didn't actually say. He just listens for what he wants to hear so that he can get into an argument. ARGHHHH.)

Anyway, I think that the key is to figure out what it is that the doink wants. My FIL wants me to have long, "substantive" conversations with him, and he wants me to take him seriously, and he wants me to concede that he's right some of the time. He just goes about it in a totally inane manner. So I try to find areas where I can tell him that he's right, areas where I can ask him for his ideas first, and areas where we can have an actual conversation (e.g., NOT POLITICS. History, biography, golf -- those work better). It doesn't always work, and sometimes I just give up and say, "I guess you're right!" and walk away. (After all, he can't argue with me if I'm agreeing with him.) But it's helped me to try to identify what's really going on and give him what he wants in a way that doesn't make me lose my self-respect.

Carolyn Hax: Nicely done, thanks.

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Los Angeles: Her reasoning? Nothing particular. She's persnickety. No shoes on the carpet, that sort of thing. And I think she's just generally uncomfortable with anyone being in her home when she's not there.

Carolyn Hax: Okay then. Technically, she's entitled to have her own rules about her own home, and to have the sense that her home is waiting for her just as she left it. Also technically, her parents probably know she's persnickety and therefore, I would hope, will be able to recognize that her decision is a reflection not on them, but on her own issues.

That being said, can't she get over herself for two days to make her parents happy? If she has a housekeeper, she can even arrange for the housekeeper to come in right after the parents go.

This is why I don't usually give third-party advice. "Get over yourself" loses all its oomph when it becomes, "She should get over herself."

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Philly: Carolyn, How should I deal with my girlfriend's silent treatment? We usually get along great and have very few arguments or even serious disagreements. But when we do, she is content to go the rest of the night into the next day without saying anything. She'll come around if I start bring up the subject, but she says she won't apologize if she doesn't feel sorry about something. We've been dating about 18 months and I could see myself marrying her. I just don't know whether I could play a lifetime role of peace initiator.

Carolyn Hax: Don't marry her! Don't! No no no!

Silent treatments are strictly for the punitive and immature, and you do NOT want to be on the receiving end of that particularly toxic combo for the rest of your life.

It's fine that she doesn't want to make empty apologies. However, even people who are at the pinnacle of rightness, who have nary a flaw in their entire argument with you, whose arguments are clean enough for use in surgery, can still find a way to conduct a civil exchange.

Since an argument like this is pretty rare, where one side has absolutely no ground to surrender to the other, that makes it even more important that the people involved be mature enough to make those concessions. Seriously. Beware the mate who won't budge.

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Los Angeles: Thanks, Carolyn. And she does have a housekeeper. It's just that after the housekeeper leaves, my sister re-cleans everything. (All of us wash the dishes thoroughly before putting them in the dishwasher, if that tells you anything about us.)

Also, FYI, she objects to the description "persnickety." She says she's OCD.

So now you have a better idea of what we're dealing with.

Carolyn Hax: That actually changes things. If she really is OCD (you seem skeptical), then your parents ought to back off and stay in a hotel. What do they gain by letting her wonder, during her entire vacation, whether her oven is on?

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Persnickety, L.A.: Perhaps remind your sister that, over the many years of childhood, there were undoubtedly times when her/your parents probably would have preferred not to have her in the house for a few days at a time? They had to clean up after a Teenaged Her at one point, after all. Unless the parents are complete jerks (no mention of that), why force them to spend $200/night on a hotel when the child they raised lives right there?

(Yes, she should put any, er, intimate items deep away in a back bedroom closet. But that takes, what, 15 minutes?)

Carolyn Hax: This actually explains the reasoning behind my first answer pretty well. If it's not a diagnosed condition but just a personal preference, then that's when people need to step back for a moment and remember what their parents have done for them over the course of a lifetime. Thanks.

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Also Philly:"Carolyn Hax: Don't marry her! Don't! No no no! "

Carolyn, it seems like your responses have become more hardline lately. I've noticed it over the past several months after reading you for years (and reading the complete chat archives). A few years ago, I don't think you would have written something so direct, so absolute. Has something changed? Have you found that you need to say something direct and then add context because if you just speak with context people miss your point? I'm very curious where this apparent change has originated. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I would disagree with your premise--I believe I have become far less absolute over the years. My hardest line now is that each of you has to make a personal decision that suits the individuals involved.

What you've pointed out is an exception. I shout and wave red flags when I come across immature/jealous/possessive/controlling behavior that questioners themselves haven't identified as such. So, SO much of it passes for normal behavior, when it's not--it's toxic and needs to be recognized as such.

I wish I could better convey the collective power of all the emails in my inbox from people who find themselves married to an unyielding spouse. It's a straight line between two points--from "making it work" to "miserable."

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Washington Double-Dad Again: To clarify, there was only one condom failure. My fiancee had been on birth control, which I later found out she discontinued without telling me. Which, by the way, is why she is now my ex-fiancee.

Carolyn Hax: Now I'm at the point where I can't believe the people in your life are giving you a hard time.

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New York, N.Y.: Thanks to Googling, I found a picture of my ex-boyfriend and his new wife from their wedding. She has funny teeth and a bad dye job. Am I a bad person for thinking these things?

Carolyn Hax: No, but you will feel like one if you meet her and find out she's a really cool person.

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Carolyn Hax: Now do you feel bad?

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Texas: Hey Carolyn,

When do you think is the appropriate time to tell a new dating partner I have 9-year-old twin boys?

On the one hand, I've dated women who were put off by hearing about them on the first date. I think it makes them feel undue pressure.

On the other hand, I feel dishonest talking about myself during the "getting to know you" period, but leaving out the most important people in my life.

Carolyn Hax: I think it's appropriate to put off as quickly as possible the people who would be put off by your mentioning your children. You are who you are. Don't hide it.

(I would posit that these are the same people who'd be put off because you -didn't- mention your boys on the first date, but that would just be a triumph of snark over experience.)

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J in NJ: How do you tell your doctor you think you might be depressed? I recently had to change primary doctors because of an insurance change. I am seeing this new doctor for the first time soon and don't really know how to bring this up. I am exhausted and have no motivation for anything, but I make myself do things because I have no choice. (Sole breadwinner for my family: husband, 3 year old and 1 year old) Could I just be a tired working mom? Since this doctor doesn't know me at all, how will she help me? Why am I so worried about bringing this up - it just feels more awkward than saying other physical symptoms for some reason. This is a change, but really just a worsening of the tiredness, etc. that I have felt before and always just chalked up to life circumstances. I'm having a harder time battling my way through now though. Thank you for your help.

Carolyn Hax:"I'm worried about the way I'm feeling lately. I am exhausted and have no motivation for anything, but I make myself do things because I have no choice." Please don't waste your awkwardness on a medical professional. They've seen it all, heard it all--and can't do a thing about any of it unless you tell them the truth.

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Carolyn Hax: Back in 1 min.

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Chicago: I'd been dating a woman for 4 years. We were very much in love, and were talking about marriage, and living together, and just being together.

Then she bought a place in town, and started going out with her much younger, single girlfriends. She was open about her girlfriends' desire to get out and meet guys for dating. After a couple months of this my girlfriend suddenly broke up with me, saying she was having too much fun, and wanted to be single and free to date randomly, and hook up with guys without feeling guilty or badly.

One hand - I understand the thrill and the excitement of meeting new people, of being flirted with and going home with new people for a night of fun. On the other hand I'm really deeply hurt, and feeling betrayed. She walked away from a real, loving relationship to be a "party girl"?

Carolyn Hax: From your perspective, I can see how you'd see that. You were ready to settle down, so you place little value now on what you probably regard as "the scene."

But if she wasn't ready to settle down--maybe it wasn't the right time, maybe you weren't the right guy--then she wouldn't be choosing something of little value (partying) over something of great value (you). On the contrary, in that context your "scene" would be nothing less than her freedom. That's a pursuit that, under the circumstances, is worthy of respect.

I see a hint of this in the progression you describe--she started to venture out with her friend, then suddenly she was breaking up with you. Sometimes people don't realize they're in the wrong place until they go somewhere else, often by accident--and it's only the sudden blast of oxygen that tells them they've been suffocating.

I've said this before, and I know it can be hard to believe, but please give it a chance here: Often, breakups are not personal. They hurt, and they sure feel like personal slights. But this might just be who your (ex-)girlfriend is. And if her nature doesn't line up well with yours, then it's okay to see her departure as a necessity of nature, not a slap in the face.

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Re: J in NJ:"I'm worried about the way I'm feeling lately. I am exhausted and have no motivation for anything, but I make myself do things because I have no choice."

I said almost this exact same thing to my doctor, only to discover it was mono. And I'm in my 40s! Seriously, tell your doctor your physical symptoms, add any context that would help (e.g., the "have no choice" part), and let her BE a professional. Nothing sounds as odd or bad or unusual to your doctor as it does to you.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for the backup.

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DNA Testing?: I'm pregnant with my husband's child. And I know for certain it is his, he's the only man I've even thought about that kind of stuff with in the few years we've been married. But the poster got me thinking... should I offer the testing? Would it be good for his peace of mind long term? Protect out daughter in some way? My husband doesn't seem worried or untrusting, hasn't brought it up etc. Is this something we all should do?

Carolyn Hax: Ack. No, I don't envision any scene where suggesting this will go well. It's not a perfect system, obviously, but resemblance takes care of most doubts a daddy might be harboring anyway.

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Re: Silent Treatment: Hi Carolyn, I tend to agree with you on the silent treatment, but I do find that there are time it is necessary/effective:

1. I won't fight with my wife around the kids. If she keeps fighting (at the dinner table for example), I will ignore her. There are times that we are upset with each other when we will still be civil around the kids. But there are other times that she can't control herself. I will ignore her rather than fight around the kids because it upsets them.

2. Sometimes she goes bat**** insane. Cursing, slamming doors, etc. If she does this, I shut down and walk away. Once she is able to talk in a civil manner, I will talk to her, but until then I will definitely give her the silent treatment.

So, I'd love to get your opinion on these situations in regards to the silent treatment.

Carolyn Hax: Um. My opinion is that you and your wife ought to consider marriage counseling. Look at the wiggle room between your 1. and 2. If she's cursing and slamming doors around the kids, then that's creating a very unhealthy home environment, and if she's -not- cursing and slamming doors around the kids, then she CAN in fact control herself, right? Because she's choosing a kid-friendly way to fight, in lieu of her preferred cursing and slamming? And yet she's fighting with you in front of the kids at the dinner table anyway.

Take those two, and add your silence (which I'll get to in a second), and you have a parental power struggle in full flower while the kids watch and learn. Please give them a better example to learn from by seeking instruction on more productive ways to disagree.

As for your silences, they are, I agree, your best choice among bad choices. However, I think we have to qualify this in two ways: 1. You need to preface them with a calm statement of intent: "When you're ready to talk calmly about this, I will be happy to discuss it with you." When you do that, -you- aren't the one shutting her out. She's shutting herself out. Big, big difference there. 2. Even without that important tweak, your silences still aren't exactly "silent treatments." I define those as times when no amount of talking, pleading or begging will sway the silent one into talking--it's just a matter of handing out sufficient punishment, at which point the silent one deigns to talk. If you really are talking with your wife the moment her civility returns, then you're not shutting her out.

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RE: J in NJ:"I'm worried about the way I'm feeling lately. I am exhausted and have no motivation for anything, but I make myself do things because I have no choice."

For me, it turns out it was leukemia at age 41. Spent six months before that on an antidepressant before they figured out what was really wrong.

Get thee to a doctor. Don't give up until you get an answer. Please. I'm still here 6.5 years later and have gotten to see my kids grow up because I didn't quit asking WHY.

Carolyn Hax: This choked me up. Thank you.

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I'm a writer too...: And I feel like I'm having a Simone-de-Beauvoir-style existential crisis. I'm a freelancer and have been supporting myself this way for the past year -- money is tight sometimes, but I've always had a steady gig that pays the bills. Unfortunately, they cut my hours back so I'm now only working 3 days a week.

Financially I'm not worried, but I sometimes have trouble making myself write when I'm at home on my "days off." I usually end up doing things like running errands, cleaning the apartment or cooking a nice dinner for my fiance. My problem is... I kind of like this housewifey stuff. It's so nice to have an uncluttered apartment, and decent meals, and time to take care of all the things that need doing without rushing around like mad. On the other hand, I feel like an ass (and a bad feminist) for only doing 25 hours of real work per week. Is there some justifiable value in using my newfound leisure time to maintain the household? Or should I be ashamed of myself?

Carolyn Hax: How about ashamed of yourself for being ashamed! Aaaaaggh. I deleted a much longer answer because it's really just about this: Who ever said that time spent working was more valuable than time spent in other ways? As long as you aren't a drain on anyone else, who's business is it what you do with your time?

I'm sorry, I realize your question speaks for no one but you, but I can't help but suspect we're in seriously twisted times when valuing home and leisure time have become suspect. I would love to do what you're doing.

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re: DNA testing: We had IVF for our first son, and my husband was CONVINCED that the lab was going to switch our embryoes with someone else's. Convinced. (I think focusing on that was how he dealt with all the emotions around the IVF). I promised him DNA testing after our child was born.

Then our son popped out looking like a mini-him, and he never had any doubt.

I like to remind him of his obsession occasionally.

Carolyn Hax: Definitely. When you've got goods like that on someone, you can't let them go to waste. Thanks.

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Re: Silent Treatment: Me again. I knew you'd say marriage counseling and I wish I had mentioned it. She won't go in a million years. I have asked and asked, but she won't go.

And no, she doesn't curse or slam doors around the kids. In fact, she has gotten much better around the kids. But she has an awful temper and when she loses it, I disengage. And I actually have a document I print which reads: "When you're ready to talk civilly to me, we can discuss this," in 80 point font. so yeah, I do try and make that clear.

I'm not trying to make this the end of the world or that it happens every night after the kids go to bed. But it is an issue and I've found that shutting up and walking away is my best defense.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sorry to use you like this, but to anyone who questioned my NO NO DON'T MARRY HER in the answer above, please see this as Exhibit A for Being Married to an Unyielding Spouse.

I don't see any reason to change my original answer to you, but I do believe even more firmly now that your marriage is in bad shape. Her "awful temper" is something she uses consciously against you, or else she wouldn't be able to get "much better" around the kids. I'm still going to suggest counseling, but that you go on your own. You're the one who is going to have to take responsibility for your kids' emotional health and communication skills, since your wife has -consciously- abdicated. This is what immaturity and control issues bring to the marital table--she and her ego/needs come first, no matter what.

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Silent Treatment: Carolyn-

I need to sleep on issues sometimes. Sometimes they are took big to hash out in one session - and I could see how that could be construed as the silent treatment because my boyfriend keeps saying "I can't sleep unless we settle this" - BUT I CAN'T SETTLE IT UNLESS I SLEEP!

Carolyn Hax: If you're saying to him you'll talk about it but you need some sleep first, you are not giving him the silent treatment.

Seriously, everyone who's worried about where the line is: As long as you're communicating in some way--even if it's to say, "I understand you're upset about this but I need sleep/some time to myself/to take a run/whatever before I can articulate what I'm feeling," or however you say and justify, "Pleeeease let's do this later"--then you're not shutting someone out. It's actually normal not to be able to talk everything out right that second. But you just have to keep your partner informed, vs. twisting. That's all there is to it.

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Chicago: My neighbor watches hard-core porn on his big-screen TV with his curtains open. I asked him if he might start closing the curtains, and he demanded that I stop looking in his window. Who's right?

Carolyn Hax: If you don't like the view, then you get the curtains for your own window. Sorry.

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College Park, Md.: Hi, Carolyn. Just want to say, as a nerdy 15-yr-old, I really love your column and I admire you for a remarkable grasp on the human condition.

My question is, how do you make friends with a sibling, much older than you, who you don't know very well at all in spite of having grown up with them?

My 23-yr-old brother (with his girlfriend) lives with us, in a basement apartment, separately, with its own kitchen and bathroom. I see them rarely, though his girlfriend is easy to talk to and a really wonderful person - I've had some really interesting conversations with her. The two of them have been living with us for a while now - my brother had been at MIT for a while, then got into a slump, ran into some issues with depression, and moved back home. (His girlfriend still is an MIT student, and will be heading back in the fall, though she visits us on weekends during the term.) He has been in therapy, and I think it has helped a lot - he is happier, and plans to return to finish his degree in the future.

I didn't learn any of this from talking to my brother, though. I hardly know him - what he is really like. Like me, he acts differently at home, which is probably a result of dealing with my mom - who is a bundle of issues, but that's another story. The problem is, I can hardly talk to him because of all this weirdness surrounding our relationship. When he was a teenager, we did not get along at all, even though I still admired him a lot.

So how do I get past that? How can I take the initiative to spend time with him? Is it possible? (He is busy, since he has two part-time programming jobs right now.)

I have a better relationship with my older sister (who is 27, studying and working on her own, and living independently) - who I hardly grew up with.

I guess I'd just like to be able to talk to him. As a friend.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for the kind words.

With your brother, I think your best bet is patience. Closeness is impossible to force under any circumstances, and when you have circumstances like yours--where your "quarry" has put up formidable defenses--trying can often backfire and make someone retreat from you even further.

I suggest patience because I don't think you should give up. Just keep an eye out for opportunities. The girlfriend is one, since she's probably sharing things with him here and there, which can work in your favor behind the scenes.

Common interests are a great one; if there's ever anything your brother knows that you'd like to learn, in fact, then that's a natural opportunity to get to know him a little bit. You'd be surprised at how close people get when they aren't even trying, when they're just working quietly side-by-side. Those are the opportunities I'd look for now, as opposed to big chances to "talk."

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Re: Chicago: Or you could ask him to open the windows and turn up the sound, and then you make popcorn and invite your friends over, ideally to hoot and make catcalls. He'll get curtains then.

Carolyn Hax: On that note ...

Thank you everybody, have a great weekend and I'll type to you again right here next week.

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Re: Chicago: Actually, most localities have decency laws which cover this. It's the same as standing at your window naked -- it doesn't matter that it's your home and window. Call your city's attorney general and check out the obscenity laws if you can't get around seeing his porn.

Carolyn Hax: Not as much fun, but probably more useful to check into. Thanks.

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