Carolyn Hax Live: Supermom Having an Affair, Advice vs. Decisions and I Think I Used to Date My Coworker's Husband

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 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, October 31 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 discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

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Carolyn Hax: Boo.


N.Y., N.Y.: I have been seeing a wonderful man for 4 months. He is fairly religious. (I'm not.) He does not believe in premarital sex. Is this relationship doomed?

Carolyn Hax: If you can reconcile his views with yours, then, no. If you can't, then, yes.


Washington, D.C.: Are you more caffeinated because of the earlier chat time?



San Francisco: Carolyn,

How can I politely decline requests - and there are numerous - to stay at my house? Yes, I have the room, but really don't want people staying more than 4 nights, and am really getting tired of relatives only staying one night, sort of a drive-by. Sometimes I don't even see them as they arrive late and leave early. I want to scream that I'm not a B&B and don't enjoy having to clean up after them because they're too cheap to stay at a motel. I guess I'm getting fed up because it's been going on for years. Maybe I'm getting cranky in my old age!

Carolyn Hax: "I'm sorry, this isn't a good time. I do hope, though, that we can arrange a visit for a time that works for us both." That would be for the drivers-by. For the over-stayers, you can just say the first part without the second, or you can say sure, but just start telling people outright that you have a three-day limit.

As with anything else, it's a decision you have to make: Do you want to be the person who never wants to risk offending anyone (at the cost of your personal space), or do you want to be the person who has privacy at home (at the cost of potentially appearing ungracious)? Believing in the appropriateness of your choice is your best defense against regrets.


Md.: My boyfriend of a few months invited me to attend a wedding in December in which he will be a part of the wedding party. I will know no one else there. Should I go?

Carolyn Hax: People keep asking me to make their decisions for them. Should I?

If it sounds like it might be interesting, go. If it sounds like something you'll dread from "yes" to "goodbye," then don't go.

Going will cost the hosts a decent amount of money, so I would suggest going only if you're ready to mingle and be a good sport about it.


How about Sugared?: In other words, have you been into the Halloween candy yet?

Carolyn Hax: No, believe it or not. Been too busy. But now that you mention it ...


Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn, I'm trying to figure out how to quit something that has become like a bad habit for me, partially by determining my motivations for this behavior. I've been married for 11 years and have 3 young sons. My marriage had many rough patches at first, but the last few years with my husband have been wonderful.

The problem - I've been having an affair for the last year and a half. No matter how many times I end it, I miss whatever it is that I'm getting from this other man and call him again. I rationalize this by saying to myself that it's okay to indulge in this one very selfish behavior because in every other way I am a wonderful wife and mother (I really am one of those "supermoms" who lives for her family). I'm not sure if I'm cheating because I'm insecure and need the validation, if I'm addicted to the adrenaline rush I get from sneaking around behind my husband's back, or what it is that I'm getting from this affair. FWIW, my husband and I have a wonderful sex life, so my life isn't lacking in that area.

Although I seem too be in denial regarding the consequences of this affair, intellectually I know that I could be on the path to destroying my family, which means more to me than anything else in my life.

Any insights?

Carolyn Hax: No, you are not one of those "'supermoms' who live for their families." You are creating the elaborate facade of one to feed one need of yours, while carrying on an affair to feed another need that undermines everything you're purporting to be.

If your husband is not a fellow believer in complex emotional dealmaking, then this is not something you can rationalize as "okay." An affair is not the sundae you can afford to eat after you've gone on a 10-mile run. It's bringing your excitement and rapt attention outside the marriage, when I imagine your husband would prefer to receive, and deserves to receive, those particular gifts himself.

I won't be naive about those complex deals I mentioned before; I do realize there are couples who believe they bring their best to each other by stirring things up occasionally on the side. But whether you believe this yourself or find it dubious at best, it still remains that the only way this stands up as acceptable even to believers is when both parties consent to it. Having a separate self to which your husband doesn't consent, and which may announce itself to him in the form of a sexually-transmitted singing telegram--or, unless you've had a tubal ligation, a child not his own for him to bust his butt to raise, in possible ignorance--makes denial not only immoral, but cruel.

Because you've got such a separation between your intellectual awareness and your emotional acts, and between your image and reality, I'm going to go beyond the you-need-to-end-this advice (duh) and urge you to get some competent, reputable counseling. You don't know your motives, by your own admission, and also by your own admission you are poised to sabotage something you value to point of calling it "wonderful." Emotional fabric with that big a tear in it belongs in the hands of a pro.


Battleground State wedding (update): You kindly gave me advice a few weeks ago about my friend who was baiting (?) me to discourage her to get married. I took it. I asked her if she wanted me to point out what bad reasons she was offering for getting married. She didn't get mad at me, which was a relief, but also said that she was just confused, but did think it was a good idea. Fast forward to the interesting update: I went to her wedding last weekend and -- it doesn't just happen in the movies, folks -- she decided not to walk down the aisle about 30 minutes prior to the wedding. My MOH duties became a good deal more involved than holding extra flowers, but we made it through the weekend and I tried to just get things done and make sure she didn't have to worry about more than was necessary. In the end, I really admire her bravery (this took real guts), even though it would have been tactically better to be brave a few months earlier. Just a reminder to anyone out there doubting themselves on decisions: It isn't over until it's over, but if you know in your true self that something is a bad idea, it may be good to listen to that inner voice before there are 80 guests for your family to explain it to. Still, better late than never.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you for the update. Obviously both are better for this in the long run, but in the immediate aftermath, hope both non-bride and non-groom are okay.


D.C.: "People keep asking me to make their decisions for them. Should I?" I suppose you should. You are in the advice giving business; yet you seem surprised when people ask you to advise them about decisions.

Carolyn Hax: Even a bad joke suffers when you explain it, but here goes.

I'm in the advice-giving business, which means I am happy to help people filter out the more important elements of a decision, so those decisions can be, if not always the right ones, then at least thoughtful ones.

The decisions always, always belong to the people making them, and are only as good as they are suitable for the individual(s) affected by them. I've spent 11.5 years carefully not making people's decisions for them, except when they fall within such narrow parameters as dating abusers or cheating on their beloved spouses with whom they are raising three small children. I'm not going to decide which sandwich you order.


Austin, Tex.: I am 6 months pregnant. My mother-in-law (a nice but somewhat controlling person) keeps bringing up natural childbirth, how she didn't use any painkillers, how it was a shame that other women (like MY mother) do, how much better natural childbirth is for the baby, etc. Then she asks what I'm going to do. I say that I don't know yet, we'll see how it goes. But she keeps bringing it up, and it makes me want to scream! Do you have any idea how I might tactfully shut down this topic of conversation permanently?

Carolyn Hax: Give her a book called "Birth," by Tina Cassidy. In the early chapters she can read for herself that the ability to give birth without medical intervention depends upon the shape of a woman's pelvis and the size of the fetus. Because of modern nutrition, babies are actually, on average, bigger than they used to be. So, while many women can still go commando, not every woman can, and it's not always up to her. (You can also skip the book and cite this yourself--it's fascinating but graphic and upsetting at times, especially, I imagine, for someone with one in the oven.)

After you state the fact, then say you hope you'll have her support in making the best decision for your baby's and your health.

I know, trying to deflect zealots with facts is like trying to paint out the sun, but it's worth a try just in case she isn't a zealot. And if her refusal to back down reveals that her controlling tendencies will be in full flower around this birth (and subsequent child-rearing, pretty much guaranteed), then at least you'll know what you're dealing with and can don the appropriate armor.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Where can I get one of those pumpkin signs that say "no candy at this residence" that they are sending to sex offenders? I'm not a sex offender, but I can't think of a better way to keep people away tonight. Yeah, I'm the grinch, so what.

Carolyn Hax: paper, markers, tape?


Newlywed: Hi Carolyn. What are the kids going to be for Halloween?

I do also need advice. I'm 6 months into my first marriage, I'm adjusting to being a step-mom, I'm at an unhappy crossroads about what to do when I grow up (I'm early 30's but career clueless), and am pretty down. I have a history of depression, so I know the deal. My problem is that my solution to handling all of this is to really withdraw from my husband. I know I'm doing it, I know it's affecting us, and yet it's still what I'm doing. We really feel like 2 people who are co-existing rather than connecting and knowing it's my fault isn't helping my mood.

Any advice on how to push through this? Or figure out how to do better at talking to him? He definitely tries to "fix" things whenever anything is wrong and he's wonderfully supportive - to the point of being suffocating sometimes (like I can do anything! I can go to Mars if that's what I really want!) I'm very lucky to have him. I'm just struggling with...almost everything right now. Help? I've done years of therapy before but am not quite eager to do it again right now, partially because I need to find someone new on my new insurance.

Carolyn Hax: Just to dispense with the obvious, new insurance is an annoyance, not a legitimate obstacle to necessary health care.

But I know what you're saying, and while it's always important that depression be treated in a responsible way, that isn't the entirety of your problem. You also a need a constructive way to talk to your husband while you get through the various things you have to get through, both medical and non-.

From the perspective of the person on the outside, silence is the absolute worst. So you're right that your withdrawal has consequences that add to the problem. On top of that, though, silence also creates desperation, and desperation can turn someone who tries to "fix" things into a power-fixer, a 24-7 solution factory--exactly what you don't need.

So, talk to him. Not to supply your own answers (especially since the whole problem is that you don't have any), but instead to put a name to everything you are feeling. Points that I believe are important to hit:

-You are struggling with all these adjustments.

-This does not mean you aren't committed to them.

-It does mean you are falling back into an old habit of withdrawing.

-You know it's not good to withdraw. You are trying.

-Here are the things he can do to help you with this effort: (Not trying to solve everything, for example, and just listening; or asking questions; or asking what you need; or leaving you alone when your face has that stricken look; or talking about something else; or taking his children to dinner without you once a week; whatever.)

-Are there things he would like you to do to make this easier on him?

That's the kind of conversation that may not solve everything, but can give you both a working set of solutions for day-to-day situations, which you can always tweak as you go along. When you take some of the guessing away, you take a lot of each other's vulnerabilities away, which will help you communicate more fearlessly. That's the path to connecting.


Washington, D.C.: I moved into a new office a few months ago. I hit it off immediately with one of my new officemates, who has a very generic name. Recently, she showed me vacation pictures and I realized that her husband (who has a different name) was a guy I had, um, hooked up with numerous times. After I did the math, I realized that I had hooked up with him while he was dating and engaged to my officemate!! What makes it even worse is that we've exchanged emails in the past few months, but clearly nothing substantial enough that he figured it out.

Now, I feel horrendous. I didn't know the guy was dating someone. While it was a casual thing (and thus, we were both open to seeing other people), he was clearly very serious with her. I have no intention of telling her but it's clear that our friendship is heading in a direction where I will likely meet her husband and socialize with him.

I really don't know how to handle this one.

Carolyn Hax: If it's inevitable that you meet the husband, then I think you have to admit you dated him. You don't want to get in the position of having to maintain any fictions here. That doesn't mean you hand over the intricately detailed truth; it just means you decide right now that it's not your job to cover for anyone else. When asked, you give an honest but limited answer. E.g.: "When did you and he go out?" "A few years ago/a long time ago/in the '90s"--whatever broad answer happens to be true.

If you think of that as being an agent of marital destruction, think of it this way: You don't know which horse is the right horse to bet on here. In other words, is helping to protect this marriage absolutely the route to the best outcome? Sure, maybe--but maybe your well-meaning reflex to shield her from the truth will only strain things further between husband and wife. Maybe she already knows a good deal of this already and just doesn't know the ID of the mystery woman--and your dissembling would leave her marriage intact but ruin her opinion of you. It's just not possible to figure out where this is going to go, and so your only choice is to be outcome-neutral and, again, studiously avoid creating any fictions you would then be obliged to maintain.

The best way to get this new policy started, I think, is to make sure there are more e-mails with the husband, and to cop to having dated him next time you're faced with his image--be it in person or on another photo. "When I saw the pictures, I thought, no way--that's too much of a coincidence. But now I'm sure, he and I dated once."

Finally, in case it needs to be said: Any resulting mess is just the culmination of one he created, not a new one created by you.


Carolyn Hax: That answer seems to cry out for a "Good luck with that."

It also cries out for dissenting opinions, to help the thought process. Bring em on.

As if you ever need to be encouraged to.


Washington, D.C.: So my husband and I decided a while ago to host Turkey day at our house this year, mainly because we want to start some new traditions with our baby. In the past, we've spent this day with my in-laws (either their home, their friend's home or a restaurant) because my MIL would remind us that "This may be Grandpa's (her dad's) last T-day".

Well, I'm silently fuming because the in-laws decided to spend the holiday on vacation abroad instead. Should I say how upset I am by this or hold my tongue? On the upside, I won't be held to their schedule of how turkey day should be!

Carolyn Hax: Not sure I get why you're fuming. Now that you've made it clear you're not traveling, they've revealed their Grandpa rationale to have been a false pretense all these years?


Battle lines: You're slower than usual today. Short on questions? Here, I'll help. My husband and I are having some tense times. I'm a ironbreaker and he's my runepriest, so it's my job to charge into the back lines and beat on the zealots and goblin shamans while he keeps me healed. Usually this works out pretty well for us. However, he's starting to get really distracted by healing other people, so when I'm retreating because I'm taking too much damage, he misses my heals by a split second because he was busy resurrecting some random stranger and I die. Then he gets upset, and somehow I wind up feeling like it's my fault because I charged in too deep. Do we need professional help?

Carolyn Hax: No, just a few days without electricity.


Arlington, Va.: My sister got married last year and she and her husband were blessed with a baby this year. At Christmas he will be the center of attention, and delightfully so. She has already started hinting about what "the baby wants." Now, I think this is ridiculous, as my beautiful nephew is only 6 months old and all of "his" wants are yet to be formed. I plan on spoiling the kid rotten, but can't help feel a little resentful about being handed yet another registry list from my sister. I mean, seriously, after the engagement gift, wedding shower, bacholerette party, bridal party expenses, baby shower, etc... I thought we were finally going to be able to get our own gifts for my nephew. Am I wrong or resentful or both? I love the holidays, and my nephew, but seriously, when am I going to be off the hook with the registries?

Carolyn Hax: Would you please talk to your sister? All the hinting and cutesy speaking for a 6-month-old and the thinly veiled shakedowns are making -me- resentful of your sister, and my exposure is limited to a faceful of electrons which I hope I will purge from memory about 15 min from now.

Baby-centric demands like this create monsters everywhere: in the parents, who develop a sense of entitlement to the spotlight; in the children, who do likewise; and in the family members who resent but don't confront, and try to push their own agendas through subversive means such as buying the gifts they want to buy without regard for whether the family needs or wants it. It's enough to make everyone spend December overseas.

You used the words "blessed" and "delightfully"; I'm guessing you can remain in character while explaining that you take great joy in finding your own gifts, and so would like to find some other way to avoid duplication than a registry list. Say, you call with your ideas before you buy anything?


Ditto, Ditto: A humorous question asked in sincerity-- and I am looking for advice, not a decision! I recently started dating a man with the same name as mine. We both have one of those names that could go both ways, like Jesse/Jessi. People generally think it's funny, and there's also a presumption it will never work. I've also gotten WAY too many people who have told me about Paris Hilton's ex also named Paris (who follows that crap?). So my question is, we're starting to get more serious. Should I put up with this for the rest of my life? Should one of us adopt a new nickname? Will we have to name our first child the same name?! My real question is, since people are really starting to annoy me, how can I deflect what will obviously be a joke that will never die?

Carolyn Hax: As someone who just witnessed a tall person being asked if he ever played basketball, I think I can assure you with fresh confidence that your best chance is to accept this joke will never die as long as you stay with Jesse. So, just make sure Jesse is worth it, and have the following handy: "Funny, that never occurred to us before."


Carolyn Hax: Good luck with that!


Portland, OR: For the woman who dated her office mate's husband: She also needs to consider that the wife may already know. It might not be a coincidence that they "hit it off immediately." Which is another compelling reason for tactful honesty. Might also be another reason for giving the husband a heads up as well.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Another one:


NYC: re: the woman with a past with spouse of a colleague...

...if I were in her position, I'd like to know what her 'ex' has told his wife...

...if he's been open and honest, that makes life easiser; if he's self-conscious or ashamed - or, worse yet, dishonest, deceptive and dismissive - that's good to know, also...

given that this woman did have a relationship with the guy, I think she's entitled to communicate with him to clarify his perceptions and concerns, as well... not to do so dismisses him a little too cavalierly for my taste...

she should - discreetly - reach out to him and learn more.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you, too. More to come if I see them.


I think you mis-typed: Carolyn--to the woman who dated the officemate's husband (pre-marriage but post-engagement) you said:

"The best way to get this new policy started, I think, is to make sure there are more e-mails with the husband..." did you mean NO more emails?

By the way, sometimes I write and hope that you'll address my issue. But really, I got nothing like the people writing today. Interesting issues, with really good responses. What a nice lunchtime break.

Carolyn Hax: Thadnlksdn, and thjaankjs for catching the typing mistake. I did mean no more emails. Tho the argument for mentioning something to the husband has merit.


A little closer, UK: Dear Carolyn - My husband, young son, and I moved to the UK earlier this year for a temporary job (his). He is English and throughout our relationship, his parents bemoaned his living so far away. Of course it got worse after we had our kid, all sorts of guilt inducing comments, despite the fact that we spend every vacation with his family in England. He travels a lot and his parents always say how they wished we lived closer so they could help us out, babysit, do more with our son. Well, we've lived closer for almost a year now (45 minutes away) and they have visited us twice and never watched our son or planned anything special with him. We were up there visiting every other week but my husband is too busy with work to make the drive the last three months. We just went back to the US for a few weeks to see my family and his mom started again with 'He'll have grown so much while he was away' nonsense. How do I say 'Hey, either get in the car and visit him or shut it' in a way that does not start another international incident? Sometimes I think she likes the complaining more than the visiting...

Carolyn Hax: How about this: She does like the complaining more than the visiting.

Finding out that someone is all talk is not new, it just requires an adjustment of mind-set. Don't take her words at face value, and instead visit with a frequency that suits both your schedule, and your sense of what's good for your son.

It's obviously not an exact science, figuring out how much exposure to family makes for good emotional bonds. However, once you have information that allows you to form realistic expectations, then you can make more educated guesses as to the right amount of exposure. You can also get into the habit of asking every once in a while whether they'd like to come visit. It shows your interest in including them while putting the onus on them to live up to their words.


Talking to the Husband: I think a heads-up to the husband is fine, but why worry about getting the stories straight? Or finding out what he's told his wife? That way she would be injecting herself into the drama, and to what end?

All she needs to worry about is her story - not his. To try to find out more would only be to complicate matters and perhaps make her complicit in something she has nothing to do with -

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Makes an important distinction between letting him know and getting sucked in.


For the Woman Living in a Small Office/World: Definitely tell now, before the socializing with the happy couple begins - when it will get more awkward, not less.

She's done nothing wrong - to say nothing now that she knows of the connection would be to act as though she has - and, really, who knows what was going on with the couple during that time period? Perhaps they were on a break, despite the seeming coincidence.

But tell now, before it's too late -

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Feedback seems mostly to be along these lines.


Silently fuming here again: Thanks for responding. I guess I'm fuming because yes, they used Grandpa to guilt us into spending T-day with them, and not my side of the family. And there's no long-distance traveling involved - they live 30 minutes away so we see them and Grandpa all the time. I guess it's our fault for letting them guilt us into it.

Carolyn Hax: Yeah, that's one way to look at it. And no one can blame you for upping your skepticism with them from now on. But if you can do anything to deal with the fuming, that would help. It's quite possible that they really wanted to see you two on the holiday and weren't fully cognizant of their manipulation. How they approach future holidays might tell you quite a bit; there's a chance your decision this year liberated them to see holidays in a new way.

It does seem, too, that people get their egos all knotted up into the issue of which family their paired off children choose to visit, and how often. It's ridiculous and corrosive, for sure, but it's also quite human.

As I said, feel free to bring a new level of skepticism to their claims of where you HAVE TO be for holidays, by all means, but try not to let this turn into a full-blown resentment.


A new spin on declining holiday invites: So here's my dilemma. Years ago my beloved and I decided to split each holiday season in two and spend Thanksgiving with one set of parents/in-laws and Christmas with the other and then switch it back and forth each year. So this year it's Thanksgiving with my parents in NM and Christmas with his in LA. Here's the problem though. I'm in the middle of treatment for infertility and there's a very good chance that I will be faced with a decision of whether to go forward with a procedure that may get me pregnant Thanksgiving weekend or go home and spend time with my parents. If I skip the procedure in November then the next month I could do it is... you guessed it, Christmas. And for my own reasons I don't really want to take the holidays "off" -- I'm good at counting ahead so I figured this out months ago. My husband has not. And neither has my mom who knows about our infertility treatments. I hate to just drop the bomb that we probably can't or won't go anywhere this holiday season and yet I can't figure out how to tell them. Help.

Carolyn Hax: My goodness. You just say no, and you look ahead to a time when you can visit in the near future. Love your family, care about your family, stay close to your family, share your highs and lows with your family, but don't schedule your life to please your family. If they see their disappointment as your problem, then there's a bigger problem.


re: 1 year affair and office mate's cheating fiance: These stories scare me. Been happily married a year, I think. How do we know this stuff doesn't go on behind our backs? Are there always signs of cheating?

Carolyn Hax: There are only signs if you see them, and you certainly don't want to get into the business of looking. That's not only a highly unreliable way to find out if something's wrong, but also a sure way to kill anything that's going right.

Life is risk. The more you love, the more you risk; the more you have, the more you risk. As long as you're not willfully denying something you know to be true, there's nothing wrong with keeping your attention on the more, without any more than honest but passing regard for the risk.


RE: advice giver: I agree with a previous poster that you should tell people what to do if they ask. Psychologists help people figure out what to do, you should tell them your "full" opinion if asked.

Carolyn Hax: I do give my full opinion. It simply doesn't include a decision, because I honestly don't know what decision will be right for someone I don't know.

It is my understanding that therapists are less at liberty than I am to speak their minds. They are discouraged from advising, and instead are charged with guiding their patients toward finding their own answers.


Carolyn Hax: It is my full opinion that I now must go. Thanks for stopping by at this strange time, have a spooky Halloween, and I'll type to you next week at the usual noon.


for Ditto Ditto: My name is Mark. I married a woman whose name is Mindy (not Melinda, but Mindy). You are absolutely right, CH, we still get people making jokes about Mork & Mindy like they are the FIRST PERSON TO NOTICE. Seriously. "Wow, until you said Nanoo Nanoo, I hadn't even noticed it..."

We often introduce ourselves as Mindy & Mark just to try and avoid the HILARIOUS jokes (sorry, Emily Post).

In other words, get used to it. The supply of clueless, non-original jokesters is seemingly endless.

Mork signing off.

Carolyn Hax: Had to share this. Byeee.


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